Writers’ strike comes to Maplewood

Photo by Javon Ross
Members of the Writer’s Guild of America walk a picket line outside of Columbia High School, where a television show is being filmed.

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Members of the Writers Guild of America have been protesting at Columbia High School, where a production company is filming an FX Network show called “American Horror Story.”

“I would like to extend my apologies to anybody at Columbia High School who had their day disrupted,” said Chris Gethard, a writer from West Orange. “I know that the principal asked us to quiet down, we tried to respect it, but they also rented out their school as a film set on a school day during a strike. Much love to the parents and students at Columbia, we are not trying to disrupt for the sake of it.”

The Writers Guild of America, a labor union founded in 1933, represents thousands of creators who write scripted series, features, news programs and other content. The Guild negotiates and administers contracts that protect the creative and economic rights of their members. The union went on strike on May 1.
“The WGA is striking for a fair contract, which includes better pay and protection from A.I. technology,” said Aliyah, an actor who did not want to give her last name for fear of retaliation. “All of the major entertainment unions are standing in solidarity with us right now.”

Aliyah said the production company has been disturbing students, particularly those taking the rigorous advanced placement tests.
“The studio had a film crew here today, even though there is currently AP testing going on at the school,” Aliyah said. “It is disturbing the students, they had an elevator in the space that was used by the crew, it was inconsiderate for students with disabilities who need to use the elevator. Many students have expressed difficulties due to bathrooms being closed off and not having full access to the building during testing week.”
Gethard also had a statement to make to Maplewood and South Orange residents.

“It is worth calling or writing to the school and asking them why they are doing this during a union action,” Gethard said.
The filming was scheduled to take place from May 10 to May 15.
Calls to 20th Century Fox and Disney Corp., who own FX, seeking comment were not returned.
The Guild, along with protestors, wanted to make it clear they are not there to disrupt the studies or test-taking activities of students, but simply to protest filming.

“They are trying to make it seem as if protestors are disrupting the students, when in actuality the students have voiced their frustration with the crew coming in and filming during testing week,” Aliyah said. “They want to make writers’ rooms smaller in order to pay them less and use A.I. to ultimately replace them. They are essentially trying to get rid of the humanity in the arts due to money and greed.”

There has been no reported progress in the negotiations between the union and studios.
“Right now, our negotiating committees are telling us that they (studios) are not even reacting to a large majority of things that we are asking for,” Gethard said. “We are making a concerted effort to make it clear that work has to stop until that (agreement) happens.”

There is no timeline for negotiations or protests to end.
“None of us out here have any sense of how long this (negotiations) will go on,” Gethard said. “The ideal (is) that this is resolved quickly so that we can get back to work, not just the writers but those who work on film and television sets as well.”

The goal of WGA and other unions is to disrupt production for ongoing film and television properties wherever possible.
“Our goal is to disrupt production where we can,” said Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, vice president of the Writers Guild of America East. “We are here to cost the studios money, our sister entertainment unions, the Teamsters and IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) do not cross our picket lines in solidarity.”

Writer jobs in Hollywood have decreased in pay, resulting in the position no longer being able to support individuals paying rent or owning a home, according to the Guild.
“Big studios are inking billions of dollars in profit off of our creativity while shrinking our pay year by year,” Cullen said.
“It has come to the point where screen and television writers cannot make rent doing work that once earned an upper middle-class living.”

Cullen was present during negotiations between WGA and network studios; she saw no progress being made to get writers and crew members back to work.
“I was personally present during negotiations with the studios to renew our contracts,” Cullen said. “They refused to entertain our demands so now we are disrupting entertainment for the global public.”
Cullen talked about not only writers, but many employees today, seeing their income decrease.

“All workers deserve fair pay and working conditions that allow us to lead a life, raise our children and own homes,” Cullen said. “The American worker is getting squeezed on every end with the rise of companies that care only about profits, their bottom line and shareholders.”

For writers, streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Paramount+ and others have made the role of writers extremely difficult and more stressful over the past five years.

“The advent of streaming has certainly contributed to this disruption,” Cullen said. “Most people watched entertainment on a cable network that would air 24 episodes a season, so writers would be employed for over 40 weeks, almost a full year of employment.”

Now, many of the shows on streaming platforms have shorter seasons with fewer episodes.
“We would also receive residuals, which are like royalty checks, once we finished writing and the shows re-aired on a cable channel or overseas,” Cullen said. “Those checks would sustain many of us in-between jobs, due to most of our roles being freelance jobs.

But now seasons on streaming platforms are much shorter, averaging between six and 10 episodes.
A lot of writers are now only hired for 10 to 20 weeks if they are lucky and they are trying to make 10 weeks of pay stretch out for an entire year, which is not tenable.”