Writers on the Line

On the Line
Striking Up a Tune
Chad Fiveash rocks the picket line with his custom strike guitar, and labor activist/radio host Matt Muchowski brings the strike’s message back home to Chicago
Friday, August 11, 2023

Strike Strings

WGAW member Chad Fiveash and his strike guitar.

As he looked back at some photos from the 2007-08 strike, WGAW member Chad Fiveash came across a picture of himself amidst a group of people squatting down and wailing away and doing an air guitar move on a WGA strike sign.

Then the idea struck: why not create the genuine article for the 2023 strike.

“I thought, ‘Wait, I know how to actually build that,’ recalled Fiveash. “I told my writing partner and he said, ‘Well, you should do it.’ I was like, ‘This is a work stoppage. I’m not going to spend any money. I have all the parts.’ I went to Anawalt Lumber, bought a piece of pine and basically just Bo Diddley-ed a strike guitar.”

The first thing people on the picket lines invariably ask Fiveash is whether his guitar actually plays. To which the reply is, 'Yes, it does,' often with Fiveash hooking up a small amp and launching into a rendition of “Purple Haze” or “Hot for Teacher.” A guitarist since high school, Fiveash has built several instruments, a few of which he has given away to people he has worked with.

The strike guitar took him about three weeks to assemble. Much like a script, he says, it needed some rewrites, from switching out the maple that was originally going to be the body (“the thing was heavier than Thor’s hammer to pick up”) to adding a whammy board and a pickup underneath the letting.

“There was no way I was going to cover up the word ‘strike,’ because then what’s the point,” said Fiveash. “But the pine sounds really good, the pickups are good, and actually it kind of sounds better than it has any business sounding.”

Fiveash built the guitar as a conversation starter, but also as an instrument of discontent, an example of what a writer might be driven to when he is sitting in his garage with too much time on his hands.

“If it helps to get the word out, great. If I get to meet somebody on the strike line who is like, ‘Oh my god, that guy made a strike sign out of a guitar or a guitar out of a strike sign,' then yeah so be it,” he said. “It was also fueled a little bit by anger, because I was like, “They really, really should be treating the writers better.’ So I’ll make a determined strike symbol that I can also play a really crappy version of Purple Haze on.”

A Guild member since 1999, he and his writing partner James Stoteraux, have written and produced on series ranging from Switched at Birth, The Vampire Diaries, and Gotham Knights which he and Stoteraux co-developed and executive produced.

The 2023 strike is an existential battle, said Fiveash.

“I think this is about whether we can still be writers in two years, three years, probably less,” he said. “Writing has been absolutely devalued, and I think that the studios in their craven need to make more profit, and squeeze absolutely anywhere that they can, are going to kill this business.”

Fiveash said he became a writer out of a love of telling stories. The idea that his daughter might come to him with the same dream fills him with terror.

“Because I see what the companies and studios are trying to do to writers, just absolutely making it kind of a gig job,” said Fiveash. “That, to me, is untenable. To just chip away at the people who make you so much money is just insane.”

Anybody In From Out of Town? Dispatches from Chicago

AFGE activist Matt Muchowski at Sony.

When he arrived at the WGA and SAG-AFTRA picket lines, labor activist Matt Muchowski brought messages of his own union’s support. When he returned to Chicago, he took those feelings back to the Windy City and to the airwaves to his Lumpen Radio listeners who, like Muchowski, “give a shit” about union solidarity.

By day, Muchowski is the legislative and political organizer for District 7 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing District 7 (Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin). He also hosts the bi-weekly radio show “Who Gives a S#!+?” on Lumpen Radio. Traveling to Hawaii for a conference last week, he and his wife made a point of returning by way of L.A. so he could conduct interviews on the WGA and SAG-AFTRA picket lines for an upcoming segment on his radio program.

“We’ve been on some of the picket lines in Chicago, but clearly L.A. is so much bigger with that,” he said. “I was listening to a radio program, and they were talking about a new poll that showed how many people support the writers and actors on strike. As much as the corporations want to paint the strike one way, I think most people are seeing right through that and understand that these are just working-class people.”

During the days that he spent at Sony and Fox, Muchowski interviewed striking writers as well as AFM musicians, Canadian actors, and a state assemblymember who authored a single-payer healthcare bill, among others. Muchowski already knew that support for striking writers and actors was widespread, but his time spent talking to picketers on the lines at Fox and Sony made the realization that much more dramatic.

“Someone told me that there was a person from an Elevator Operators Union who was in L.A. for his vacation, and he showed up wanting to show their support and solidarity,” said Muchowski. “That’s what’s so great about union people. It’s all about sticking up for each other. The big companies may be organized. We just have to out-organize them.”

Muchowski saw parallels between the entertainment workers and members of his own union. He harkened back to 2019 when AFGE members working for the TSA, the VA, and the EPA had to continue working without pay during the shutdown of the federal government in 2019.  

“Our AFGE members were struggling to pay their bills, and making difficult decisions about what they could and could not afford,” said Muchowski. “So many of the people who make our entertainment are also working-class people. And they do so much more than just entertainment. They’re telling stories about people’s lives, stories that can change people’s lives and can inspire people to change society.

“It’s a shame that these big corporations prioritize their greed over the people who make this wonderful art,” he added.

See Photos From the Week of August 7-11.