Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
The Writers Guild of America, which includes some 11,000 writers in film, television, radio, and online media, is entering the third week of a work stoppage. It's the first time they've hit the picket lines in 15 years. The strike has shut down a number of high-profile productions already, including major late-night talk shows, Saturday Night Live, and the final season of Stranger Things. The Takeaway spoke with a member who has been on the picket lines in Los Angeles.
Monice Mitchell Simms: We need a living wage. We need to be able to survive. We need to be able to eat and care for our families, and know that this is a career that's sustainable. At the moment, it isn't. It is not sustainable. Hi, I'm Monice Mitchell Simms. I'm a TV writer, screenwriter, author, producer, and a member of the Writers Guild.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Monice has been a screenwriter for 26 years. Recently, she got her first TV staff writing job, writing for All the Queen's Men, on BET+.
Monice Mitchell Simms: You might sell a screenplay for six figures, and then you don't sell anything else for another 10 years, or you might work on a TV show, and you're doing really well, for however long that TV show's on the air, but then you don't work again for another two years, or three years. It's really difficult being a creative person in Hollywood when you're not being paid and not being supported for your work. I totally understand why we're striking.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Among the demands of the writers are higher wages, better residuals, and assurances of how AI may be used.
Monice Mitchell Simms: I think a lot of times, us as writers, we don't realize that we're part of a community, because we're just working so hard, with our heads down, trying to get the pages done. For me, it has been a great reminder that I'm not alone in this industry.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Monice hopes that the solidarity and support she's found during the strike goes beyond those moments.
Monice Mitchell Simms: We've all worked hard for this. We all have sacrificed for this. I don't think people really understand how valuable it is, what we do. Stories make the world go round. Stories allow you to escape. Stories allow you to grow. I believe that what we do is so important to the world, and we should be protected. We should be paid for what we're doing, because we're doing a real service here. It's not just art. It's really helping society.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Our gratitude to Monice Mitchell Simms, for sharing with us. Joining us now, to talk more about the WGA strike, is Alex Press, labor reporter and staff writer at Jacobin Magazine. Alex, thanks for coming on The Takeaway.
Alex Press Press: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You've been reporting on this. What are you hearing from the writers who are striking?
Alex Press Press: Much the same of what we just heard in that clip. There's really remarkable unity on the picket lines, and also among the broader WGA membership, that this is really an existential strike, as the union itself has put it, about what the future of these jobs will look like. Will they be these middle-class jobs, as for remarkably stable professions, given how unstable Hollywood is, or will they be gigafide, as some writers have put it?
Will they become just another gig, like any other one, that only the very top, most successful writers can expect to be a reliable source of income, and for everyone else, that dream will go up in smoke? It'll just be one thing they did one time, before they moved on to something more stable.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, quick pause. We'll have more on the Writers Guild strike right after this.
You're back with us, and we'll continue our conversation at the strike, organized by the Writers Guild of America. With 15 years since the last strike, there have been some pretty dramatic changes in the world of writing, AI being among them.
Alex Press: Yes, of course. AI is still a dream or a nightmare, depending on who you ask, out in this industry. It's not clear that the material AI produces can even be copyrighted, because, of course, AI is just regurgitating what it's been fed, which the writers will point out is their work. Yet, when the WGA proposed to have some regulation of any potential future AI use, their particular proposal said that AI can't write or rewrite literary material, or be used as source material.
They don't want writers having to tend to AI as part of their job. The studios refused that. Their counteroffer was annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology, which amounts to nothing. That is certainly one of the big points of disagreement here. It's important for people to know that these negotiations, especially with the writers, every time they happen, often, it's about new technology and new media.
One of the tasks of the writers' unions is to try to figure out what potential uses technology that's just coming online now could be used for, going forward. When they struck in 2007-2008, which was the last writer strike, it lasted for 100 days. New media was a key point of contention among the two sides. It's something that the writers held out for, to have that work, what is now streaming, covered under their jurisdiction.
Obviously, the writers are very glad that they did that. 15 years on, new media has become, rather than this idea that people were toying around with, now it is dominating the industry. The technology is always changing, and the writers have to try to forecast how it's going to be used.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there other lessons from that strike that have been well learned in this one?
Alex Press: How people are talking about AI now speaks to the fact that, really, this idea of trying to figure out how new technology that might seem fantastical right now could be used to undermine the conditions that they've worked very hard to build in the industry. That's a key one. The other thing about the 2007-2008 strike was that there was this sense of real unity among the membership. Hollywood unions might seem strange to the outside person.
You have these superstars and household names, alongside people who maybe just got their first gig in the industry, and who might be in their early 20s, say. They're all members of the same union, so building that unity is very difficult. In 2007, part of how the writers won what they did win was making a point to try to bridge those divides. You see it very clearly in this strike, already. The superstars are on the picket line.
You have some well-known names in the bargaining room, on the WGA negotiating committee. You also have an effort to try to bring people together, in a way that I think is particularly important in this negotiation, because a lot of the proposals that WGA has put forward are about the idea that they need a community.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Alex Press is labor reporter and staff writer at Jacobin Magazine. Alex, thanks for taking the time with us on The Takeaway today.
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