Navigating the writers' strike as a Canadian
Navigating the writers' strike as a Canadian
The strike initiated on May 2nd by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is, proponents argue, a response to the profound inequality in the movie and TV industries. Hollywood corporations make billions with products beloved around the world, turning actors into stars and enriching executives while many of those whose labour creates the narrative backbone for this success – the writers – face increasing precarity and growing barriers to being able to work in the industry at all.
Hollywood has always been a challenging place to make a living, of course, and since its beginning it has been a site of intense competition driven by the companies that dominate it. Nonetheless, there is also a long history of solidarity among writers in movies and TV – the strike in 2007-08 is mentioned frequently in reporting today, but there were also work stoppages in 1960, 1981, 1985, and 1988. Currently, the WGA represents more than 11,500 writers working on film, TV, and streaming.
There has been substantial solidarity with the WGA in the U.S., including from other unions and prominent individuals. SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), which will soon be entering its own negotiations with major studios and production companies, is supporting the strike, and stated in April, “It is long past time for the studios, streamers, and other employers in the entertainment industry to remove roadblocks to fair and equitable wages and working conditions.” Big Hollywood names like Susan Sarandon, Tina Fey, Bob Odenkirk, and Rob Lowe have shown solidarity on the WGA picket lines, as has director Christopher Nolan, whose brother is writer Jonathan Nolan.
Given Hollywood's global reach, it is no surprise that the strike has been making news world-wide. Individuals and institutions from many countries have declared their solidarity. The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain has instructed its members to halt work on projects within WGA jurisdiction, as has the Australian Writers’ Guild. The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) is recommending that Canadian writers who are affiliated with the WGA not cross the picket line. Many Canadians work in the industry south of the border and so are directly affected by the strike.
To better grasp the impacts of the strike and what it means to be a Canadian writing for American TV shows and movies, The Media Co-Op interviews Canadian actor and writer Tracy Dawson. She is an award-winning veteran of the industry who has sold multiple projects in both Canada and the U.S. and has written for the series Call Me Fitz (TMN/DirecTV), and Your Family or Mine (TBS). Her debut book is Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men To Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do (2022). Dawson is currently on strike.
She talks about the huge gap between what writers face and the glamorous lives of stars and executives, the looming threat of AI, the need for writers to take a stand, and Canadian writers standing in solidarity with their U.S. peers.
The Media Co-op (TMC): Why are the demands of the strikers relevant?
Tracy Dawson (TD): Well, first of all I think what we are seeing in this moment in time is not only about writers standing up. This isn’t only about writers or even Hollywood. This is about workers standing up. I really feel we are experiencing a big moment for labour and workers. I remember constantly hearing throughout the summer about a rolling series of strikes across Europe: rail workers, nurses, transportation workers – it's as if something is coming to a head.
Here's the thing: At this stage in capitalism what we are seeing is people finally being beyond fed up with everything being about shareholders and CEOs and not at all about workers, the people who do the actual labour. Workers are being asked to do more for less everywhere. The big suits at the top are answering to shareholders, they care about shareholders more than they care about workers. And we are all collectively rising up to say, “No more!” Writers understand that Hollywood cannot do anything worthy, anything of substance, without us. There are no shows and no movies without writers and our ideas, our talents.
In this labour action, the Writers Guild of America is witnessing unprecedented support. We have hotel workers supporting us, the Democratic Socialists dropping off food daily to us, nurses are supporting us, teachers. This isn’t just about Hollywood.
One of the things we are doing right now with this strike is fighting for the very existence of our jobs. Writing for film and TV used to be a viable career. It was hard, it was competitive, you certainly have always had to work damn hard for every job, every contract. But writers used to be able to get a job on a TV show and work a contract for months and months, creating, writing, and producing that season of television, and it would afford you a stable enough income to be able to afford a mortgage, healthcare, a certain amount of stability and so on.
So, this is about our very existence. If the studios got their way and continued to reduce and reduce the number of writers on any given project - and increased the presence of AI - what this means is we see people being starved out of the industry. We as individuals and as a collective, as a union, will lose our health benefits, our pension. If it was up to them, writing would become a gig economy. It would be union busting and career destroying.
TMC: Do writers feel supported by the other members of the TV and cinema industries?
TD: Right now, we absolutely do. We are seeing unprecedented support from all the other unions: the actors, the directors, the crew, the labourers. This is how we win; we win together. They are not just trying to squeeze writers; they are trying to squeeze all of us. SAG AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) has just voted unanimously this week to call for a strike authorization vote. The last time this SAV (Strike Authorization Vote) happened was in 1986. This is huge. If SAG actors strike while WGA writers are striking – well, this is a huge deal. The solidarity feels powerful and so encouraging.
TMC: Does AI present a threat to writers?
TD: There are many things that are upsetting about how the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) responded (or didn't respond) to the Writers Guild's list of demands. One of the most unsettling was the absolute refusal to even have a conversation about the potential for AI to displace screenwriters in films and television. This is disquieting because it seems to imply that they are very much thinking about AI replacing writers and perhaps this has already begun. It's a red flag.
At its heart, AI's very emergence and existence is using (aka stealing) writing that already exists in the world. Writing that was done by creative, talented, human writers. So, that's a problem right there. And why would someone or some company want to use this technology? Greed. That's it. It cuts costs. It's not going to be better than using a real live human writer, but it sure will be cheaper. These companies would love to use AI to write a first draft of a project and then hire one or two writers to come in and polish it up. This means AI poses an absolute existential threat to writers and our livelihoods - and our union's livelihood because it will affect our healthcare contributions, our pension contributions, etc. We are not saying AI could not be a very exciting form of technology that could be used as a tool in our industry, I think we all know AI isn't going anywhere. What we are concerned with is safeguarding writers' jobs and livelihoods.
AI is not only a threat to writers, of course. It's a threat to actors and directors. Once again, we are seeing that this is a fight for all of us and we need to address it now because addressing it later is too late. As actor-writer-director Justine Bateman put it, "AI in the Arts is nothing less than a destruction of the 100-year old film industry."
TMC: How is it to work in an industry with a worldwide reach that makes billions, while writers that produce the backbone of it see the smaller parts of the profits?
TD: I am very proud that my union, the WGA, in 2022 fought for and collected $46 million dollars in back payments from streamers (Netflix and Amazon) who tried to cheat writers out of their residuals. We are fighting now, in this strike, for a better and more just cut of the companies’ massive profits. What we are asking for amounts to a very small percentage. We believe that the people who create the shows and films that people enjoy, which allow these studios and networks to rake in these billions of dollars – we believe that the creators of that content deserve a bit of those profits. We are fighting for what is fair.
Writers get absurdly low residuals or royalties when shows that they wrote re-air on streamers as opposed to cable TV. The companies continue to make revenue each time they air that episode and as it stands now, the people who created that episode of TV are not seeing a fair portion of that revenue. It's very clear, it's very simple. Why should we make less money when it re-airs on a streamer than when it re-airs on cable TV?
In terms of how it feels? It feels fantastic to be a part of a Guild that is standing up and standing strong in this fight. But watching the studios shut down the industry instead of parting with a small portion of their profits; reading about the CEOs inflated salaries while they cry poor; watching them cut off their nose to spite their face? That feels crappy. Many people I know are struggling. People who were writing on TV shows not that long ago are on food stamps. Some are leaving the business entirely. If these massively wealthy individuals who run these companies gave us everything we are asking for? Their lives would not be affected one tiny bit. The AMPTP (the studios and the streamers), the CEOs, the studios – they shut down Hollywood! Not the writers. I hope everyone remembers that.
TMC: The Writers Guild of Canada is telling its members to not cross picket lines during the WGA strike. How do you feel about such a stance?
TD: I very strongly support this! I hope if any American projects get pitched to Canadian writers, in terms of, let's say, doing some rewriting on a script that originated at a signatory company in America, I really hope all Canadian writers, and writers in the UK as well, will turn this work down and understand that it is “scabbing” which is crossing a picket line to do a job normally done by a union worker. If a WGA-signatory production company offers a job to a non-WGA writer and they take it, that would be scabbing.