Two strikes, two different courses of action.
In March, the union representing support staff in the Los Angeles Unified School District walked off the job, triggering a shutdown of one of the nation’s largest school systems. Six weeks later, the Writers Guild of America opened its strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, bringing TV and movie production to a halt.
The school workers were out for three days. During that time, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass summoned representatives of the two sides to City Hall and pushed the negotiations along. On March 23, Bass announced that the two sides had reached an agreement. Schools reopened the next day.
When the writers announced their strike at the beginning of May, Bass issued a two-sentence statement, affirming the importance of the entertainment industry to Los Angeles and encouraging “all sides to come together around an agreement that protects our signature industry and the families it supports.” Since then, the two sides have not even met, much less closed in on agreement.
The difference in the civic response is not because one strike matters to Los Angeles and one does not. Both affect core constituencies and the broader economy. But the way they are playing out says something about their places in the city’s political and cultural landscape.
When school workers walk — and teachers join — schools shut down. Parents are left without a place to send their kids. And it’s not a snow day. There’s no hot chocolate and sledding. Parents demand quick action. Mayors — even though they are not responsible for schools — respond to pressure from worried parents and demand action.
When writers strike, the effects are global but incremental. The late-night comedy shows go dark. Movies and television shows stop production. It’s obvious to a fan of Stephen Colbert anywhere on earth that something is amiss.
The local impact, however, is harder to discern, at least at first. Yes, thousands of writers put down their pens, but the deep effect of their strike is cumulative rather than instantaneous. It’s in the sets that are shut down, the actors put out of work, the caterers and carpenters and dry cleaners whose livelihoods slowly dry up.
And, further down the path, the stockbrokers and travel agents and hotel workers and real estate agents and on and on and on. Those people don’t work for the entertainment industry, and they are not feeling it yet, but as savings are depleted and income falls, they will.
And it will hit hard. During the last writers’ strike from November 2007 to February 2008, economists estimated that Los Angeles suffered more than $2 billion in lost output. A study by the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, calculated a drop of more than $800 million in retail sales alone. Some 38,000 jobs were lost — most of those outside of the entertainment industry.
This time, the impact is likely to be even greater, according to economists and others following events closely.
“This is a huge, huge problem,” said Kevin Klowden, chief global strategist for the Milken Institute. The last strike helped push California into a recession before the rest of the nation followed, he added, and this one is shaping up to be longer and more damaging.
“It could affect 300,000 workers,” said Todd Holmes, associate professor of entertainment media management at Cal State Northridge. Holmes, who predicted more than $3 billion in overall economic damage, added: “This is going to be a long fight.”
That’s because both sides have real reason for fear and obstinance. Producers still don’t see a long-term revenue model for the business, and writers are painfully conscious of being squeezed out of sustainable jobs and into piecework.
And yet, the strike ambles along in L.A. Picket lines are sparsely populated and more festive than furious. Mainstream news coverage — in notable contrast to the school strike — is relatively thin.
In part, that’s a media issue: The Los Angeles media is not what it was in 2008. But the strike’s dynamics also contribute, as do changes in the entertainment industry.
Start with the industry’s geography. Many writers are based in Los Angeles, but the productions that are affected by the strike are often far away — in New York or Atlanta or Canada, for instance. That affects the way politicians respond. It’s hard to get the attention of the mayor of Los Angeles when dry cleaners start shutting down in Atlanta.
And there is the daunting problem of complexity, which discourages outsiders from getting involved. The strike by school workers had its complexities, of course — all protracted labor disputes do. But there are truly bewildering questions at work in the writers’ strike.
Central to those are the effects of technology and new distribution models for entertainment. During the last strike, Apple and Amazon were not even participants, Klowden noted. Now, they are at the center of this bitter debate over the future profits from content.
That’s because as streaming services become the dominant way of accessing programming, writers are understandably concerned that they will be lost in transition. Streaming revenues are hard to pinpoint, while the effect in the writing room has been swift (and accelerated by COVID).
Shows that once hired a group of writers to produce 24 or 25 episodes now hire for eight or 10, and writers no longer have the guarantee of being employed by a show for its full run. Writing, which once rewarded talent and hard work with job security, now often merely opens the door to one-off deals, with the result being that many writers can no longer count on it as a living.
Add to that the immense uncertainty that comes with the growing use of generative artificial intelligence. Will studios create draft scripts using AI and then attempt to reduce writers to “punch-up” work? It’s easy — and horrifying — to imagine, but harder to draft contract language today that will assure human participation in script writing 10 years from now. Or five. Or one.
The combination of complexity, diffusion and delayed impact is enough to keep politicians out of the mix. It also may mean that this strike goes on for a very long time.
But if those dynamics thwart the efforts by strikers to drum up urgency, they do at least have the advantage of being, well, writers.
One picketer’s sign last week made that point. Beneath the sign’s telltale red-and-black banner, the enterprising contributor expressed his confidence in the cause: “Paulina Porizkova is dating a writer,” he wrote. “We can do anything!”
Try getting AI to come up with that.
Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.