What Does the Writers’ Strike Mean for Actors?

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Photo Source: WGA East members picket outside ABC headquarters — January 16, 2008 Credit: rblfmr/Shutterstock

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike at midnight on May 1, citing an “existential crisis” in its negotiation with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) for better terms for writers. Here’s everything you need to know about the move and its implications for actors.


What is the writers’ strike?

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The writers’ strike is a collective action by the WGA in protest of alleged poor working conditions created by the AMPTP; union members will stop providing their services to struck companies, including delivering materials, negotiating, and discussing future assignments. They must send a notice to struck companies demanding that all writer-owned specs be returned, that the organizations preserve a digital copy of unproduced material, and that they honor the guild’s picket line.

The AMPTP comprises the movers and shakers of the Hollywood studio system, including Amazon, Apple, Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, NBC Universal, Netflix, Paramount, and Sony. 

The WGA maintains that the AMPTP has created unfair working conditions for writers in the following ways:

  • No guarantee of employment: Currently, there is no guarantee of weekly employment for episodic television, meaning that writers are hired on a pay-for-play basis. 
  • Low minimums: The WGA and AMPTP last negotiated updated weekly minimums in 2020, with annual increases at a much lower rate than current inflation. The WGA minimum is now $7,412/week. There are also currently no minimum staffing levels.
  • Pay issues: The union proposed that writers be paid 50% upon commencing a project, with the remaining 50% paid out weekly for the rest of the writing period. The AMPTP rejected the proposal. For minimum payments and streaming residuals, the AMPTP countered with much lower than what the WGA proposed, and only offered daily-rate payment for comedy and variety programs. The union also requested overscale pay that’s representative of overtime work, which guild members don’t currently receive. Overall, the WGA proposals would net its members as a whole around $429 million per year, while the AMPTP counters land at $86 million. 
  • Instability: There are currently no provisions that protect writers from being replaced by AI. There are also no provisions guaranteeing production and postproduction experience.
  • Death of the writers’ room: The rise of “mini rooms” has created a system in which competition is fierce for rare spots that pay less, making it almost impossible for newcomers and lower-level staffers to land gigs. 

After six weeks of negotiations with AMPTP that didn’t lead to any fruitful conclusions, the WGA Negotiating Committee recommended that the guild strike. According to a statement from the committee to its members, “Though we negotiated intent on making a fair deal—and though your strike vote gave us the leverage to make some gains—the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing.”

The statement continues: “The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing. From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy variety to their stonewalling [of] free work for screenwriters and [of] AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”

A separate statement from the AMPTP states the studios "remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry." 

“The AMPTP presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals," the statement says. "The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon. The primary sticking points are 'mandatory staffing,' and 'duration of employment' — Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not." 

What happened the last time there was a writers’ strike?

WGA Stike 2007Jose Gil/Shutterstock

A breakdown of negotiations over new-media compensation: The 100-day 2007–08 writers’ strike began following a similar breakdown in negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP. The strike began just after midnight on Nov. 5, 2007, following three months of negotiations that were primarily focused on new-media models. Before the strike, writers didn’t receive compensation for internet distribution of their work, copies purchased online, and streaming video. 

Successful renegotiations: The strike worked. By the time it ended on Feb. 12, 2008, the WGA had successfully negotiated provisions for digital media distribution and streaming royalties. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—all of which had just begun creating their own content—were required to hire guild writers on projects with large budgets. Writers also made headway in earning residuals for shows that later hit streaming or were made available to download digitally. 

Consequences for TV and beyond: The work stoppage led to massively reduced ratings for scripted shows; many were canceled entirely, even as viewership of reality TV increased. Late-night hosts faced difficult choices about employing nonunion staff, and many awards ceremonies didn’t happen. Economic losses from the strike were estimated at up to $2.1 billion

Actor participation: Although SAG-AFTRA contracts with the AMPTP include a no-strike clause, many actors supported the WGA by speaking out in PSAs, marching, and refusing to cross picket lines.

“Steve Carell decided that if ‘The Office’ couldn’t be produced with the writer-producers on set, then he wasn’t going to make the show,” said Michael Schur, who wrote for and produced the series. “So even though the ‘Dinner Party’ episode was done and ready to be filmed, he just didn’t show up, and everything came to a grinding halt. The NBC lawyers and very high-powered suits pressured him like crazy, but he just calmly told them he wasn’t interested.”

What does the writers’ strike mean for actors?

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Navigating existing obligations: In a statement to SAG-AFTRA members, union president Fran Drescher and national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said: "SAG-AFTRA’s National Board has adopted a resolution of strong support for the Writers Guild of America in their negotiations with the AMPTP. If the WGA finds it necessary to strike in order to achieve a fair deal for their members, although SAG-AFTRA cannot presently go on strike with them, we will be there to support and stand beside them."

Additionally, the union released a set of guidelines for how its members must navigate the strike. “If you are contracted to work on a project that continues production while the WGA is on strike, you are legally obligated to continue working by your personal services agreement and the ‘no-strike’ clause in our collective bargaining agreements.” 

If you are a member of both SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, and currently "employed under both capacities on a production, such as writer/actor," SAG-AFTRA's statement notes "you must continue working as an actor." 

Legal ramifications: SAG does allow its members to join picket lines off the clock and show their support on social media; that said, the union may take “affirmative action” in order to enforce contractual obligations. If actors choose not to come to work during the strike, they may be replaced or even sued for breach of contract.

SAG-AFTRA "advises its members to continue to work," noting that "the WGA is aware of the requirements of our no strike clause and our members’ individual personal service agreements, and the fact that the labor law protections that apply to striking workers do not apply to other workers whose contracts are still in effect. If you as an individual decide not to report to work as required, you may be subject to breach of contract claims or be subject to termination by the Producer."

For actors who have yet to join SAG, the strike presents a quandary: to work or not. Those working on a union gig have more leeway than SAG members, since they are not bound by the no-strike clause, though they might still face ramifications from producers for breach of contract. Aspiring actors working on non-union gigs may feel caught between the desire to keep working and building their acting resume and the desire to demonstrate their support for the strike by ceasing work entirely. It’s ultimately a personal choice up to the individual—but one in which the personal is very likely political.  

Production consequences: While TV and film production doesn’t halt entirely during a writers’ strike, many scripted series do stop production. Actors on these shows can expect to cease working until the strike ends, while actors on shows that don’t stop production will likely experience changes in their work environment and the quality of scripts. Actors performing in films with finished scripts will likely continue shooting, but those working on movies that don’t have completed scripts or that require revisions will likely experience production delays. 

Economic implications: When production slows or stops, so do paychecks. However, if the strike leads to a successful resolution with AMPTP, that bodes well for upcoming SAG-AFTRA negotiations with the alliance. This means there could be potential for better compensation, protections, and benefits in the future. 

A possible SAG-AFTRA strike: According to a statement, SAG will “do everything in our power to reach an agreement with the AMPTP, and we regard a strike as a last resort.” The actors’ union has its own history of collective action: In 2000, SAG and AFTRA (which were then separate entities) ushered in a joint six-month strike against advertisers—the longest in entertainment history. SAG-AFTRA is scheduled to begin bargaining with AMPTP on June 7. If talks fail and the union negotiation committee determines that a strike is necessary, it must then be authorized by membership vote and declared by the National Board or its designee. A SAG strike can only begin after the current contract expires on June 30. 

A possible joint strike: With only weeks between the start of the WGA strike and SAG negotiations with the AMPTP—not to mention the fact that SAG has raised concerns about AI issues and protections for actors—it’s possible that both unions will strike at the same time. Meanwhile, others have come out in support of the WGA, including the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which told its members that it might honor the picket line; and the Teamsters, which called the strike a “shared fight.” While reminding its members of the no-strike clause, the Directors Guild of America also expressed support for the WGA. (The DGA is preparing for its own negotiations with AMPTP at the end of June.) It’s possible that all major Hollywood unions could strike at the same time—an unprecedented event.