David Goodman, Chris Keyser and Meredith Stiehm have spent this year in warrior mode on behalf of their fellow 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America.
Goodman and Keyser, both past presidents of the WGA West, were co-chairs of the WGA’s 25-member negotiating committee. Stiehm was re-elected earlier this month to her second two-year term as WGA West president. All three are veteran showrunners who went into these momentous negotiations determined to shore up the future of employment for writers in the industry that has generated so much for so many.
Here, as the sun formally sets on the 2023 WGA strike, the trio discuss the highs and lows, ups and downs of the long fight, and they detail what they view as the existential crises addressed in the WGA’s hard-fought three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
There’s a lot to unpack in this deal. What do you three feel are the most significant provisions in the deal? What were the highest hurdles to overcome?
David Goodman: The most significant thing is that we had a goal which was to address compensation across the board. The significant thing is that we got something for every sector of the guild — important things for every sector of the guild. The struggle in this negotiation wasn’t that there was one issue holding up negotiations, the struggle was the companies took a long time to recognize that they had to make a deal with us. Once they decided they were going to make a deal with us — and that came very, very late in this in this game — they sat down and we were able to negotiate a deal on all those issues. I know that there’s been a narrative out there that there were certain issues that were holding up negotiations that the companies would never give. The fact is, once they decided to make a deal, we got something on almost everything they said they would never give us a deal on. So it was more the issue was intransigence and the companies relying on the AMPTP method of negotiations, which we exposed as being broken.
Chris Keyser: We came into the negotiations saying that changes in the business with the content they’d instituted are making it impossible for writers to make a career out of the business. We addressed those existential threats. AI — we put a boundaries around that. In screenwriting, we talked about the increasing burden of free rewrites and we addressed that with second steps and with accelerated pay. We achieved for the first time transparency and a kind of bonus residual on streaming if certain programs hit a benchmark, and we gained the protections of the MBA for comedy-variety writers in streaming. The list of things you have never seen before mentioned in the contract — transparency, second step, guaranteed staff size, script fees for staff writers — those are all phrases that have never been written into the MBA [Minimum Basic Agreeement], and they all came about because of this contract.
What allowed you to get there?
Goodman: Well, two things. Our strike and SAG’s strike. That’s really the truth of it. We had an enormously unified membership around all the issues we raised. This union was strong at the beginning and stayed strong and showed up on those picket lines and showed their support for the agenda. And then the AMPTP was unable to make a deal with SAG, and SAG went out. That honestly was really helpful to us. SAG has big issues that they have to solve and we’re going to continue to support them but at that moment, for SAG to come out, that gave us an enormous amount of leverage to get the deal we needed because the companies could see they had a big problem on their hands. The town was now shut down. They couldn’t do anything. And that’s what brought them to the table.
Keyser: Both the Writers Guild and SAG going out at the same time for the first time in 62 years is as good as evidence that you can have that the AMPTP process is broken. It was broken when they met with us and when they met with SAG, it was broken for nearly 140 days until the CEOs of the companies realized that the members were serious and the problems that they were striking for had to be addressed. AMPTP had a problem that persisted all the way through.
In your view, was the problem that management wanted to stall on getting a deal done or was the problem that the biggest players in AMPTP couldn’t agree on the economic terms for these talks?
Keyser: There’s a 40-year history of [AMPTP] saying no to labor and expecting everyone to follow a pattern that does not actually answer workers’ problems but simply drives down wages and suppresses working conditions. That’s a real problem. And then eventually when we get into what we started doing with the AMPTP, the fact that the business interests of the companies were so divergent that they were unable internally to find a path forward. It took them almost 140 days to finally work together to find a path forward. People talked about this as if there was an impasse between the Writers Guild and the AMPTP. In fact, the most important thing is there was an impasse inside the AMPTP. The Writers Guild was willing to negotiate every single day of the strike, and we had to wait until the CEOs inserted themselves and finally paid attention to control that process for this strike to end. It was their impasse. That was the impediment.
Meredith Stiehm: A lot of people were always questioning us like, ‘Is this the thing that’s holding it up?’ ‘Is that the thing that’s holding it up?’ And that was just so inaccurate. We had to get multiple proposals all put together that were going to help us get back to a healthy eco-system for television writing, so codifying that meant doing it through more than one proposal. There was no one proposal that was a big deal. They all acted together to restore the stability of writing for television.
Keyser: I look at this as a strike in two phases. The first 102 days was the AMPTP trying to use the 2007-2008 playbook to enforce pattern [bargaining] on the WGA, which failed when SAG went on strike. The last 40-something days were the AMPTP internally trying to deal with their own impasse as the varying business interests of the companies competed against each other.
The management side said repeatedly that the guild put down a take-it-or-leave-it offer and wouldn’t budge in bargaining over terms. Was there a point at which the companies moved and then you responded?
Goodman: Look at minimum staff size. Six [writers] was our opening proposal. We started with six and we ended up with three. We negotiated and we got to a number that we all could live with. … We were always flexible. We had a lot of interlocking proposals, but within those proposals, we were ready to negotiate. They kept saying we won’t move, we won’t move, we won’t move, when they were unwilling to actually have a negotiation. That was an attempt on the part of the companies for the first part of this strike to try to divide us, to try convince our members that we the leadership were being unreasonable, that we were unwilling to negotiate. And it just didn’t work, because our members understood that everything we were proposing was absolutely reasonable. But that was a was a tactic the AMPTP has used in every negotiation the guild has ever done to try to divide the leadership from the membership, and it used to work. It doesn’t work anymore. This union understands that this leadership is working for them.
Keyser: We said something at the beginning of this negotiation and we were true to our word. We identified a number of existential issues that would make it impossible for writing to remain a career over the next decade or so, and that we were not going to leave this negotiation without each of those things being addressed. We would not have struck only to half-save ourselves. But inside each of our issues, the solutions were negotiable. And we did both. We gained something in every single area where we said we needed to protect writers, and we were flexible inside ultimately so that we could make a deal.
Stiehm: The AMPTP is just a model [for collective bargaining] that does not work. It was a failed process with them. And when these CEOs actually got serious about making a deal, we sat down for three days and it got done.
Goodman: I think the AMPTP was actually the problem. They had not just one but two unions out on strike. And so for the CEOs, it was a matter of ‘Wait, what happened’ and realizing that the AMPTP system is a failed system. You had two unions who needed their issues addressed and the CEO stayed out of it, assuming the AMPTP would have the success it usually has and didn’t. It’s broken. And that’s what took so long. They offered us a terrible deal on May 1, we went out on strike. They went to the DGA and got the deal that they felt needed for their membership. But then they negotiated with SAG and they couldn’t reach a deal. SAG went out on strike. The pattern that the AMPTP tries to set just didn’t work because it didn’t address SAG’s issues. And suddenly these companies are looking at two unions out on strike and and no way forward through the AMPTP process, so the [CEOs] had to get involved.
On the minimum staffing front, can you explain how it will work for a solo writer who intends to write all of a season’s scripts?
Keyser: There is an exception for those people who are contracted upfront to write every episode of a series. Our data shows that happens very infrequently. [“The White Lotus” creator] Mike White is often cited as a prime example and there are a few more. But we said from the very beginning that the idea of people having that kind of creative process was not the issue for us. The issue for us was the use of mini rooms and the insistence of some companies in certain instances to essentially decimate the writers room for writers who want to use writers. And that’s what we protected.
Can you give me an example of how things changed when the four executives [Disney’s Bog Iger, NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav] entered the room? Did you start hearing ‘yes’ where you’d previously heard ‘no’?
Goodman: It was just more that in our conversations with them it was very clear that they understood. ‘OK we have a little better understanding of what the issues on the table are now, let’s have a conversation, let’s have a real negotiation.’ and that’s when we said we were happy to sit down with them. So it was more of a reasonableness on their side and maybe even a bit of education that they educated themselves about the proposals and they realized this was not going to affect their bottom line and that these CEOs do actually care about writers. They recognize the value that writers bring to their companies and they want to get back to work.
Keyser: A good example on what some people would call the success-based residual. The CEOs had done a quite a bit of work before we got back into the room. Certainly when when talks broke off, they had said no to any kind of compensation attached to transparency. By the time we got back into the room, it was clear that they had heard us and worked on it and made a proposal that became the basis for what we negotiated ultimately into the contract – the first time ever for a kind of bonus for the shows that hit certain benchmarks in streaming. So that’s an example of the way they were responsive and their commitment to that led to a deal.
Stiehm: And certainly, they saw the solidarity and resilience of the writers. They just saw the resolve. No one was wavering. This is a very unified membership.
A few weeks ago after Labor Day there was a groundswell of concern and even complaints among some prominent members that did bubble up and become public. How did the rising level of angst influence your strategy?
Goodman: There really wasn’t any truth to any of that. We talk to all our members, we consider all their issues equally. For us the pressure was only the responsibility of making the deal the membership went on strike for. We did talk to showrunners but the idea that we felt pressure from them to get in the room and make a deal — It’s just not true. Because the only way we could make the deal was when the companies were ready to make the deal. And that’s when we got in the room — when they were ready. But no, we did not feel any pressure and the deal speaks for itself. There’s nothing in there that looks like we folded on anything.
Keyser: I would second that. Take a look at the deal and see if this looks like a deal the showrunners pressured us to take.
Ultimately, are you surprised that you got as much as you did?
Stiehm: No. It was inevitable. It was such an existential crisis that we were in that we were going to be out [on strike] until they did. Now we’re going to be out on the picket line with SAG because they need to make a deal.
Is there anything substantial in the deal that hasn’t gotten as much attention as you think it should?
Goodman: If you’re a member of a writing team, in the past you split your salary and your pension and health contribution has been based on your half of the salary. Now, in this in this negotiation, the cap is based on the full salary that the team is splitting. So that’s a huge win for teams who’ve had trouble maintaining their health and pension contributions.
Stiehm: We also got a lot of protections with AI, that was sort of a big existential issue for people and certainly for SAG. [The AMPTP] said on May 1 they would not do anything besides have a discussion with us about it twice a year. And you can see that we did a lot of work in that area and got a lot of important things.
Do you think that lays some groundwork that will help SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations?
Goodman: That’s our hope. We support SAG in their fight and we’re going to be showing them as much support as we can. We hope that the companies go right to them and sit down and make their deal so that this town can get back to work. But we also understand that our contract does not solve SAG’s problems.
It’s been a long 148 days. What stands out to you at this point as a defining moment or a memorable anecdote from this experience?
Stiehm: To me, it was just a shame it didn’t happen earlier. It just took a really long time. It really put a burden on writers and crews and anyone who has to work in the industry. There’s been a lot of damage done. And then to get to the end of the strike doesn’t mean it goes away tomorrow. But seeing the how well it could get done in three days when people got serious really made me feel disappointed that we hadn’t had dialogue or cooperation earlier.
Keyser: I will probably will remember as much as anything the extraordinary solidarity shown by our members and SAG-AFTRA and all of the other guilds and unions who stood beside us. And also the incredible generosity of all of us who were on strike when the companies would not listen to us, and we raised tens of millions of dollars for those of us who needed help. We’re continuing to do that, we’ll continue to do that to take care of people who are still suffering from our strike and obviously the ongoing SAG strike. So generosity and bravery in the midst of this is the memory that will have.
(Pictured: David Goodman, Chris Keyser and Meredith Stiehm)