Thoughts on the Writers Guild Strike

February 25, 2008 | Insights

By Nancy Hamilton

The Writers Guild strike has been the talk of the industry and everyone else since it began when the writers put their “pens down” last November. In case you missed it, it was also topic “A” for Jon Stewart’s opening monologue at the Academy Awards.

In light of the writers’ return to work, I thought it would be interesting to get the viewpoint of one of them. I asked Adam Sztykiel, my son-in-law, to take pen in hand (figuratively) and jot down his thoughts for this month’s VIA Media postcard. Adam is an accomplished screenwriter whose credits include two major motion pictures to be released this summer: Made of Honor with Patrick Dempsey and The Rocker with Rainn Wilson (aka: Dwight from The Office). We’re glad he’s back to earning a living. We know he is too…

It’s an exciting time to be a screenwriter. I remember, as a kid, when my family first got cable television, my mind was blown by the idea of a hundred channels. How on earth could there be enough shows for a hundred channels? I thought. And now, with the Internet, we have a seemingly infinite canvas on which to create new content. A hundred channels feels like a spit in the ocean. But when it comes to entertainment on the Internet — specifically compensation for entertainment on the Internet — it’s a bit like the Wild West. Well, last November, the Writers Guild of America announced that there was a new sheriff in town and sought to bring some law and order to the web.

As a member of the Writers Guild of America I was a part of the strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that lasted from November 5 to February 12. I was at the guild meeting on November 2 where thousands of writers cheered in support of authorizing the strike, and I was at the meeting on February 9 where the same thousands cheered in support of ending it. And of course, most importantly, I was there for the 100 days in between, on strike, while our union’s negotiating committee had the unenviable position of trying to make a deal with eight, unified, multi-national corporations.

The Writers Guild showed the two most important elements of organized labor: solidarity and commitment to our cause.

I grew up in Detroit. When I think of a union, I think of the UAW. And when I think of a strike and a picket line, I think of burly, intimidating teamsters shutting down factories and drinking black coffee out of Styrofoam cups. So I’ll be the first to admit that the Writers Guild probably doesn’t fit Central Casting’s image of a union. Sure, we’re not the most physically intimidating bunch. And maybe, at times, our picket lines did look like an advertisement for Starbucks. And yes, it’s no surprise that our numbers on the lines swelled around ten a.m. every day — creative types aren’t always early risers. And where else could you have found picket signs with slogans like: “We write … they wrong!” or “No money, no funny!” or, my personal favorite, “Seriously, it’s harder than it looks to write the junk we do!”

However, over the three plus months of the strike, the Writers Guild showed the two most important elements of organized labor: solidarity and commitment to our cause. In this negotiation the major component of “our cause” was New Media. Basically, the Internet. (There is a fantastic video summary of the WGA’s position on You Tube called “Why We Fight.”)

Granted, solidarity during a strike isn’t always a given. No one likes to be out of work. But there was a universal understanding among writers that this was sea change moment in our industry. Like the rise of television in the ’50s, or cable and home video in the ’80s, we all realized that the Internet will change the way that people consume their entertainment, now and in the years to come. Just the other day I watched an entire episode of Lost on (with commercials, of course). Yesterday, I rented Michael Clayton on iTunes and then watched it via Apple TV. This morning someone emailed me a link to one of the funnier sketches from last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live. Companies are now producing mobisodes and webisodes — entertainment content specifically created for mobile phones and the Internet, respectively. The strike was to ensure that as entertainment continues to break out of its traditional mold, writers continue to get paid for their work.

At the aforementioned Writers Guild meeting on February 9, the WGA President, Patrick Varrone, announced to the guild members: “we have a deal.” After a standing ovation he went on to say, “And we are here to present it to you, warts and all.” No one is claiming that what our union was able to negotiate is perfect. There are a few members that view it as unacceptable. Most of us agree that it is certainly more than we would have been offered before the strike began and was worth the sacrifice. Perhaps the best summation of the deal was put forth by a group of WGA members in a statement in support of ratifying the contract: “We contend that this agreement is the beginning of a more equitable relationship with the AMPTP; we recognize that this relationship is a process — an ongoing creative and business collaboration.”

Beginning is the operative word. We are in the nascent stages of New Media…that’s why they’re calling it “new” I suppose. No one really knows how these emerging mediums will evolve, which is why it was so important that the Writers Guild negotiate as strong a deal as possible. Even if attaining that deal meant going on strike. Now writers have a vested interest in New Media. We have a dog in the hunt, as the saying goes. With a strong contract in place, with some semblance of law and order in the Wild West of the web, writers should be more excited than ever before about the infinite opportunities in this new frontier of entertainment.

— Nancy Hamilton is a partner at Jackson Walker. She can be reached at

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.