At midnight on May 1, the Writers Guild of America’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expired, and WGA’s members went on strike. The union’s last strike, which happened 15 years ago, lasted for 100 days and dealt a $2.1 billion blow to California’s economy, Reuters reported. This time around, on July 14, following several weeks of failed negotiations, SAG-AFTRA—a union made up of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists—went on strike as well. The actors’ and writers’ unions haven’t been on strike at the same time since 1960.
“Everyone needs to be in a union,” says Elaine Aronson, a scriptwriter, producer and showrunner. “Unions are needed to protect people.” Aronson, who has been a member of WGA for 35 years, has worked for such programs as Doogie Howser, M.D., The Game, Cybil, Roseanne, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The First Wives’ Club. She and her husband, the actor, producer and writer Curtis Armstrong, have been on the picket lines in Manhattan since early May.
An activist from an early age, Aronson fondly recalls how her mother Judith took her and her brother Robert to marches in order to stand up for working women and men like her late grandfather, an engineer who built gas stations. “The early Zionists were all about kibbutzim and the concept of the collective being the most important thing,” she observes.
Ann Toback of the Workers Circle echoes the same feelings. Toback, CEO of the 123-year-old national, secular, Jewish social justice organization, proudly points out that the group “was founded by Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States seeking democracy and hoping to build a shenere un besere velt far ale—a better and more beautiful world for all.
“Our members led the charge in 1909 during the Uprising of the 20,000,” which at the time was the largest ever strike by women in America, Toback says. She adds that during the uprising, the Workers Circle helped “pressure 80 percent of New York City garment factory owners to agree to shorter hours, better pay, better conditions and, most importantly, the right of all workers to join a union so they could protect their rights together. “That history drives our work for an inclusive democracy and worker rights today.”
Hollywood writer Janis Hirsch, agrees. “East Coast Jews of a certain generation, whose parents were born in the first part of the 20th century, were all big union advocates,” says Hirsch, who has written for The Nanny, Will & Grace and Frasier, among other television shows. “You were just brought up to support workers…Look how unions and the Jewish community turned out to support the victims and the families of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911.” Other Jewish leaders of the early labor movement were anarchist Emma Goldman, who also campaigned for reproductive rights, and Rose Schneiderman, who organized a march to mourn the 146 victims of the fire at the Asch Building in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan.
The titular star of The Nanny, actress Fran Drescher, herself Jewish, is currently the national president of SAG-AFTRA. Hirsch says that “Fran has stepped up” during both the actors’ strike that began last month and the writers’ action.
On August 7 during an appearance on CNN, Drescher said that 86 percent of 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members can’t meet the $26,500 threshold for health insurance. According to the AFL-CIO, Hollywood writers earn $69,510 a year on average.
While striking, actors are prohibited from promoting films at publicity events, including movie premieres, and it is unclear how long the strike will continue. The 75th Emmy Awards, scheduled for September 18, announced its nominees on July 13, and The New York Times reports that its organizers have already begun discussions about postponing the ceremony.
Like the previous dual strike, which happened during the industry’s transition to television, these simultaneous strikes are happening at a time of massive transformation in the medium. “There are three major issues at play here,” Aronson says in reference to the overlapping issues fueling the two unions’ strikes. “First, neither the writers nor the actors are being paid residuals from streaming services.” As detailed in The Hollywood Reporter, “the WGA has asked for viewership-based residuals in addition to its existing fixed residuals to reward programs with greater viewership.”
The WGA is also concerned that artificial intelligence (AI) will be used by the studios to write or rewrite material for shows, says Aronson. “It would be the end of real people telling real stories.”
“But it’s also a very great threat to SAG,” she continues, “because what happens if you start digitizing actors via full body screens? Actors could be asked to sign their rights away for perpetuity.” It’s not such a far-fetched notion—in 1991, well before the advent of AI, James Cagney, Louis Armstrong and Humphrey Bogart were all digitally brought back to life to serve as pitchmen for Diet Coke.
But the biggest impediment to ending the stalemate with AMPTP is the growth of mini-rooms, according to Aronson. In a nutshell, writers used to have a lot more time to write and prepare scripts than they do now, she says. The mini-room is basically a condensing of the time allotted to creators either physically or figuratively occupying a writers’ room.
“When fall television schedules were announced every May, executive producers used to hire people to do the shows and prepare the full 23-episode season properly,” explains Aronson. “If you had six workable scripts in two months’ time you were doing alright. But about six years ago, suddenly writers were only given 10 weeks to do the [same amount of work], to write and fix or polish the scenes. That is a business model that is just not sustainable…We didn’t anticipate AI or the advent of the mini-room, and now we’re behind and playing catch-up.”
AMPTP, stresses Aronson, is taking advantage of WGA members such as herself, her husband and Hirsch. According to retired Rabbi John Rosove, the former spiritual leader at Temple Israel of Hollywood, that’s not kosher.
“Deuteronomy 24:14-15 makes it quite clear: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns,” says Rosove. “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”
Toback, who recently joined Workers Circle members and activists on the picket line in solidarity with members of SAG-AFTRA, says that Jews of all affiliations, and others of different faiths, must always band together “to fight for democracy and the human rights we all deserve. We are grounded in that clarion call from Jewish tradition to not stand idly by,” she adds.