On Wednesday, when the clock struck 12:01 a.m., the second-longest strike in WGA history came to a close. A tentative deal, announced on Monday, was ratified in two days, but the changes to the contract were years in the making.
Screenwriter John August, has worked in the industry for almost three decades, and spent the last few months chronicling the strike on his podcast Scriptnotes. “Some of the issues that we have addressed in this contract have gone back to 1996,” he tells GQ. “Things like a guaranteed second step and accelerated pay, which is where if you’re being paid below a certain amount you get 50% upfront, but then you get 25% after nine weeks, would’ve made a huge difference for me.
“So often in my early career I was waiting and waiting and waiting to finally be paid for a project. Screenwriting is one of the businesses where you have to rely on someone’s generosity to actually cut you that check if they owe you. So, this new deal will be a huge game changer for writers who are in my position.”
After 148 days of sweltering summer days on picket lines and in tense negotiation rooms, August talked to GQ to explain the new agreement: “We’re a different guild than we were 15 years ago, the last time we were out on strike, and we were ready to show it.”
GQ: What was your experience like in the negotiation process?
John August: The negotiating committee started meeting late last year. The process started with surveying our members to make sure we were focusing on their priorities. Then we dropped proposals, had a bunch of member meetings for our ambitious agenda. We had to prepare members for the fact that we might need to go on strike even though we hoped not to.
What were most people in the industry expecting the outcome to be?
Once the actors went out on strike and they joined us on picket lines, I think there was a good sense around town that the studios needed to come back to us with a serious offer and really address all of our concerns. So that process started in August. We finished in September, but even as we announced the deal on Sunday, we said it was exceptional. People were like, is it exceptional? And then when we released the details yesterday, we saw that no, it truly is exceptional. We really did make gains for all of our members across all of our working areas.
What changed in recent weeks? Why did a deal come together now?
From the start of negotiations, the studios were trying a very old playbook, which was to see the absolute minimum they could get away with, turn the unions against each other, make us seem unreasonable—and at every step we didn’t follow their rules. The other unions held together in solidarity with us in ways we’d never seen before. Ultimately, it took the CEOs stepping in directly and negotiating with us to get the deal done. That went around the old power structure of the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).
What made this strike different from the previous one?
There’s a couple of factors. First off, the cross-union solidarity was incredible and, I would say, unexpected. We’ve been built into this moment for a couple of years. Our membership is younger and more diverse than it’s ever been before. We have members who are really used to the protest moment. They’re used to being out on the streets and fighting for what they believe in.
Were there any concessions writers had to make?
If you look at the three-column sheet that we published last night, you see this is our original ask. We didn’t get everything we said on that left-hand column, but we got those important protections we needed. Dollars are crucial, so we raised minimums across the board, not to the level we initially set out to, but to ways that are going to be much more sustainable. But there were other fundamental things we were fighting for in this contract—minimum number of writers in a writers room, protections on AI, a guaranteed second step for screenwriters who are working at a certain pay level.
If you’re a staff writer on a TV show, you weren’t guaranteed. You paid your script fee if you delivered a script for that show. And so there were writers who were missing out on payments of $20,000, $30,000. We got that for them. We’re one of the few industries where you have teams working together. So, two writers who are working together, they’re splitting a salary, but then also they were splitting their health and pension benefits. That was unsustainable. Neither writer was hitting the levels they needed to hit. So we decided if you’re a writing team, both members get paid fully out on their health and pension. That’s bookkeeping stuff, but it’s a fundamental change for those writers. It makes the career sustainable.
This is the second-longest strike in WGA history. Did you notice morale starting to sag at any point?
Our turnout on the last day of the strike was as high as the turnout of the first date strike. We had just tremendous enthusiasm throughout. We had incredible spirit and enthusiasm the entire time through and that only accelerated once the actors were out on strike with us. There was criticism at a certain point, like, Oh, they’re having too much fun on the picket line. And I think it’s important to remember that celebration in midst of adversity is a form of protest.
Social media was also a big factor in this strike that obviously wasn’t present for the others. How did it help and hurt? There were often a lot of writers engaging with people who were asking—and sometimes trolling—about the concept of residuals and getting paid continuously for past work.
If you pick a fight with 11,000 of the best writers in the world, you’re going to have a challenge on your hands, especially when it comes to social media. We were really good about reaching out to news organizations, international groups, governmental legislative bodies to make sure that everyone was understanding our story and what we were fighting for. Also, we had solidarity with unions outside the entertainment industry. As hotel workers went on strike, we joined them on picket lines. As flight attendants went on strike, we joined. We made sure that this is part of a larger conversation about labor in America and not just writers.
How were the AI terms decided?
AI issues were on the WGA radar early on because a few members, including myself, saw early experiments with this well before ChatGPT. People were trying to see whether you could get these new AI systems to generate something that looks like a screenplay. Clearly these things train with our material and while those first efforts were really rudimentary, we needed to make sure that the better version did not become a threat for us.