I can’t say that I’ve ever been quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, but there’s a first time for everything I guess.
Sadly, the topic wasn’t my objectively superior artistic choices. It was the impressive level of solidarity in the writers strike by other Hollywood unions.
Right now, Warren Leight — the veteran showrunner of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Writers Guild strike captain — is losing sleep to make sure a TV program doesn’t make it to air. He’s a key figure in his union’s pivot to embrace a more targeted picketing strategy, which seeks to shut down productions.
“This morning we had two dozen people at 2 a.m. out on the street, blocking Billions, which is metaphorically perfect,” he told The Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast on May 24, discussing a recent expansion from show-of-force protests at corporate headquarters to more disruptive actions meant to affect bottom lines and reorient power dynamics. The strategy change-up emerged from the membership’s rank and file, he says, although the guild brass now “realizes that this is a pretty powerful thing.”
Leight, drawing on connections from his long history as a TV writer and showrunner as well as his high profile on social media, has, along with a growing number of WGA counterparts, helped organize a series of successful labor actions — small groups assembling within hours, whose protest lines are often respected (and sometimes joined) by Teamsters, IATSE members and other sympathetic allies. The result is production shutdowns. “The whole idea is to empty the [content] pipeline,” he says.
The closures have crossed the country, from Loot and Good Trouble in Los Angeles to The Chi in Chicago and Evil in New York.
Multiple high-level executives who spoke with THR on the condition of anonymity used the same word to describe the guerrilla-style activities: “effective.” It’s prompted an ongoing cat-and-mouse game. Rapid-response units of WGA members mobilize to picket at studio gates and at location shoot sites based on tip-offs. Although L.A. location permits are public record (neighborhood filming notices are posted ahead of production, while production activity is released 48 hours after it has ended), at least some of the actionable information, especially the more last-minute intelligence, is originating from sympathetic members of other unions.
Picketing shifts often begin, end or persist overnight to ensure that their lines won’t be crossed. To counter these efforts, some productions have circulated call sheets featuring incorrect call times and, in the case of Billions, have bused crewmembers to set, potentially to ease their way across the picket lines and allow them some anonymity.
Regardless, labor experts observe that, for the writers and their guild, the shutdowns are more broadly about flexing their muscles, cultivating their alliances and lifting their spirits.
“It stops production, but it’s also a way to advertise strength and determination,” explains Georgetown professor Michael Kazin, who studies union power.
Adds University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes: “Keeping up morale is critically important. Otherwise, people slip away — they look for other work, they cross the picket line.”
City University of New York professor Joshua B. Freeman, a scholar of factory work, concurs. “Doing something as a group really maintains solidarity,” he says, and production shutdowns in the entertainment sector, requiring the cooperation of workers in other unions, reinforces camaraderie. “If you’re looking at the long-term power dynamic between these workers and these employers, a visible solidarity shows the employer that they’re not just taking on just one isolated group. They are taking on everyone.”
As Dougherty, the Hollywood Teamsters chief, puts it regarding tacit and overt support of the writers’ shutdown strategy, “It’s a sacrifice that everybody’s making because everybody wants the strike to end as fast as possible. That’s the hope — that the productions will all come back sooner, because these projects obviously are important to the employers.”