Hollywood’s Labor Force Has Always Had to Fight for Workers’ Rights
This latest chapter in Los Angeles’s colorful labor history is being written by, well, writers — specifically, screenwriters. The people who write movies and television, scripting the comedies and dramas that we love to binge, are locked in a gnarly battle for their rights, careers, and livelihoods, and the dispute involving them, their union, and their talent agents is lighting up Tinseltown.
The writers, a group of 13,000, are union members represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) (of which, full disclosure, I am a member and councilmember). The current dispute stems from the expiration of the 43-year-old “franchise agreement,” a deal that dictates how writers and their agents work together. Agents are represented by the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), which, according to its website, is “responsible for legislation, advocacy, and negotiating agency franchise agreements with the major entertainment guilds.”
The WGA is currently duking it out with the ATA over a process called “packaging,” in which Hollywood talent agencies collect fees from studios for bundling multiple clients together on a project, like a movie or a television series. Writers have long said that this practice results in conflicts of interest and takes money out of their pockets. Agencies say the fees provide an incentive for agents to package projects in a way that’s more attractive to buyers.
There’s a class conflict, as well; screenwriters allege that talent agents typically pull in far more money than screenwriters themselves, whose incomes have been hurt by the rise of streaming services, especially since Netflix began airing original programming, in 2013.
This current stalemate is a civil war of sorts — and the union isn’t backing down. On April 13, the 43-year-old deal between the WGA and the ATA was officially over, and WGA has called for agencies to sign on to a code of conduct that explicitly bans package fees and working with affiliate producers. The union asked members represented by agencies that refused to sign to fire their agents, and thousands, though not all, have shown solidarity and heeded that call by voting in favor of the code, with big names like Shonda Rhimes, Patton Oswalt, Tina Fey, and JJ Abrams declaring #IStandWithTheWGA.
A resolution has not yet been reached, but as Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGA East, tells Teen Vogue, “This is not an easy struggle, but our solidarity is very strong.”
The WGA is no stranger to direct action; the union called major strikes in 1960 and 1988, and in 2007, 12,000 members went on a 100-day strike against the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). By doing so, they were joining in a proud tradition shared with the many current unions that represent television and radio artists, editors, directors, theatrical stage employees, video game voice actors, and more.
Hollywood has been a union town since the 1930s, which saw the end of the silent film era and the dawn of the “talkies.” That’s when talent guilds like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and DGA were formed, and included the majority of the talent that shaped the industry (and, yes, Marilyn Monroe was proudly union).
It all began with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Hollywood’s oldest union, which was formed by Broadway’s Vaudeville workers back in the mid-1880s, representing so-called “below the line” workers like crew and non-starring cast members. During the Great Depression, unions hemorrhaged members and were left seriously weakened, but things began to change in 1932, when President Herbert Hoover signed an important pro-union law called the Norris–La Guardia Act, which removed important barriers against labor organizing.