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What the American Labor Movement Means for Screenwriters

By September 6, 2021October 28th, 2021No Comments

It was the 1980s, and a new invention was poised, in some people’s eyes, to change the movie market forever: A VHS videotape (priced down from its original, 800-dollar iteration), playable only on a device known to the most diehard AV aficionados as a “VCR.” As its potential to garner a wider audience became clearer, so too did its prospects as a revenue stream for the major studios. That’s where the WGA came in:

Seeing the untested market, untapped potential, and unprecedented ability for studios to build loopholes around residual payments––and realizing there were no contractual obligations for this market to provide the same residuals that were germane to pre-existing methods of distribution––the WGA went on strike. Over 50 years later, writers in the guild receive 1.2% of distributors’ gross receipts from videocassette sales, and more importantly, in 2020 won a fresh victory on streaming services, setting a precedent for major networks’ emerging on-demand distribution (the go-to method of watching nearly any content for mid-pandemic America). That legacy, of securing payment for creators as distribution evolves, is made possible by the American Labor Movement.

Equity in a Golden Age

The early American Labor Movement sprang up in juxtaposition to the demands for cheap labor inspired by the Industrial Revolution, when skilled tradespeople set a price floor to ensure they were compensated in proportion to their skills. Their actions would lead to the foundation of the 1881 Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (a prototype of the AFL). The movement rode a wave of rising progressive lobbying into the Great Depression, where New Deal politics empowered labor unions to the point that the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was formed to temper exploitative practices in giants of American industry like rubber, steel, and automotive manufacturing. Incidentally, the AFL and CIO would go on to merge into the largest federation of unions in the United States, under whose leadership unions like SAG and the WGA were formed. 

In the unionizing boom of the post-war era (after World War II, collective bargaining efforts more than tripled weekly earnings), a historic agreement guaranteeing screen credits, written contracts, dispute arbitration, and minimum compensation was drafted between screenwriters known as the Screen Writers Guild and the major studios. That organization would go on to become the WGA, and that agreement would set the pro-labor tone for screenwriters that would shape the film and television industry for years to come. 

Union Wins in an Era of Deregulation

After the union heyday, the 1970s precipitated an era of deregulation with a burgeoning wave of anti-labor practices, according to the Economic Policy Institute:

“…by the 1970s employers were charged with committing significantly more unfair labor practices (ULPs), such as firing union activists during organizing campaigns. ULP charges against employers rose sevenfold between 1950 and 1980… Employers also began far more extensive use of a growing “union avoidance” industry of consultants. While there were just a handful of anti-union consulting firms at the beginning of the 1970s, by decade’s end there were hundreds, and a management consultant told Congress in the late 1970s that his industry had grown tenfold over the preceding decade.”

While unions found themselves fending off anti-labor legislation, the Era of Deregulation was in full swing, with increasingly more power in the hands of privately held companies in competitive markets. As a result, wages stagnated, the middle class shrank, and collective bargaining lost the leverage it once had (if all of this sounds boring, check out the screenplays for The Big ShortHustlers, and teleplays for The Newsroom — which show brilliantly how to cover these topics accurately and make them cinematic).

The Big Short

‘The Big Short’

During the same period, the WGA won a series of victories, including minimum basic agreements for both film and television in 1970, fixed residuals for syndication in 1977, and an increase in residuals from home video and cable channels in the 1980s. These triumphs would presage the fight over new media and webisode residuals that paused production on hit shows like Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights in 2007-2008. That strike led to broader wins for writers in film and TV just as the era of deregulation found its nadir in the financial crash of 2008.

Screenwriting is a world of imagination and creativity, and the real-world investment in workers’ rights that the WGA has inherited from the labor movement proves that its innovative approach is well-suited to handling the future of the industry.

The Labor Movement Invests in the Future of Work

Remember that dispute that began with the burgeoning home video market? Blockbuster may be a faint memory of the aging millennial set, but untested markets for distribution will continue to arise. That’s because advances in technology—-printing press to Oculus Rift—have long yielded a need for more content: and labor unions work to put power in the hands of the content creators.

Perhaps that’s why writers’ rooms have adjusted to remote and hybrid pandemic norms, continuing to adapt to new safety protocols as America’s arts and entertainment sector added 75,000 jobs in June, surpassing every other industry outside of hospitality. Employment in entertainment is also projected to grow 7% between 2019 and 2029, a rate of growth that far exceeds other occupations, and might one day put an end to the question of how, exactly, a screenwriter makes any money. Rethinking work, and the relationship between labor and equity, is exactly the legacy of the labor movement, so it’s no wonder that in a time of enormous upheaval, a professional class championed by a strong union continues to thrive while others face a labor shortage.

A National Shortage

“There are lots of viral stories about unhappy employers trying to re-open, or pictures of handwritten signs saying nobody wants to work,” writes Tim Fernholz in Quartz, citing that the national labor shortage is more complex than citizens deciding, en masse, to catch up on their favorite Netflix series in lieu of gainful employment. A living wage was a rarity pre-pandemic, and the consequent economic upheaval has revealed there to be a national wage shortage of which the labor shortage is merely a symptom. Additionally, anti-union practices have created a catalyst for skilled workers to go elsewhere since as early as 2014, when a global pandemic was merely the premise of the latest Soderbergh flick.

“…a skilled labor shortage dates back to 2014, when the Economic Policy Institute sighted “afford to have their construction contractors pay well for skilled work, but they resist. Organizations they fund, such as the Business Roundtable, have led a decades-long campaign to weaken or destroy the building trades unions that actually train the greatest number of skilled tradesmen.”  – Economic Policy Institute

Collective bargaining emerged to protect skilled labor, is pivotal to the mission of the labor movement, and has allowed screenwriters to preempt the shortage of compensation with solidarity in salary negotiations. Now, workers are demanding higher wages across the board in the form of turning down employment—-an unorganized tactic creating an incidental strike, leaving talent and recruiters without a bargaining table to come to.

“Until the coronavirus pandemic completely upended the economy, few workers were in a position where they could demand the benefits they wanted or choose to leave a job that was treating them so badly. Now, there are more people with not only the bargaining power to get what they want but also the motivation to ask for it.” – Forbes

What’s more, the WGA deals not just in wages, but equity, meaning a creator’s work continues to work for them. While residuals may be subject to contracts that are at times deleterious, that equity can pay dividends over time (especially when creating a franchisable intellectual property). Labor protects the matrix that unites skill, passion, and compensation—meaning that, unlike in many other industries, disparities in any of those factors have a means of recourse. With the WGA backing writers’ ability to say no to unfair practices, contracts, or obligations, they protect a worker’s right to name the value of their talent, meaning longevity and engagement are built into the profession.

Leading the Pack

The American film and television market is a 717 billion-dollar industry with global reach and mass appeal, and during this time of national upheaval, when policy infrastructure is falling out of employers’ favor and inching toward equity, screenwriters are poised to set the tone for the future of the American conversation: in space-faring adventures that make us rethink our relationship to the cosmos, caped crusader neo-noirs that make us ponder the nature of justice, romantic comedies that unite us, and in setting precedents for labor relations that are weighted, above all, toward parity. Screenwriting has benefited from the legacy of the American Labor Movement, born at the turn of the century and situated to lead in a future in which automation and technology will create new avenues for distribution. With that unprecedented change on the horizon, the fervent pursuit of a more equitable labor market––and the stories that underscore its value––has never been more important. 

Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.

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