Writers on the Line

On the Line
Unemployment Benefits for Striking Workers? We've Earned It!
Unions unite to support SB 799 at Amazon, a horrific night to raise awareness at Universal, and a Top Gun on the line at Warner Bros.
Friday, September 8, 2023

Dozens of Reasons to Support SB 799

WGAW member and Sony Assistant Lot Coordinator Kayla Westergard-Dobson at Unemployment Insurance: We've Earned It! rally at Amazon. Photo by J.W. Hendricks. 

Joining union siblings from SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, SEIU-UHW, SEIU-USWW, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LA Fed), WGAW held a special picket in support of a piece of legislation that, if passed, would give striking workers in California the ability to collect unemployment insurance (UI).

Thursday’s “Unemployment Insurance: We’ve Earned It” picket at Amazon Studios in Culver City featured speakers from the unions in support of SB 799 as well as a district representative from the bill’s primary author, California Senator Anthony Portantino. In addition to championing the fairness of receiving benefits that they have already paid into, SB 799 proponents noted that UI relief can help make a labor stoppage slightly more manageable.

In the past, UI has been an important resource to WGAW member Kayla Westergard-Dobson who has filed for UI to help cover the often year-long periods between writing jobs

“But a strike is different from a hiatus,” said Westergard-Dobson, an assistant lot coordinator at Sony. “None of us are eligible for this benefit despite being unable to work, and that’s a decision we were forced into. And I’m going broke. My savings have dwindled down to almost nothing.”

Westergard-Dobson listed the elements of her life that she has had to forego or defer, ranging from going to the dentist to taking her cat to the vet to replacing her car’s broken tail light. UI for striking writers and actors would also benefit the local economy since it would allow the strikers to eat at restaurants, pay mechanics or patronize local shops.

“Something as simple as unemployment wouldn’t just put money back into our pockets, but also into the community,” she said. “Without unemployment, I wouldn’t have been able to stick around in this industry between jobs, which is another hardship engineered by the studios. It would have been too great of a financial burden. But unemployment kept me here. It kept me going, and my story is not unique.”

Other speakers included SEIU United Healthcare Workers West member and speech pathologist LaRhonda Smith and SEIU United Service Workers West member and janitor Mario Marrufo as well as SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Ben Whitehair. Also speaking at Thursday's rally were WGAW President Meredith Stiehm and SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher, both of whom lobbied for the bill in Sacramento last week before the California State Assembly Insurance Committee. Stiehm read a portion of her speech to the Insurance Committee at Thursday's rally.

"People in Sacramento know what you’re doing, and they admire you and they support you," Stiehm told the crowd. 

Several speakers noted that similar benefits are already available to striking workers in New York and New Jersey, and that California needs to catch up.

“It’s shameful for the state of California to prohibit these workers from accessing UI benefits while they’re out on strike,” said Yvonne Wheeler, president of the LA County Federation of Labor. “You’ve earned these benefits, and you deserve to have them.”

The picket was an opportunity for leadership and representatives of other unions to reaffirm their support both of SB 799 and for the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Representing the California IATSE Council, IATSE International Vice President Thom Davis said that studio employers are well aware that striking Californian union members won’t have access to UI and factor that into their negotiating strategy.

“Make no mistake, they know that if we take this kind of an action, that we’re going to be denied the income that we’ve actually paid the taxes on in order to support ourselves and our families.”

Whitehair emphasized the importance of striking workers using their voices in support of legislation that could affect future striking workers as well as themselves.

“What you do here matters,” Whitehair said. “When you speak, when you vote, when your reach out to your representatives, it absolutely makes a difference. Unemployment insurance is here for people who are ready willing and able to work. That is what we want. We want to go back to work, but it is our employers who are preventing that.”

Attendees were given QR codes and encouraged to contact their legislators and Governor Gavin Newsom urging them to pass the bill.

Show your support for SB 799 by signing this petition.

Check out speeches from the rally.

L.A. County Federation of Labor President Yvonne Wheeler at Unemployment Insurance: We've Earned It! rally at Amazon. Photo by J.W. Hendricks. 

A Horrific Night to Raise Awareness 

Leaflets at the ready, WGAW members and volunteers are ready for action at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Night.

On a night when theme park-goers came to experience ghouls and scares, WGAW members provided a true tale of horror.

More than 30 WGAW members lined the entrances to Universal Studios Hollywood and went into Universal CityWalk Hollywood Thursday to hand out leaflets detailing the Guild’s fight with Universal. Thursday night marked the first evening of the park’s popular Halloween Horror Nights, drawing a sold-out crowd.

The strikers – and the leaflets – reminded park-goers that the rides, attractions and monsters they would be encountering at Halloween Horror Nights were created by WGA writers who are currently locked in a battle with NBC Universal and other AMPTP studios for a fair contract.

“We’re trying to make the customers of Universal Studios, the people who are most likely to come back, aware of our labor struggle,” said WGAW member Josh Campbell. “There are people in line [at the entrance] holding and reading the leaflets, which is awesome.”

For WGAW member Alberto Roldan, the Horror Night assignment was something of a homecoming. Roldan’s first job in L.A. was as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood. As a former employee of UNITE HERE in Chicago, he has picketed with UNITE HERE multiple times, both in the mid-west and in Hollywood including alongside hotel workers and theme park employees who were marching for better wages.

“The guests who come here tonight are the most hard-core fans of horror films,” Roldan said. “In horror, they love the people who created the stuff. That’s why I think we have such a receptive audience.”

WGAW members engage attendees at opening day of Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights.

A Top Gun on the Line

WGAW member Warner Bros. Strike Captain Jono Matt and WGAW and SAG-AFTRA member Glen Powell. Photo by Julia Johnson
Having returned from a recent trip home to his native Texas, WGAW and SAG-AFTRA member Glen Powell picketed at the Warner Bros. lot where his friend and writing partner Jono Matt is a Lot Captain.  

Powell – whose acting credits include hit films Hidden Figures and Top Gun: Maverick, as well as co-writing the upcoming film Hit Man, in which he stars – said that writing used to pay the bills before his success in acting. He joined WGAW seven years ago and has been a proud member ever since.

“Writing is, by far, the hardest profession in this town,” he said. “Especially when you work with the studios. There is no respect for writers and that’s why we have to demand it.”

“I’m so grateful to the WGAW for all its protections,” he added. “It’s a wonderful Guild. You can feel the solidarity. You can feel that it’s a Guild whose members protect each other which is super-important.”

Powell and Matt became acquainted when they sneaked into the Golden Globes together. Powell was a “plus one of a plus one” who was handed a ticket and Matt was a showrunner’s assistant.

“We were the only uninvited people at the Golden Globes,” Powell said. “But we found our way together, and we’ve been writing partners and the best of friends.”

Powell also credited Matt with providing regular updates on the strike when he couldn’t come to the lines.

“I feel like being on the same page as far as information is also super-helpful because it’s a time of uncertainty,” Powell said. “People are hurting and bleeding, and I think for us all to understand where the strike is and how we can remain strong is important.”

See Photos from the Week of September 4-8