‘You Can’t Hold Down Union’: WGA/SAG-AFTRA Strikes Continue to Impact Chicago

Engagement editor Audrey Hogan highlights the ongoing writers/actors’ strike, interviewing Loyola film students and Chicago’s SAG-AFTRA president.

“For the sake of our present and our future, we have been given no other choice,” the Writers Guild of America’s negotiating committee wrote in their strike announcement May 1.

That future is now knocking on the industry’s door.

Both WGA and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are on strike following failed negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over principally residual payment structures where writers and actors get paid a certain amount every time a movie or television show they were in airs. Other issues that caused negotiations to fall through include the use of artificial intelligence by major studios and refusals to adjust the minimum pay writers and actors can receive for inflation. 

WGA voted overwhelmingly in early April to authorize a strike and has been picketing since, according to their website. SAG-AFTRA joined the picket lines alongside the writers on July 14, according to Variety

Jacqueline Southwell, a 2023 graduate of Loyola’s film and digital media program, said she’s wanted to be a screenwriter since she was little. As she begins her career in the industry, she said she is grateful for WGA’s work and the writers on strike.

“I think that they are building the foundation for young writers like me to succeed,” Southwell said. 

Statements made by SAG in their announcement echo those made by the WGA as both guilds struggle with the AMPTP over residuals from streaming platforms and concerns about the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI). 

For Chicago SAG-AFTRA president Charles Andrew Gardner, shepherding students like Southwell through the strike and into an industry with more “job security” is a primary concern. 

“We’re going to be able to find our way through this strike, regardless of how long it takes — hopefully it doesn’t take much longer,” he said. “You can’t hold down entertainment, you can’t hold down union.”

Also a DePaul professor for performance, Gardner began teaching in January during the COVID-19 lockdown and saw similar concerns about job security within the industry. He said the guild was successfully able to overcome concerns during that time and he feels confident they can prevail once again.

“The last time that we had a strike like this, we gained things like pension and streaming structures around cable that wasn’t in place before,” he said. “So it’s always going to be better for the next generations.”

This is the first time both unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960. The distribution of residuals was at the core of the strike, as there was no continued pay system for film work, according to Vanity Fair

This time, the dwindling pay due to out of date residual structures are still at the forefront of the negotiation, along with discrepancies between what actors are being paid for streaming service work compared to traditional broadcast programs, according to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA contract proposals. 

There are similarities between the 1960 strike and the current one, principally the way technology disrupted the entertainment industry. But Loyola labor historian Dr. Elizabeth Shermer is more interested in the way the two are different. 

Historically, actors and writers were negotiating largely with the “majors” — Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures, Shermer said. Now unions have to deal with companies like Netflix, Amazon and other Silicon Valley titans who have recently moved into the entertainment industry and have long histories of union busting.

“Most businesses are actually anti-union,” Shermer said. “It’s not just about money. It’s about power. It’s about letting people have a say in actually how your industry is actually run.”

WGA’s contract proposal suggests AI regulation on projects where union writers are involved — the work of a language model like ChatGPT can’t be used as source material and writer’s work can’t be used to train that model to write scripts. AMPTP rejected their proposal but offered to meet yearly to discuss changes in technology, according to the proposal. 

Recent screenwriting graduate Southwell has a positive outlook on new technology like AI and doesn’t think it’ll replace the work of human writers. 

“I think a lot of people have kind of the idea that writing is no longer a trade and a technical skill,” Southwell said. “And that’s really not true.”

SAG-AFTRA is also concerned about the use of AI to duplicate or manipulate an actors’ face or voice without their permission. The practice of scanning the likeness of background actors and using that image indefinitely — all without pay — has also come under fire, according to The New York Times

The usage of AI is a concern for Mary Dixon, a theater major and president of Loyola’s film club. 

“People say my face is my job,” she said. “That’s exactly what it is, you know, and people should be compensated for people using them.”

Representatives from the AMPTP and WGA have begun taking the initial steps towards reopening negotiations, according to The New York Times. This is emblematic of the studios changing their strategy and hoping to “box in” the writers and actors to force a deal closing, according to The New York Times. 

As the strike continues, Gardner has worked to set up education opportunities for union members out of work through the Kaufherr Resource Center in Chicago. The center provides headshot and voiceover clinics. 

“And even when there is no work, you’re still an actor,” Gardner said. “Even when you don’t have an opportunity to audition, you’re still an actor. So keep going. Keep growing. And I’ll see y’all when y’all join the union.”

Audrey Hogan

Audrey Hogan