Writers on the Line

On the Line
Striking Workers Deserve Unemployment Insurance
Meredith Stiehm lobbies Sacramento in support of a UI bill for strikers, L.A. bestows commendations on the WGAW and SAG-AFTRA, and disabled writers and actors ramp up the solidarity at Disney
Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Stiehm Stumps in Sac-Town

WGAW President Meredith Stiehm, SB 799 author/Senator Anthony Portantino, and SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher.

Carrying the support of the WGAW and echoing the labor community at large, WGAW President Meredith Stiehm visited the state capitol to advocate for a bill that, if passed, would provide striking workers in California access to the unemployment insurance (UI) benefits they’ve already paid into.

Addressing the California State Assembly Insurance Committee in Sacramento, Stiehm called UI a safety net that could serve as a lifeline to striking workers.

“Writers have had to rely on strike loans from our union, donations, philanthropy, and second and third jobs to pay for their basic needs since May 2,” Stiehm told the committee.

“Four months without work is emotionally brutal and financially disastrous,” Stiehm added. “I’m proud to report that our members have held strong and kept their resolve throughout this long hot labor summer, but they are suffering.”

Senate Bill 799, authored by Senator Anthony J. Portantino, Assemblymember Chris Holden and Senator Maria Elena Durazo, would give striking workers access to UI. Similar benefits are already available to workers in New York and New Jersey.

"It’s time for California to catch up and meet the demands of the time," Stiehm said. "Writers are the present-day example of workers who could greatly benefit from UI, but we’re really here for the workers in the future who will need this protection if they make the difficult decision to go on strike."     

The bill has the backing of more than 41 unions as well as the California Labor Federation. After passing the Assembly Insurance Committee Thursday, the Legislature has until September 14, to send the bill to the Governor’s desk.

Watch WGAW President Meredith Stiehm's testimony

Labor Day Love from the City

Netflix lot captain Jasmyne Peck (at center in blue shirt) receives a commendation on behalf of the WGAW from the City of Los Angeles (WGAW Political Director Rachel Torres is at far left).

The WGAW headed into Labor Day weekend with some recognition from the City of Los Angeles.

Standing alongside representatives from multiple unions throughout Los Angeles, the WGAW and SAG-AFTRA received city commendations from L.A. City Councilmembers Tim McOsker and Hugo Soto-Martinez in honor of Labor Day.

“We have come to a place in the city of LA where even having a union job does not put you in the middle class,” said Soto-Martinez, a longtime union organizer before he joined the Council. “We see writers, we see actors, we see dancers in North Hollywood all saying the same thing: ‘We don’t get paid enough. We do not have respect. We do not make enough to live in this very expensive city,’ and so that’s why we’re seeing this level of solidarity.”

As they addressed the Council Netflix Lot Captain Jasmyne Peck noted that the significance of the Labor Day holiday goes beyond a day off and store sales.

“It’s a commemoration and honor of the shoulders on which we stand,” Peck told the Council. “Textile workers, trade unionists, and coal miners, like many of my relatives in West Virginia. Without them, none of us would have the few protections we benefit from as workers under a system that is constantly working to whittle those protections away.”

More than 120 days into the strike, Peck said people can still find the “strength, ferocity, and passion of this Guild” on full display on the picket lines.

“You will find us no less motivated to win our fair contract,” they said. “We demand to share in the fruits of our own labor, as should be the right of every individual.”

Ramping Up Solidarity 

The Ramping Up picket at Disney. Photo by J.W. Hendricks.

Joining with their fellow advocates in SAG-AFTRA, the WGAW’s Disabled Writers Committee started the Labor Day weekend with a “super-charged” rally and picket designed to bring awareness to the disability community.

Titled “Ramping Up: A Cross-Union Picket for Disabled Artists,” the dual union special picket at Disney last Thursday featured guest speakers, food trucks and other donations. In addition to drawing hundreds in person, the picket featured live streamed coverage both of the rally remarks and interviews of attendees to allow supporters who could not attend  in person to participate. One of the donations to help sponsor the picket came from WGAW creator-showrunner Vince Gilligan, whose series Breaking Bad featured a major character played by an actor with cerebral palsy.    

By including such components as ASL interpreters, vegan and gluten-free food options and live-streaming, organizers hope to achieve two objectives, said DWC Co-Chair David Radcliff.

“We hope that collectively by getting a bunch of disabled writers and actors and their allies together in person, we’re able to share stories and figure out how to make this industry more equitable and inclusive and safe,” Radcliff told Writers on the Line. “We also want to send a message to other pickets that live streaming and all of these other things we can do to make pickets more inclusive are possible.”

“We did this on a very limited budget and in very limited time,” he continued. “So, if we can do this for this picket, it speaks well for what the industry can do at large with the resources it has if it chooses.”

SAG-AFTRA member Angel Giuffria, who conducted live-streamed interviews with attendees about the reasons why they were striking, said that the present moment is a key time to talk about including disability in all discussions about equity and inclusion.

“In the last few years, there has been a push from the community especially, and we’ve also gotten a lot of organizations interested to help promote our cause of inclusivity, whether it’s in writers’ rooms behind the camera, or with actors,” Giuffria said, “because we’re an important community that should be included and represented accurately and authentically.”

On a practical level, Disney proved to be a good location for a picket focusing on disability, said Katherine Beattie, a WGAW member and Disney lot captain who uses a wheelchair. The lot draws heavy traffic, but with its wide sidewalks and ample shade, Disney is easy to navigate.

“It’s a little challenging because we do want to keep the sidewalks clear, not only for the safety of our disabled picketers, but of every picketer in general,” Beattie said. “We’ve got people with mobility devices, and people that are utilizing interpreters that take up more space, so we’re just trying to keep the traffic flowing and encourage people to stop by our event, but then continue on their loop around the lot.”

Emceed by SAG-AFTRA Negotiating Committee member Nicole Cyrille, the rally included remarks from several performers within the disabled community. Speakers included Burbank Mayor Konstantine Anthony – who has been diagnosed with autism – and able-bodied actor Bren Green who said he has reflected on the damage he may have caused by playing a wheelchair-bound character in the series The Inspectors.

“I didn’t realize eight years ago the harm that might come to a certain community. I didn’t realize how ignorant I was,” Green said. “So I’m here standing in solidarity with these performers with disabilities. I think they should have a chance to get in the room and continue to show off their amazing abilities.”

Ramping Up picket organizers at Disney. Photo by J.W. Hendricks.