Money  /  Explainer

The Writers’ Strike Opens Old Wounds

The deep roots of the latest WGA strike.

Screenwriters craft suspense on the page, but few plot beats can match the real world tension built every three years when the Writers Guild of America’s Theatrical and Television Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) comes up for renewal. Hollywood unions and guilds negotiate several guild-specific contracts in addition to the MBA, but the film and television deal creates industry standards for working conditions, pay, residuals, health, and pensions and can lead to an industry-wide shutdown if talks stall. Months in advance of this deal lapsing, industry experts begin to speculate: Will the writers strike? Will the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)—or even the reluctant-to-strike Directors Guild of America—follow suit? The WGA is known as the toughest negotiator and the most likely of all Hollywood unions to strike, and the memory of the work stoppage that spanned 100 days in 2007–08 and disrupted innumerable television and feature projects surely lingers in some studio executives’ minds.

Contract negotiations, much like film reboots, revive old villains and fault lines of antagonism. Historically, studios craft the setting, as they did this year, by claiming they need to reduce production expenses by stagnating wages and residuals. The Hollywood unions must then fight—sometimes by going on strike—for percentage increases that build on their past wins and losses. However, like the formulaic reboot, the outcome is often foretold: both studios and workers ultimately want a healthy profitable industry, so the conflict will be resolved and the characters will live to fight another day. What makes the 2023 strike different is the introduction of new players (streaming-services-cum-media-producers) and conditions (changes to writers rooms, employment terms, and distribution) that change the tenor of negotiations, especially since both sides are pushing for structural changes to how Hollywood does business.

While the methods of production and distribution have transformed several times over, every industry-wide strike since 1950 has been about residuals. These strikes have been led by WGA, SAG, and AFTRA; writers are often the toughest negotiators, but the stars and the large membership numbers make the actors unions (which merged in 2012) formidable. Prior to 1950, labor action in Hollywood centered on jurisdictional battles and working conditions. Famously, in 1945, one of these internal disputes ended in a violent clash on the Warner Bros. lot dubbed “Black Friday.” The pre-1950 strikes, led by the workers who eventually consolidated into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), largely differed because they focused on basic working conditions and pay. But the arrival of television forced the unions and performers to think about the commodity value of their work, which could now be replayed in multiple television markets around the United States, in perpetuity.