EXCLUSIVE: “This strike was way too long, because the companies took so long to get serious,” WGA West President Meredith Stiehm declared tonight of the nearly 150 days the Writers Guild was out on the picket lines before a tentative agreement was reached on September 24.
“I feel sad and pained that it took this long because when we got serious, we got it done in a reasonable amount of time. So much was wasted and lost by just not acting earlier,” the guild leader added, with WGA West chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman by her side.
“I would just say member power is what brought this deal in,” Stutzman said of the writers who held out as times got tougher — and the actors who joined them when 160,000-strong SAG-AFTRA went out on strike in mid-July for their first joint strike since 1960.
It’s been a wild half-year or so in Hollywood and the showbiz world, beginning with saber-rattling about a WGA strike and then the writers going on strike May 2. Studios and streamers on both coasts were picketed for more than two months before SAG-AFTRA moved to join writers on the lines. Since then, there had been a steady stream of rhetoric, picketing and finger-pointing as the studios and steamers wouldn’t even agree to meet with the WGA for nearly three months.
When they finally did sit down at the table on August 4, the rival sides couldn’t even agree to resume negotiations.
Then, after the studios and streamers mounted a failed campaign to go around guild leadership, came some welcome news.
On September 14, the WGA and AMPTP at last agreed to resume bargaining — with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Disney’s Bob Iger, NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley and Warner Bros Discovery’s David Zaslav in the room this time. After five tense days of direct talks, they announced a tentative deal on September 24. Today the WGA West board and the WGA East council voted to send the wide-ranging agreement to the members for ratification starting October 2.
Barely out of the negotiating room this weekend, Stutzman and Stiehm told me about how they and the CEOs got to this “transformative” deal and how the WGA still has SAG-AFTRA’s back as that union awaits the start of new talks with the studios and streamers. In that pledge to the power of solidarity, the WGA West chief negotiator and the recently re-elected WGA West president also reveal how broken the AMPTP was and stuck in an old mode that was out of touch with the realities of 2023.
DEADLINE: It’s going to the members for ratification, which seems like a done deal, no pun intended – but is this the deal you thought when the strike started you were going to get?
ELLEN STUTZMAN: This is the deal writers needed to get. I think what we’ve seen over the almost five-month period is that writers are more than willing to stay out and hold out to get what they needed.
Also, to be very honest, SAG-AFTRA joining us and their members, you know, having the many of same issues that our members have and being willing to go on strike to deal with the changes in their profession was a big boost. It really was helpful in getting the deal, and now we’ve got to help them get what they need
MEREDITH STIEHM: I’m proud of us, and I’m really proud of the membership.
DEADLINE: But it was a bit of a roller coaster too…
STIEHM: I didn’t see it as a roller coaster. I saw it as a steady climb, because we very much knew what we needed. We knew how we were going to get there was union solidarity and being on strike — strikes work.
DEADLINE: Yet, in that context, the days turned into weeks and then months and people were hurting, which the studios certainly thought could shatter your solidarity. How was that to be right in the thick of?
STIEHM: Well, of course we didn’t know how long it would take, and people certainly suffered — and not just writers but anyone who works in this industry. It’s been ravaged. This strike was way too long, because the companies took so long to get serious. I feel sad and pained that it took this long because when we got serious, we got it done in a reasonable amount of time. So much was wasted and lost by just not acting earlier.
STUTZMAN: I would just say member power is what brought this deal in. That’s such an important thing.
I think everyone who’s gone through this recognizes that solidarity and resolve made this possible. And as Meredith said, it did last for far too long. And for all those hurt by this, I know what writers intend to do, and will keep doing, as the business gets back on its feet is keep raising money. You know, finding ways to support writers who are still hurting, everyone below the line who is hurting and everyone else in this business directly and indirectly who sacrificed right alongside writers. SAG-AFTRA but also IATSE, the Teamsters, all of them — we have to make sure they get back on their feet, and we’ll be there for them when they negotiate a good contract next year.
DEADLINE: With today’s vote by the WGAW board and the WGAE council to send the tentative agreement to the members for ratification, we’ve also seen the announcement that the strike will end at 12:01 a.m. PT Wednesday. That means writers will be getting back to work as the ratification vote is set up and conducted from October 2-9. How important was that to you guys to have writers back at work ASAP, and does that take away some leverage for SAG-AFTRA when its negotiations start in the next week or so?
STUTZMAN: The leadership knows they made a good deal, so members should go back to work. People should go back to work and start getting a paycheck while the ratification process goes on. They’ve been out of work for far too long.
DEADLINE: I get that, but what about for SAG-AFTRA members? With the Writers Guild ending picketing when the deal was announced and now ending the strike tonight, doesn’t that hobble them?
STUTZMAN: Let’s just say writers will be will continue to be out on SAG-AFTRA lines because they were with us from Day 1. It is very, very important to us that their needs are addressed and that they get a good contract quickly. I take that very seriously, so we are not done picketing; we are not done supporting them at all.
DEADLINE: In that context, with more than 100 days of no talks with the studios after you went out on strike, and then the fiasco of the brief August talks that blew up, how did this all come together last week?
STIEHM: The big difference last week was just that people got serious.
We sat down and we spent three days working very hard to have a real negotiation, and that was new. Before that, as you said, it was 100 days of silence, and then it was the AMPTP coming in again with not much changed.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
STIEHM: You know, the whole thing with the AMPTP is, unfortunately it was just a failed process, There’s an old model that’s worked for them for so long, but it didn’t work this time. Sadly, it seemed like it took them a really long time to understand that. I’ll give you an example: When SAG went out, it seemed like they just didn’t have a plan for a double strike coming along. Throughout that, we were ready every day to negotiate, but it took a very long time for them to say, “OK, let’s do it” — and then then we did it in three days.
STUTZMAN: The process took far too long.
It took too long because the AMPTP had a strategy. It’s the same one they employ in every negotiation, and they used in the last strike.
DEADLINE: What is that strategy?
STUTZMAN: It’s so obvious. It’s to make a deal with another union and put that pattern to the Writers Guild. So their plan all along was to ignore us for two months. Then come back to us hoping that they had a deal with the Directors Guild and SAG-AFTRA and tell writers they have to take it.
Of course, SAG-AFTRA going on strike was not something they expected, and that threw them for a loop.
Even then, it still took a long time for them to understand that your normal pattern deal is not how you’re going to get out of the strike. They had to understand that writers have very real issues that have to be addressed. I think when the companies realized that the writers were not wavering, they knew they had to start really talking to us. I mean, our [picket] lines on the last day — on Friday, September 22 — were as good as the first day. I think that the companies understood that they had to move and they had to do the things that writers needed in order to get them back to work.
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of talk of Bob Iger and Chris Keyser’s relationship, back channels and more, but how did this restart of talks start and come together?
STUTZMAN: On August 22, the companies met with us in an attempt to tell us to take their August 11 offer. When we said no, they released it to the membership. And you know how that went over.
DEADLINE: Like a lead balloon.
STIEHM: Yes, because our membership is savvy, and we are in the world of social media, and that’s a different thing — so that stunt failed.
STUTZMAN: After that, from what we understood, the companies kept working on the issues that we had raised — because I think it was clear to everyone that what they were offering was not going to do it. So at a certain point we reconnected, and they indicated that they wanted to make a deal. When we met last week, they made that a reality by moving and addressing our issues.
DEADLINE: What was that new dawn like in the room?
STUTZMAN: (Laughs) We just negotiated back and forth for a long time over the first three days. We had a lot of substantive issues to go over. There was no deal on Thursday night, as some thought, and there was nothing that was blown up. It was just ongoing talks. Pushing each other until Friday night. Then it just took over the weekend to nail down the final pieces like how people return to work and how health insurances were to be addressed and all those sorts of things.
DEADLINE: It’s mind-boggling that this had to go on so long. These are pretty smart and capable people on the other side of the bargaining table, but it sounds like they were tone-deaf to the 21st century realities that needed to be dealt with…
STUTZMAN: I think that’s right.
The AMPTP in particular, is an organization that came about in the 1980s and ’90s, which was not as powerful a time for labor in this country in general. Since then, they’ve continued to bargain like that and really didn’t recognize the moment — which is a broader rise of labor and then real intense solidarity across unions in in our industry.
They were stuck in a way; they really could never deviate from what they wanted to do. It was only the thing when they realized, “Well, this just isn’t going to cut it,” that the CEOs got involved and did the things that the companies before just said they would never do.
Things like, a minimum staff size — three levels of it, by the way. Data transparency in streaming; there was a myth that they’re never going to share that. Some residuals based on success in streaming. We were told no one knows what success is. Real AI protections; they refused to negotiate about that before we went on strike. We got two step deals for our screenwriters who are newer and work closer towards minimum – that’s a proposal the guild has made time and time again. All that’s on top of many other games. So I think they finally realized this is what it’s going to take to get writers back to work, and it is the contract writers absolutely deserved.
DEADLINE: Reading the tentative agreement now it is public, looking at the increases in wages, writers room staffing assurances, AI guardrails, residuals based on streaming viewership, breakthroughs in data transparency, increased pension and health contributions – to quote Joe Biden when Obamacare was passed, “This is a big f*ckin’ deal.”
STIEHM: I think it’s transformative. I mean, it is an amazing deal that has meaningful gains for every sector.
You know, almost everybody who was telling us that we’re in an existential situation here with how much streaming has broken our model, and we address that in this deal. Honestly it was sort of inevitable. People were really in trouble, and they said, “w”We will strike for this; we will stay out as long as we have to.” AI, which you mentioned, was also an existential proposal — one that had to addressed now. It just was amazing that people hung together. They were as strong as they were on Day 1 they were on Day 148, and that’s why we got it all.
I do think it will affect futures generations of writers. It’s not just for the next few years; we’ve now set precedents that are going to apply to future negotiations.
STUTZMAN: I think that’s the history of the Writers Guild is that it strikes for important things, transformative things — and that’s what we did here.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.