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'It's gonna be a hot labor summer' — unionized workers show up for striking writers

A myriad of workers rallied in downtown Los Angeles in support of striking writers, during an event called "The Unions Strike Back" on May 26, 2023.
Mandalit del Barco
/
NPR
A myriad of workers rallied in downtown Los Angeles in support of striking writers, during an event called "The Unions Strike Back" on May 26, 2023.

Film and TV writers are now in their seventh week on strike against the Hollywood studios. Actors negotiating their own new contract with the studios as members of the union SAG-AFTRA may also go on strike soon, which would shut down productions entirely. The writers' fight for better pay and protections in the streaming economy is resonating with labor movements beyond Hollywood and beginning to unite workers across industries.

On Monday in New York City, the Writers Guild of America rallied outside Amazon studios, buoyed by the leader of the country's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million American workers, including postal workers, mine workers and those in the entertainment industry.

"Can you hear us Jeff Bezos?" taunted Liz Shuler, president of the federation. "We're not gonna take it anymore. We're here in force, not just the Writers Guild, we're here with the labor movement in this country standing strong in solidarity."

Shuler also spoke at a recent rally in downtown Los Angeles dubbed "The Unions Strike Back." The protest included members of the WGA and SAG- AFTRA, both of whom are challenging the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for new contracts. Also at the rally were other local unions. In the sea of picket signs were many behind-the-scenes Hollywood workers in the union IATSE, and TEAMSTERS who've been turning their trucks away from picketed studios.

"We've heard from the WGA, we've heard from SAG, about these employers called the AMPTP," shouted Lindsay Daugherty, a TEAMSTER boss who heads LA's Local 399 and is director of the Teamsters Motion Picture Division. Her mention of the AMPTP elicited boos from the crowd; they also cheered when she called the studio's group "The Evil Empire."

Like Hollywood, Los Angeles is considered a union town. The recent rally uniting labor movements in solidarity with the writers reflected a cross section of city workers, including LA teachers who recently won a huge victory in their strike against the second largest school district in the country. "We won big," Cecily Myart-Cruz, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles told the crowd. "We strike back when we stand together, support each other's struggles, show up at the bargaining tables and most definitely on the picket lines."

Demonstrators hold signs while picketing during the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America in Los Angeles on May 26, 2023.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold signs while picketing during the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America in Los Angeles on May 26, 2023.

Marching alongside all of them was Graciela Gomez, a server at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel near Los Angeles airport. "All of the unions are united in fighting the big corporations and the billionaires," Gomez said in Spanish. She and other restaurant and hotel workers in the union Unite Here Local 11 may go out on strike when their contract ends at the end of June.

In addition to service workers, 55,000 LA county workers in healthcare, social services, public safety and parks and recreation represented by SEIU Local 721 may also soon stage a city-wide unfair labor practices strike.

"It's gonna be a hot labor summer," Duncan Crabtree-Ireland declared at the rally. He's the executive director of SAG-AFTRA, which represents Hollywood actors. (It also represents broadcast journalists at NPR, though we're not covered under the TV and theatrical contract currently being negotiated).

In another example of solidarity across lines, many actors have already been walking the writers' picket lines. Their current contract expires at the end of June and SAG-AFTRA members have voted to authorize a strike if their demands for better pay and protections aren't met. "Actors are workers just like everybody else here, and they are finding it impossible to maintain a sustainable living doing a job they love," said Crabtree-Ireland.

Chris Keyser is co-chair of the WGA's negotiating committee. He protested outside of CBS Studios in L.A. before leafletting outside an Apple store on the union's "Bad Apple" day.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
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NPR
Chris Keyser is co-chair of the WGA's negotiating committee. He protested outside of CBS Studios in L.A. before leafletting outside an Apple store on the union's "Bad Apple" day.

According to Chris Keyser who is the co-chair of the WGA's negotiating committee, many actors and writers are living paycheck to paycheck like so many others in the gig economy.

"It's part of a moment," Keyser said. "Labor feels its power for the first time in a long time. That's because the arguments that we're making ring true for labor, and maybe for Americans who aren't even part of unions, which is a feeling of being meaningless, of being diminished by large corporations in a world that says 'we have the power and you have none,' and 'you don't get what you deserve.' It's not possible like it used to be to earn a living and raise a family and do all the things that Americans had come to think was their right."

Part of why the writers strike resonates is because it could affect TV and movies we all watch, says Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney and journalist who's written about Hollywood labor. "But the more important reason is Hollywood is a high profile, bellwether industry," he explained. "And if workers are able to secure fair wages and job security with corporations, that sends a signal to other companies as well, and helps affect the tone of the country."

This week on Wednesday, screenwriters from 35 countries, including Argentina, Bulgaria and Ukraine, held an international Day of Solidarity with the Hollywood writers. Their action included rallies, social media campaigns and picketing outside local AMPTP member offices.

The president of the WGA, Meredith Stiehm, has already declared how the writers will return the favor to all union workers.

"When it's your turn," she said, "we will be there with you."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mandalit del Barco
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.