The threat of a writers strike continued to mount today as the WGA held the last of 11 membership informational meetings in advance of next month’s negotiations for a new film and TV contract.
“We’re always ready for a strike,” a TV writer laughed as he left the meeting at the Beverly Hilton. “Television is in another Golden Age and the companies are reaping record profits, but writers aren’t sharing in that. Our incomes are going down, so it’s going to be a tough negotiation.”
“Writers deserve more and the companies can afford to pay it,” said another TV writer who attended the meeting, “and we may just have to fight for it.” As for a strike, he said: “I pray that there will not be one, but I fear that there will be one.”
“The general feeling is that everybody would prefer to work,” said another writer, “but given the companies’ profits and our declining wages, it’s now or never. This meeting was not a strike vote, but we have certain needs that have to be met. Nobody wants to strike, but we are willing to if we have to.”“We are all standing strong for the union,” said another writer. Another added: “We have a unified guild.”
Solidarity and the credible threat of a strike are certainly helpful going into any contract negotiation, and many of those interviewed today said they hope the companies recognize that they are united behind the union’s “legitimate” and “reasonable” demands, and will make a fair deal to avoid a strike.
Guild records show that “overall median earnings increased 17.4% between 2008 and 2014,” but guild leaders say that “the average income of members in both features and series TV have actually decreased over the (last) decade.”
There’s no doubt that Hollywood’s film writers have seen their wages steadily erode over the past two decades, largely due to a decline in the number of films being released. According to the WGA West’s annual reports, screenwriters earned less in 2015 ($362.1 million) than they did in 1996 ($364.4 million) – and that’s in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, they collectively earned about a third less in 2015 than they did in 1996.
The guild’s records also show that in 2015, TV writers earned $803 million under the WGA West’s basic contract, for an average annual income of $194,478, which was $48,936 more than they made in 2006.
But those numbers are only based on guild minimums, and don’t include the moneys they make as writers employed in additional capacities, such as producers and executive producers. And that’s where TV writer-producers are taking it on the chin. Two recent guild surveys of its working members found a 23% overall decline in weekly compensation for series TV writer-producers from the 2013-14 season to the 2015-15 season – a downward trend that guild officials maintain has been going on for a decade as the TV industry continues to go through a major restructuring.
The leading cause for the downturn is the shortening of many shows’ seasons, with fewer episodes meaning fewer dollars for writer-producers. In years past, writers might be paid for 22 episodes strung out over 44 weeks, but it’s now not uncommon for seasons to last for only 10 or 12 episodes.
“Everybody agrees that television is changing and that the way writers are paid needs to change,” said a writer leaving today’s meeting. “Nobody wants a strike, and the union will do its darndest to get a fair deal.”
The guild’s ailing – and some say failing – health plan will be another key bargaining point when negotiations with management’s AMPTP begin on March 13.