A Lesson for the AMPTP
Summer vacation may have started for much of the region, but school was every bit in session on the Warner Bros. picket lines Friday where WGA writers, UTLA teachers, SAG-AFTRA performers and CNA-NNU Nurses delivered a collective lesson to the corporate entities looking to oppress working families: take on union power at your peril.
At the multi-union picket, teachers from United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) – who recently secured their own contract – showed up in great numbers to show their solidarity for striking WGA writers. They shared the picket line with writers, producers, and actors from the hit comedy Abbott Elementary, which is set in a Philadelphia public school.
“When we talk about labor, what they’re doing to teachers, they’re doing to writers right now,” said Abbott Elementary executive producer and WGAW Board member Justin Halpern. “We love what we do, and they leverage that against us, and we’re not going to allow it anymore.”
Although the film and television and education sectors may seem different, members of both unions say that there is plenty of common ground. Writers and teachers alike know how it feels not to be paid their fair value. Both UTLA and WGA have held work stoppages during their histories that galvanized the surrounding community and resulted in major contract gains. At Friday’s picket, many WGA members picketed alongside spouses and/or immediate family members who are UTLA teachers.
In between picketing, the marchers heard speeches from WGAW Assistant Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Ellen Stutzman, UTLA Vice President of Elementary Schools Gloria Martinez and Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Jackie Goldberg who praised WGA writers for shining a light on the threat of AI.
“This is a struggle about the future of what we think creativity is,” said Goldberg, a former Los Angeles City Councilperson and member of the state assembly. “It’s a future about machines vs. humans, and humans need to win this war, and the writers’ strike is pointing that out. They are making the whole country aware of the issue. That’s one of the things a strike does. It creates awareness.”
Lisa Ann Walter, who plays a teacher on Abbott Elementary, is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA who also serves on her union’s negotiating committee as SAG-AFTRA is also trying to win a fair contract from the AMPTP. Both the daughter and the mother of a teacher, Walters told UTLA members that she was honored to stand with members of both UTLA and WGA.
“There are things that [the WGA] is fighting that are not just about the writing community, and not just about the entertainment industry,” Walter said. “It is about dignity and fairness for workers everywhere in this country.”
Two Unions, One Family on the Picket Lines
Should she ever need to discuss the finer points of a strike action, WGAW member Danielle Weisberg has a valuable resource easily available, her mother Amy. Entering her 44th year as a public school teacher in the fall, Amy Weisberg is a proud member of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
“At this point, my knowledge of unions feels innate,” Danielle said. “I went to public schools from kindergarten through college, and my mother has been in a union for longer than I have been alive.”
“My mother was in the union as well,” added Amy. “She was there when UTLA formed with the 1970 strike.”
With Amy wearing her UTLA red and Danielle in her blue WGA T-shirt, mother and daughter joined the joint WGA and UTLA picket Friday at Warner Bros. The Weisbergs picketed in support of the WGA strike and also as fans of the series Abbott Elementary, a show with a history of raising awareness and support for public schools.
“We love them,” Dannielle said. “I’ve been coming out to the picket lines every day, but I’m especially excited to be at Warner Bros. today.”
Danielle joined the Guild in 2021 after working for many years as a writers assistant. The episode of The Simpsons that qualified her for Guild membership won a Writers Guild Award. But the gap between broadcast and streaming residuals that she earns from that episode are illustrative of why WGA writers are on strike.
“My Q2 residuals were $2,000 and, $2 of that was from streaming,” said Danielle. “My episode is on a streaming network 24/7. So it’s really a stark difference in livability, and another huge problem.”
Danielle also cited the dangers of mini-rooms that have boxed out lower level writers and the fear that writers may one day be hired to make ChatGPT scripts sound like they were written by a human being.
“We’re trying to keep the middle class dream alive and trying to keep TV as a medium alive,” Danielle said. “That’s why we’re out here.”
As a veteran of two previous UTLA strikes in 1989 and 2019, Amy Weisberg sees common ground in the principles of her daughter’s fight. UTLA has also fought against a structure where high-level administrators make exorbitant salaries while teachers and lower level staff had to fight for a living wage.
“My poor aide is making like $16 an hour, and she works her butt off, so [during the recent SEIU demonstration] we came out to support them,” said Amy Weisberg. “We also feel that with teachers, we’re always at the bottom. There are always these administrators making a ton of money. We don’t really get priority with the budget or transparency with the budget decisions get made without our input, so there are similarities that way.”
After working nine years as an assistant, Danielle was gratified to have put away enough in savings that she can afford to be on the picket lines.
“Again, that’s the problem with the small staff sizes and not being able to promote from within,” she said. “I just started making a living wage last year, and if I didn’t have episodes of TV that I had been assigned to write, I would have nothing in my savings account after nine years. I have a little cushion, but a lot of assistants I know have to get part-time jobs now in order to wait out the strike.”
A Resource for All Entertainment Workers in Crisis
Recently appointed as the chair of the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly The Actors Fund), Bening praised the work of the organization which distributed more than $20 million in emergency funding during the pandemic. With people in all sectors of the industry affected by the WGA strike, the ECF remains an important resource that people can access, she said.
ECF services include crisis counseling, housing assistance, health insurance, support groups, and emergency financial assistance. Since the strike began, WGA members and other donors have raised more than $2.5 million in emergency support for the entertainment community.
“We are a social services organization that serves everybody in show business, and we know that this time is critical,” Bening said. “So many people are out of work. Many writers are out of work, obviously, but in our business, a lot of our stagehands, our background people, our costumers, our designers, and our crew people are out of work.”
Prior to take over as ECF's leader, Bening served for many years on the organization’s Board of Directors alongside WGA Negotiating Committee Co-Chair Chris Keyser who joined Bening marching with WGA writers at Paramount along with WGAW President Meredith Stiehm. In addition to reminding people that the ECF is available to help those in need, Keyser also made a pitch for people to donate to the fund if they have the means.
Keyser also thanked fellow unions like SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters whose members have marched with WGA writers in unity since the strike began.
“Everybody is hurting everywhere,” Keyser said. “We want to be able to say that we understand and we are there for you. We cannot make it OK, but we can make it better, and we hope at least in that gesture that we foster a sense of community among ourselves and between us and other guilds and unions.”
Bening expressed her strong support of writers. With SAG-AFTRA currently in negotiations with the AMPTP, she urged her Guild’s leadership to stand strong in its quest for a fair deal as the writers have done.
“I started in the theater, and in the theater, we know that the writers are king, because we’re just interpreters,” Bening said.
To apply for services ECF services, click here. To donate to the ECF, click here.