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Hollywood is staring down the barrel of a double strike

What happens if everybody walks off the job?

Crowds of people holding pro-union signs.
Demonstrators hold signs while picketing during the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 2023.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Editor’s note, June 30, 10:57 pm ET: On June 30, the day the SAG-AFTRA contract was set to expire, the guild announced that the negotiation had been extended to July 12. On June 23, the DGA voted to approve its contract with AMPTP; 41 percent of the guild’s membership voted, and 87 percent of voters ratified. WGA remains on strike.

Editor’s note, June 6, 10:30 am ET: On June 3, DGA leadership announced it had reached a tentative contract agreement, which has not yet been ratified by the guild’s membership. On June 5, two days ahead of the start of bargaining, SAG-AFTRA membership voted by an overwhelming 97.91 percent margin to authorize a strike, a move designed to give them leverage at the bargaining table. WGA remains on strike.

Our original story, published on June 2, follows.

The Hollywood writers strike marked its one-month anniversary on Friday, with no signs of slowing down. While other guilds in the industry are still on the job — except when they’re blocked by picket lines — the writers may soon get company on those picket lines.

Two other major entertainment guilds, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), also entered the summer with looming contract expiration dates. Both groups’ agreements with AMPTP, the trade association that represents the industry’s film and TV production companies, end on June 30. A lot could happen between now and then, but the situation is looking dicey.

All of that means that come July 1, the studios may be facing a double or even triple strike, in effect shutting Hollywood down completely.

The DGA rarely strikes — the last time was in 1987 — and its leadership has not called for a strike authorization vote. But its relations with the AMPTP have been trickier than usual. Negotiations began on May 10, with demands that in part mirror the WGA’s concerns. The main sticking point is wage and residual increases that keep in step with rising costs of living. In particular, lower residuals for shows on streaming services, where the lion’s share of entertainment now lives, have wreaked havoc for many people in the industry, drastically reducing compensation and making it increasingly difficult to just pay the bills.

A protester holds a sign with a cartoon of people speaking on one side and Mickey Mouse caught in a spring trap on the other. The caption reads, “I warned him not to cross the picket line.”
A rally at 30 Rock in New York.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In the past, the DGA has sometimes managed to make an agreement with AMPTP ahead of the start of bargaining, effectively setting a pattern for the WGA and SAG-AFTRA to follow in their own demands. Last November, the DGA sent a “pre-negotiation” offer to the AMPTP, seeking resolution ahead of bargaining. The AMPTP reportedly rejected the DGA’s proposal, meaning both parties came to the bargaining table without an arrangement.

The situation seemed to intensify due to an unforced error. On May 23, Warner Bros. Discovery launched Max, its newly rebranded streaming platform, which had previously been named HBO Max. Eagle-eyed observers noticed that in listed credits, the platform lumped writers, directors, producers, and so on into one category labeled “creators.” Aside from the queasy implications that the greatest works of cinema and television were just “content,” the choice on the company’s part ran afoul of hard-fought contract regulations regarding credits for artists.

It was a weird choice, and one that set blood boiling in Hollywood. The presidents of the WGA and the DGA issued a rare joint statement, with DGA president Lesli Linka Glatter noting, “The devaluation of the individual contributions of artists is a disturbing trend and the DGA will not stand for it. We intend on taking the strongest possible actions, in solidarity with the WGA, to ensure every artist receives the individual credit they deserve.”

By the end of the day, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it would modify how credits were listed on the platform in compliance with its preexisting contract agreement with the unions. Yet the strong language indicated that the DGA was ready to play hardball.

Meanwhile, members of SAG-AFTRA have been vocally supportive of the WGA. This is no shock, since on top of the same issue of residuals and wages, the union — which includes, in addition to film and TV actors, people who work in radio, singers, voice actors, influencers, models, and other media professionals — is concerned about the existential threat posed by AI and other technologies. Even before the WGA’s strike began, SAG-AFTRA issued statements regarding how the use of AI could eliminate or greatly reduce work for its members.

Members of SAG-AFTRA have shown up on picket lines to support the writers, and the star power posed by some of its most prominent members helps bring attention to the WGA’s strike. It’s also an effort to remind the studios that when their own negotiations begin, they’re ready for a fight. Underlining that implicit statement, the leadership of SAG-AFTRA unanimously agreed to ask its membership for a strike authorization vote, which concludes this coming Monday, June 5. That’s a move designed to signal solidarity to the AMPTP ahead of negotiations.

Someone in a crowd holds a sign that says, “I suggest a new strategy: Let the unions win!”
Demonstrators at the WGA strike on May 26 in LA.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

It’s clear that all of Hollywood’s unions — not just the three with expiring contracts — are working together to show solidarity. Both IATSE, which represents Hollywood’s “below-the-line” workers (everyone from grips to craft services to first aid to electricians), and the Teamsters (who drive trucks, wrangle animals, manage locations, and a lot more) are authorized by their leadership to refuse to cross picket lines, and have made that choice throughout the writers strike. DGA and SAG members have frequently refused as well.

The DGA’s negotiations are set to end on June 7, the same day SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations begin. Knowing this, on May 31, the leaders of the Teamsters, IATSE, WGA, and SAG-AFTRA issued a joint statement supporting the DGA in their negotiations, declaring that “as eyes around the world again turn towards the negotiation table, we send a clear message to the AMPTP: Our solidarity is not to be underestimated.”

When writers go on strike, some of the industry can still operate, provided their workers are willing to cross picket lines. (Due to available personnel, the WGA also can’t picket every production, and thus chooses strategically.) But if the DGA or SAG-AFTRA walks off the job — or both — then productions will shut down across the board. Hollywood would grind to a halt.

Here’s what’s most significant about all of this: All three unions have never gone on strike at the same time, in the history of Hollywood. The fact that this scenario is possible, even likely, emphasizes how extraordinary this moment is in the entertainment business. Technology has always been a major driver in labor negotiations. But the major companies’ use of streaming services, and their demonstrated interest in cutting out humans through the use of tech, poses an existential threat to everyone who makes the TV, movies, and other scripted entertainment that brings in billions of dollars every year. The question, at this juncture, is whether there’s a future for Hollywood at all — or whether entertainment will be swallowed whole by the tech industry. For Hollywood’s artists and craftspeople, that’s a fate worth fighting against.

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