A one woman show: Writers’ Guild picketing in Atlanta

Disclaimer: This article describes actions taken to create an un-authorized strike and neither endorses nor opposes these actions. ACPC supports the right to organize and labor in general in all the myriad ways the struggle for labor rights may express itself.

On May 2, Broadway actor and screenwriter Kim Steele, stood in front of the Turner Broadcast System campus in the heart of West Midtown Atlanta. Steele brandished a sign that read “We Write. Y’all Wrong!” and waved at cars honking in support. Broadcast station employees acknowledged her with positivity as they made their way in and out of the building. Within a day, her prominence and enthusiasm went viral on Twitter and began drawing attention from news outlets. A question echoed in the replies and quote retweets: Why weren’t there more people picketing?

On May 1, contract negotiations between the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to come to a resolution in time for union contracts to renew. WGA’s 2023 demands included: standardized streaming compensation, appropriate compensation throughout all stages of production and regulations on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for scriptwriting. After the contract renewal deadline passed, a strike vote was called for over 11,000 guild members. A record setting 97.85% of eligible votes counted in favor of striking. 

Beginning May 2, AMPTP affiliated projects experienced severe work stoppages, as writers across the country halted their  contracts. Within the first week, thousands of WGA West and East division members coordinated picket lines at major filming locations across the country. Meanwhile, there were no Georgia-based events listed on the WGA picket schedule, despite the state being the home one of the largest and fastest growing film industries in the country.

The Hollywood of the South

The 2005 Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act granted qualified productions a transferable income tax credit of 20% of all in-state costs for film and television investments of $500,000 or more. The Investment Act introduced several other incentives as well, like the inclusion of the Georgia Entertainment Promotional logo in closing credits, which came with an additional 10% tax credit. Film and entertainment producers leaped to take advantage of the tax break, causing Georgia’s film industry to grow exponentially over the subsequent decade.

In 2022, Governor Kemp reported a record breaking $4.4 billion spent by production companies in the state. 

Although Georgia positioned itself as a hospitable film hub, the WGA voiced criticisms of the state’s conservative legislature for several years. In 2019, the WGA issued a statement of opposition against House Bill 481, also known as the “Georgia Heartbeat Bill,” which banned abortions after six weeks. In 2021, the Guild issued another statement against Senate Bill 202, known as “The Election Integrity Act.” The act required a state ID to absentee vote, limited ballot locations and punished handing out food at voting lines, among other provisions. When both bills were signed into law, several high profile individuals in the entertainment industry threatened to boycott the state, while some pulled their projects completely.

A History of Anti-Union Sentiment

Atlanta is home to hundreds of major and independently owned production companies, including Cox Enterprises, Trillith Studios and Tyler Perry Studios (TPS)— the latter of which is 100% owned by Tyler Perry, a member of the Director’s Guild of America since 2005. Despite this, Perry, the billionaire owner of the 200,000 square foot production complex, fostered a long history of lack of compliance with labor unions.

In 2008, the WGA filed an unfair labor practice complaint after Perry fired four affiliated writers of his TV comedies House of Payne and Meet the Browns. The Guild alleged that the writers were fired for seeking union representation and that Perry refused to sign a WGA contract that would guarantee the writers’ pensions, residuals and health care plans. Perry was temporarily placed on WGA’s “Do Not Work” list, preventing all guild members from working on his projects.

Perry’s attorneys argued that the writers’ firings were over the “quality of their work.” Collectively, the four writers worked on over a hundred episodes of House of Payne, a series popular enough to land Perry a $200 million deal with Turner Broadcast System Network. While the WGA was eventually able to broker a deal with Perry to ensure union benefits for the two shows, the four writers were not hired back.

In 2015, Perry ran afoul of Actors’ Equity, an American labor union representing those who work in live theatrical performance, and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA). He and his producers never signed a union contract for his stage play Madea on the Run and chose to cast non-union actors. As a result, Equity placed Perry on its “Do Not Work” list and forbade its members from working on the production. Perry remains on the list to this day. 

In 2020, after tweeting a photo of several stacks of scripts with himself credited as the sole writer, Perry stated in interview that he no longer has writers’ rooms for several of his most popular shows, but allows showrunners working under his studio to hold their own writer’s rooms.

Low WGA Representation

Traditionally, in most productions, staff writers were required to be on-site for all writers’ room meetings, and work in-person with other film department branches for all stages of production. Since the early 1900s, the highest paying job prospects in the entertainment industry were based in either Los Angeles or New York City. To access these jobs and avoid incurring steep travel expenses, career writers who were out-of-state were incentivized to relocate. Because these cities were in non Right-to-Work states, writers were required to have union representation in order to sign onto AMPTP contracts.

During the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, mandated lockdowns and rapid industry shifts to remote work reduced the incentive to relocate to Los Angeles and New York City. Between 2020 and 2022, approximately 500,000 California residents moved away, seeking similar employment in lower cost of living states. Popular relocation hubs for those who worked in production included Chicago, Austin and Atlanta.

I’m not new to picketing, and I’m not new to climate justice,” Steele said, “But I’m not an organizer. Anyone who wants to plan, please do.

As a Right-to-Work state, Georgia employees do not have to join or compensate a union that exists in their workplace.​​​​ To retain union benefits, most WGA members opted for residency in non-right-to-work states, while taking temporary out-of-state contracts. ​When the WGA strike was called, only 36 Guild members were Georgia residents. The rest began returning home to California and New York, bolstering the picket lines already there. 

The exodus of transplants had a rippling effect on Georgia’s film industry: highly anticipated productions like Blade, Stranger Things and Cobra Kai were forced to shut down. Looking to halt other productions that were still ongoing in Atlanta, supporters reached out to WGA East strike captains. But feedback from the WGA moved slowly, with frustration being expressed by supporters online.

The One-Woman Protest

The first week of the strike, Kim Steele took up her own sign and documented her activities online. When interviewed, Steele stated that she experienced both an outpouring of comradery and a fair share of criticism. “Some writers in the WGA were hesitant to support me because my picket wasn’t official,” she said. “But I felt the impulse to just go out there.”

The attention Steele garnered enabled her to get in touch with several of WGA members online. Steele said that there were emerging scheduling plans for picketing events in more states, including Georgia. She encouraged activists and supporters with managerial experience to organize the events, as she did not see herself as fitting that role. “I’m not new to picketing, and I’m not new to climate justice,” Steele said, “But I’m not an organizer. Anyone who wants to plan, please do.”

Steele moved to Atlanta only a few months before the WGA strike. She was already a member of Actor’s Equity and was looking to join WGA as a screenwriter. She spoke about working on one of her in-progress screenplays, Illumination. Set in a fictionalized Hartsfield-Jackson airport, and inspired by the Nixon-era urban experiment, Soul City, Steele described the story as an exploration between environmentalism, failed utopias, and Black capitalism. She said, “Think Wakanda gone wrong.”

Steele highlighted the WGA’s demand to regulate the use of material produced using AI, speaking on the pressures that rapid adoption of AI was putting on artists across the entertainment industry. “AI is not sentient. It could not have written Succession. It would be used to write bad shows that a writer would still [have to] be brought in to spruce things up,” she said. “Actors could be used to sell their likeliness and voices, which would be used to completely replace actors in film. It’s all so soulless.”

Steele often traveled professionally between Los Angeles and New York City, working various Broadway contracts. She preferred to keep her work temporary, signing onto projects for no more than three years. Steele saw Atlanta as a city of promise for Black writers and that part of her decision to move to was for the opportunity to work with producers like Charles D. King. “If you’re a black person,” Steele said, “come to Atlanta, you’ll get work. You’ll get your stories told.”

Despite begin a transplant herself, Steele expressed a desire to see more Atlanta-native writers working within the city. “Atlanta has a reputation as Black Hollywood” Steele said. “[But] the up-and-coming talent are not being taken seriously.” She proposed that Writer’s Guild pickets in Georgia would draw attention from the entertainment industry to the struggles of artists in the south.

WGA East is soliciting questions and information regarding special picketing on their contact page.

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