Last weekend, SAG-AFTRA released a statement saying that it was “strongly” supporting the WGA in its ongoing contract talks with the AMPTP. The statement the actors union put out talked about “roadblocks to fair and equitable wages and working conditions,” a push to “agree to terms that reflect the unique worth and contribution of creative talent and workers, without whom the industry would not exist,” and, ultimately, that “workers are stronger when they stand together united.” And so on.
I don’t know about you, but I was extremely comforted by this statement, didn’t at all find it to be nothing more than a spouting of platitudes, and am relieved to learn that the actors are supporting the writers, without whom they would have no words to speak and no scenes to play.
I’m not sure if my sarcasm is coming across properly in this format — I know, for instance, that it’s often misunderstood in texts and emails — so I’ll just go ahead and make it clear that the previous paragraph was not meant to be taken seriously.
While it is certainly nice that the actors union is publicly showing support for the writers in anticipation of their own negotiations when their labor contract expires at the end of June, I have to wonder what, in fact, this “support” actually means.
Let’s start with the understanding that, as of next week, all writing work for any signatories is going to stop. The strike is happening. It’s a foregone conclusion. I’ve been checking with friends in the guild and they’re talking about taking vacations or focusing on passion projects that they’ve long neglected in favor of paid, and so on. There is no question anymore as to whether or not the strike is going to occur, simply because it has to occur for any worthwhile deal to be made. The sides are too far apart without any hope of a compromise.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but the simple truth of the matter is that the streamers don’t want to provide any real transparency regarding the viewership numbers of their content, and no one wants to offer a much-needed pay raise to the rank and file writers who work in increasingly smaller and sparer rooms and have access to a steadily shrinking number of open writing assignments (the latter of which, according to one person, is a direct result of the deals that ended the 2007-08 strike and the most recent one that helped Hollywood avoid a potential strike).
Take care of those two key issues, and alakazam, no strike. Alas.
In talking to my guild friends, the common consensus is that there are two possibilities here. Either the DGA joins the writers on the picket lines and the whole thing ends quickly, or the directors sit on the sidelines, deal with their own negotiations, and it lasts all summer and likely into the fall.
It should be noted that these conversations all happened last week before the SAG-AFTRA statement was released, to the great celebration of all. Did you see the parades rolling down Fairfax? Or the ticker tape dropping from the office buildings lining Fifth Avenue?
Ah, right. Those didn’t happen.
The question I have is probably the one that you have, which is, basically, what does that communal support mean? Moral support? Thanks, but that’s not going to help much. Physical support? That would be better, but how would it manifest? If SAG-AFTRA decides to join the strike and show true solidarity with the writers, and stop working on any project that is for a WGA signatory — thus allowing for the continued shooting of indie fare and other projects that might not qualify — this thing lasts a week, tops.
But if that support translates to empty words as SAG-AFTRA prepares for its own negotiations, then, well, please see four paragraphs above this one, in which I discussed the DGA’s potential participation in the proceedings.
It’s sort of fascinating to me that all three contracts are ending within a couple months of each other, and the three guilds are not publicly coordinating — at least a little — to make sure that they all get the best deal possible. I suppose it’s possible that there are backroom dealings, but I would think that the specter of such cooperation — and the complete industry shutdown that would result — would scare the AMPTP straight.
Alas, once again, with no such conversation nor proposed cooperation, the certainty of some kind of apocalyptic occurrence is assured. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but there you have it.
Though the leadership of the WGA was able to corral an enormous majority in its strike approval vote (more than 97 percent, even higher than the last vote a few years ago, which helped the AMPTP to realize the strength of the union and avert a strike), I can’t say, from my anecdotal questioning of, admittedly, only a few people, that the guild has the faith of the rank and file.
And why is that? Well, aside from the aforementioned issues with open writing assignments and the general feeling that many of the issues that are being discussed here should have been taken care of in previous negotiations, there is the fact that while most guild members are out picketing, the executive committee will continue to draw a salary rather than show solidarity with their writing brethren and forgo income until a deal is made and everyone is back at work.
So people are ready to strike, even though they don’t all necessarily trust those who are negotiating on their behalf. That’s bad enough, but the fact that the streamers are dictating what’s happening here on the producers’ side — thus demonstrating once and for all where the industry’s true power has moved over the last decade — makes it even worse because their refusal to reward the people whose work is keeping eyes on their service is a major reason as to why Hollywood is at this worrisome crossroads in the first place.
Divide and conquer is a method as old as humanity, and when it’s used effectively, it tends to lead to the conquering of those who are divided. This is obviously the situation here, and it seems to me that the directors and actors’ guilds are playing right into it.
If the writers, directors, and actors all got together and said, “This is the line in the sand, this is what we want and how we’re willing to proceed, and we’re going to keep you from creating anything worthwhile unless and until you recognize how badly you need us and then pay us accordingly,” this would all be academic.
Instead, there are empty promises of “support” and lofty talk about “workers united” that, combined with $2.75, will get you a subway ride in New York City.
I suppose it’s possible that things could change in the next couple of weeks, but I tend to doubt it. Instead, we’d all best settle in. This thing isn’t going to end until someone really squeezes the AMPTP, and that won’t happen without some actual unity.
Not the kind written by a publicist.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.