By Kevin Sanson, co-editor of Voices of Labor: Creativity, Craft, and Conflict in Global Hollywood and Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor and the forthcoming Mobile Hollywood (Spring 2024)
More than 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are on strike. The work stoppage — the first in 15 years — started just after midnight on Tuesday, 2 May, when negotiations between the WGA and producers from the major studios and streaming platforms failed to reach an agreement for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Shortly after the WGA announcement, labor guilds in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom issued guidance to their own members, advising writers not to cross WGA picket lines. Messages further reminded members that the plight of their American colleagues is very much a shared fate with the strike’s ultimate outcome having immediate relevance beyond Southern California.
Such messages of solidarity and collective experience are much more than flash-in-the-pan proclamations ready-made for a quick Tweet. They are incredibly clear and critical indicators of the unprecedented level of global integration that now characterizes production, distribution, and labor in the film and television industries.
The various international entanglements at play in the WGA strike — union jurisdiction, contractual language, production practices, streaming media, national borders — simply underscore the messiness of labor action in an era when the economic and cultural geography of the media industries are so thoroughly globalized.
First, the big picture: Hollywood has fully embraced a mobile mode of production. Relocating to soundstages in Vancouver, London, and the Gold Coast in Australia, among other places, over the past two decades has stretched the social relations of production across a global community of screen media workers. In addition to bringing new work opportunities, it has introduced Hollywood work routines and production practices to places that more commonly worked at different scales and under distinctive creative regimes and legal frameworks. Global streaming platforms have only furthered this dynamic, especially as they displace domestic commercial broadcasters as the primary commissioners of local television drama.
Accordingly, it’s little surprise that the guilds share similar workplace grievances when their members now find themselves working for the same employers. Indeed, many of the most successful writers in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are members of the WGA and the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG), the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC), or the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB).
Whether they report to a US production or a domestic one, concerns coalesce around compensation and technology. Writers, especially in television, are working for lower rates, for shorter stretches of time, and with fewer writers hired per production. They also have emergent anxieties about the future role of artificial intelligence in the creative process.
But, the AWG, WGC, and WGGB are not on strike.
Members in those guilds are free to work for domestic broadcasters and other local productions outside the jurisdiction of the WGA. Further, their members are (technically) free to take up posts vacated by striking writers despite the guidance from their own guilds to the contrary. Legally, the WGA cannot discipline scabs who are not WGA members. They can, however, bar strikebreakers from future membership, which is likely a strong enough deterrent in the current environment for anyone with serious career aspirations.
For offshore productions, co-productions, and streaming shows, jurisdiction is often a matter of the legalese embedded into employment contracts. If the contract was made under US law regardless of its filming location, it likely falls within the jurisdiction of the WGA. Even a single production company can face incongruent impacts when it’s based in one country but is owned by a multinational firm located elsewhere (like Burbank) – all writing for its WGA productions must cease but “local” productions can proceed unfettered.
Such are the sign of the times: a rupture in one part of the ecosystem, especially one of its epicenters, is no longer a self-contained event but one with reverberations across much wider media terrain.