Two days into the Writers Guild of America’s first strike in 15 years, union leadership gathered members for a “rowdy” and “raucous” meeting at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium on Wednesday night.
The venue, which previously was home to such events as the Academy Awards and Grammys, drew more than 1,800 WGA members who gathered to hear from leaders about what led to the breakdown in negotiations between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — and ended up becoming something of an inter-union solidarity rally, with representatives from six different entertainment unions in attendance. (The Shrine has a capacity of 6,300.)
“I’ve been around 25 years and have never seen all the unions this united or on the same page,” one showrunner who was in attendance told THR after hearing leaders from each of the guilds speak. “They are all getting variously screwed by these companies and they know the only way to win is to stick together. It’s a million percent different than last time around.”
The L.A. event, which followed a counterpart meeting at New York’s Cooper Union earlier in the day, opened with a standing ovation for Ellen Stutzman, the WGA’s lead negotiator who stepped into the role after western branch of the union’s executive director, David Young, went on medical leave in late February.
“The only way we’re gonna beat these mother f—kers is if we do it together,” Lindsay Dougherty, the head of Teamsters Local 399, told attendees. She was one of the many industry labor figures who joined the writers at the auditorium Wednesday: In addition to the Teamsters, The Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA also sent executives to the gathering, while representatives from the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association and IATSE also made an appearance. The DGA and SAG-AFTRA’s contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) both expire June 30, which has had some industry players worried that an additional strike from one or both. “Did you tell them to forgo profits for subscriptions?” DGA negotiating chair John Avnet said from the stage.
As she left the venue Wednesday night, Dougherty added to The Hollywood Reporter that since the industry’s unions faced the COVID pandemic and various tough confrontations with entertainment companies in the past few years, “all of us have realized lately that the only way we’re going to beat them [entertainment companies], so to speak, is to be together. Because that’s what they do, time and time again: They unite as the AMPTP. We have to unite together as the unions and guilds in Hollywood.”
Showrunner Mike Schiff (The Neighborhood) felt that the event’s assembly of labor leaders across unions marked a shift from the guild’s last strike, in 2007-2008. “In 2007, I thought there might have been some resentment.” While he says he never felt that personally from colleagues, “certainly I got the feeling of, wait, we want to be working, what are you doing?” This year, “having all those unions there and expressing their support, knowing that our struggle is their struggle and vice versa, that was very heartening.”
WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser was the central speaker of the night. When he shared that the AMPTP did not want to budge on the use of artificial intelligence because the studios didn’t want to take a new technology off the table that they “might want to use in the future,” the crowd booed in defiant support. The guild has proposed regulating the use of AI and banning its use to write or rewrite scripts and ensure that material from writers can’t be used to train AI. The AMPTP rejected the proposal and countered only by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology, per the WGA.
Keyser also noted that the AMPTP’s lead negotiator referred to free rewrites by screenwriters as “collaboration,” which also appeared to alienate the membership. The AMPTP’s agreement to pay staff writers script fees drew a loud show of support from the room. Staff writers presently earn only their weekly salaries and are not compensated for their scripts.
The meeting, which started at 7:40 p.m., lasted several hours and included a Q&A with WGA leaders, was intended to lay out the events of the negotiations that abruptly cut off on May 1 to members, as well as draw a picture of the weeks ahead for writers in terms of picketing and answer members’ questions. Attendees were handed prepackaged food from Wolfgang Puck. “There’s always food,” one said, while another said they were handed an extra meal on their way out.
Sources inside the Shrine described the atmosphere as a showcase in solidarity, with many members vowing to fight and remain firm in the guild’s demands. “It is an astonishing show of unity and determination. I have never seen anything like it and I’ve been in this union nearly 25 years,” another showrunner told THR from inside the venue. A number of additional writers remarked on the volume of standing ovations: “I lost count of how many,” said one film and television writer on his way out. “The place was on its feet, roaring.” Added Geoff Roth, who recently wrote a movie for Amazon that’s in turnaround, “The mood was rowdy, it was raucous. People were fired up.”
Added a staff writer who is experiencing their first strike as a member of the WGA: “It’s wild. Enormous solidarity. Everyone is fired up and hopeful. All the other unions came to offer support and march with us. No crossing picket lines. They are all standing with the WGA.”
Corey Dashaun and Isaac Gomez, who both joined the guild in the past few years, are most energized by the WGA’s focus on alleviating the increasing pressures that have been brought to bear on what’s become known as “mini rooms,” one of which they were recently staffed on together at Amazon. They see pursuing such reforms as connected to achieving a living wage. “It’s mighty funny that as marginalized voices are finally gaining access to this business, the goal posts are being moved,” notes Dashaun.
Exiting the Shrine, they felt the onus was now on the studios to revive talks. (Attendees were not told when both sides might go back to the table.) “The big misconception of a strike is that it’s those who walk that are responsible,” said Gomez. “No, it’s those who don’t come to the table.”
Peter Hankoff, a WGA member since 1978, strolled out of the auditorium satisfied, noting that he was now on his fifth strike and “this is the best union membership meeting I’ve ever been in — and I’ve been in a lot of them. I’m almost not pessimistic.” He added, “this is the tightest negotiating committee I’ve ever seen. It feels united. It feels like we will win. I haven’t felt like that every time.”
Pickets are set to resume in front of multiple production locations on Thursday at 9 a.m. PT in Los Angeles and at Broadway Stages in Brooklyn at 11 a.m. ET.