On May 2, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) — the labor union representing more than 11,500 writers and entertainment professionals working in television, film, radio and the internet — went on strike. This has caused a disruption in U.S.-produced media: Many shows have gone off the air or have been forced to air reruns, and many new TV seasons and movie productions have been delayed indefinitely. In addition, prominent actors have stepped away from participating in shows and events to express their solidarity with the writers.
If you aren’t in the television, motion picture or news industries, you may wonder what this strike has to do with you. Even if a Hollywood work stoppage does not affect your business or workplace directly, there are powerful lessons you can learn from the strike and apply to your professional life.
As in the union movement at Starbucks, employees band together and take action when they are dissatisfied with the workplace or the terms of their employment. All business owners want to maintain smooth and uninterrupted operations, but that’s less likely if your workers feel their compensation and other aspects of their jobs are unfair or impractical. To express their dissatisfaction, thousands of writers have taken to the picket lines to protest against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the organization that represents the studios and production companies.
Amid the ongoing fallout from the WGA strike — which revolves largely around the specifics of a new contract covering pay, staffing, health care and other issues — employers in other sectors should heed these takeaways.
Many business interactions require negotiation: employee compensation, freelancer agreements, client contracts, vendor relationships and more. In a successful negotiation, both sides end up feeling satisfied because there is a fair give and take. But in the negotiations leading up to the writers strike, the WGA got frustrated because the AMPTP rejected about half of the WGA’s proposals without even making a counteroffer. Then, some of the counterproposals they did send didn’t address the core issues and were viewed as disrespectful and toothless. For example, when the WGA asked for regulation of the use of artificial intelligence in content creation, the AMPTP’s response was to propose having annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.
The AMPTP’s counterproposal indicated a misunderstanding of how extensively AI is already affecting the entertainment industry, a refusal to empathize with the concerns of the other side, and a general lack of respect for the writers and the work they provide. But when you’re negotiating as an employer or business owner, it’s essential to listen to the concerns of the other party and demonstrate that you care and understand the issues at hand.
While you may not be able to give the other side everything they want on each negotiation point, let them know that you are willing to thoughtfully consider their request and budge if possible. If it’s not possible to compromise because doing so would have a severe impact on your organization’s ability to function successfully, explain why this is the case and perhaps offer a concession on another point.
Remember that although the company pays out salaries and benefits, it is the employees who put in the work to generate revenue for the business. Both sides are vital to successful operations.
New technologies are constantly bombarding the workplace, changing the way companies are structured and how employees produce their work. In the case of the WGA strike, the two technological advancements that are shaking things up are streaming services and artificial intelligence.
The move from linear television to streaming services has shortened the seasons for television series, thereby truncating the writers’ length of employment, and thus the amount they get paid. All the while, it generates significant revenue for the producers of highly successful shows. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence has the potential to further reduce the number of hours needed from human writers in the near term and eventually replace them in the long term. The writers guild is concerned that the studios are eager to adopt new cost-saving technology without looking at the impacts on writers and other workers. [Read related article: Should You Hire a Human or a Robot?]
When a new technology that could potentially affect your business becomes available, management should study and assess it to see how it will affect all aspects of the organization. Are there any downsides that need to be mitigated? If so, how will the company address them? For example, if you decide to make your workforce completely remote thanks to improvements in virtual computing, a possible downside is that the lack of person-to-person interaction among your team members leads to lower engagement and decreased creativity. You could mitigate this drawback by having periodic in-person or video call brainstorming meetings or hosting fun team-building events for employees. Whatever the situation, the lesson is that it’s crucial to look at the effects of new technology from all sides before implementing it.
One of the WGA’s proposals called for writers to receive higher compensation for TV shows that generate a lot of viewers and those that the producers are certain will be successful because they have already allocated a large production budget for them. Currently, writers get paid the same amount for their time regardless of whether their writing was outstanding and resulted in higher viewership and revenue for producers.
Among the problems with this model is that the writers don’t feel their compensation aligns with the results of their work. This breeds feelings of discontent and resentment as producers and studio executives line their pockets with bonuses, stock options and other awards. Furthermore, when everyone in the rank and file gets paid the same regardless of their abilities or effort, you’re not encouraging additional effort or creativity. Ideally, you want each employee to do everything possible for the company to succeed each day, and one way to motivate workers to do so is by offering performance-based pay.
Performance-based compensation — which includes commission, merit pay, profit sharing and bonuses — is common in sales departments but less so in other areas, even though it has notable advantages. In addition to motivating employees to boost productivity, this type of compensation structure creates a healthy performance-based company culture, reduces employee turnover, aids in employee recruitment and increases employee morale.
According to research from McKinsey, companies that gave employees financial incentives tied to achieving transformational outcomes generated five times the shareholder value as similar companies without this type of incentive.
When the writers went on strike, many television shows were affected — for example, late-night programs such as The Tonight Show went on hiatus, and production on the new season of Stranger Things was halted. With the writers for these series refusing to work, the shows simply couldn’t continue.
However, some shows, such as HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s The Rings of Power, are proceeding as planned because the producers had all of the scripts written prior to the work stoppage. Other networks and streaming services are turning to unscripted shows, such as reality television, to cover for the lack of traditional programming.
Somewhat similarly, millions of companies faced work stoppages and supply chain disruptions during the pandemic. And while many closed their doors forever, others were able to pivot and realign their businesses to meet a new reality. Both scenarios demonstrate how interruptions should spur business leaders to think creatively about how they can continue to meet the needs of their customers, albeit in a different way.
A key part of pivoting is being proactive. The studios aren’t scrambling right now because the writers strike was predicted for months and companies had ample time to prepare for the consequences. As a part of your strategic planning, come up with contingency plans in case different parts of your business are disrupted. For example, if a change in tariffs would make importing your goods from China too expensive, your backup plan might be to source products from manufacturers in Mexico or Singapore.
Just as the WGA strike has highlighted some do’s and don’ts for employers, employees outside Hollywood can learn a lot from the dispute. The following lessons apply to many fields.
Because they create the stories and dialogue for films and television, writers are essential to the entertainment industry. So, if they stop working, much of the industry comes to a standstill, as we’re seeing now. That arguably gives the writers the upper hand as they negotiate a resolution. Amid a labor shortage in much of the country, employees across industries may have the upper hand, too.
As businesses clamor to secure new hires in a tight job market, candidates can often negotiate better pay, greater benefits and other perks. In addition, current employees might be able to negotiate a pay raise by letting management know they’re not afraid to leave in favor of better-paying competitors if they aren’t justly compensated. In times of low unemployment, the tides tend to favor employees, not employers.
When the WGA members voted on whether to strike, 98 percent voted yes — a clear sign of solidarity among the guild. However, they would be in a much better position if their fellow Hollywood labor organizations — such as the crew members union (IATSE), the directors union (DGA) and the actors union (SAG-AFTRA) — joined in and refused to work until the WGA demands were met or a satisfactory contract was negotiated. While SAG-AFTRA is, in fact, nearing a strike of its own, the DGA just avoided one by coming to its own deal with the AMPTP. There is strength in numbers, and right now, the WGA doesn’t have all of the numbers on its side.
It’s natural to make friends with colleagues in the location or department where you work. However, forging relationships with people in other offices and departments can benefit your career as well. In addition to making your job easier by securing cooperation from those involved with other divisions and functions you interact with, these relationships will ensure you have allies when company-wide issues arise. Even if the problem isn’t universal, these work pals may be willing to advocate for you and join your fight for policy change. Management may be more willing to listen when more people are involved.
One of the disputes in the writers strike is over the rise of “mini-rooms” for television series. In a mini-room setup, a production hires just a few writers to get a couple of initial scripts written, pays them less and doesn’t guarantee them employment for the duration of the project. This has led writers to feel more like gig workers, with their job stability up in the air. As a result, they’re now fighting for staffing minimums and a guaranteed number of workweeks.
Veteran writers say they’re concerned about not only their own livelihoods but those of up-and-comers who are not getting the full experience and pay they deserve. Those on strike are making the case for why the services they provide deserve a certain level of income and why more opportunity, not less, is vital for an industry that will rely more and more on the next generation as time goes on.
In striking, the WGA members are making it clear that they know their worth and want to be treated accordingly. They’re not willing to settle for less, and workers in other industries shouldn’t, either. The writers guild has given its members guidance to follow before signing on to mini-rooms, such as negotiating a specific pay rate and time period. No matter the sector, new hires, especially freelancers, should take care to ensure that any contract they sign reflects the pay they deserve and an agreed-upon duration.