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What the WGA Strike Means for Black Writers
We spoke to Greg Iwinski, a long tenured late night screenwriter and WGA East council member, about the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike and the future of Black creatives in Hollywood.
In the extensive and breathless coverage of the ongoing and what may end up being industry-defining three month labor struggle between the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild vs. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, there are many different voices and perspectives being represented by a single body. For both of these unions to break the studios attempting to diminish the value of their labor and the financial viability of their entire industry, it will take a united front.
But we’d be doing a disservice to not acknowledge that as is always the case in America, the stakes, consequences, and outcomes are that much more dire for writers and actors of color. So going through the official WGA channels, I reached out to Greg Iwinski, a long tenured late night screenwriter and WGA East council member who is currently putting out Contract TK, a web series about the strike.
The series, in addition to his strike and council duties are a tremendous strain on Greg’s time, but he was generous enough to spend 30 minutes discussing the strike with Okayplayer over Zoom from outside his studio in Chelsea several weeks ago:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What, if any differences are there for people of color inside of the union?
Greg Iwinski: I think that for a long time, the industry has been super white. And I work in late night, where it's all white. It's like white dudes whose dads work at a bank, and they're like, “Oh, I was a humorist at Yale.” And then they write late night TV. And so it's a lot of those dudes. And that's traditionally how it's been. It's like you get a couple dirtbags from Chicago in there, and then you get a bunch of the Ivy League white dudes that wear button-ups who rode crew and wrote little snarky jokes.
But that is slowly changing. And so there is a generational change where it’s getting more diverse and younger, and I think it takes time for that group of people to get the reins of power. But we are. So there are obviously differences and extra challenges in terms of inequality in the industry, and we're going to face the brunt of it the most. But I think now we're at a place where we have people who are able to say that and fight for it.
When I was in the negotiating committee meetings, it's a 17 person team. I think, I don't know, six or seven of us are people of color. Sure, not all Black, but a little more than a third. Those discussions are very open now in the industry, which is one of the reasons we have to address systemic abuse. We have to address injustice, we have to address inequality, we have to address the systems being unfair because the people who are going to get crushed the most are people of color.
Greg Iwinski and his co-workers from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Are there elements of your demands, what you are prioritizing in negotiations that you would like to see more of an emphasis on, that specifically pertains to questions of race or identity?
Absolutely. The whole argument about room size and duration, all this stuff that gets portrayed in the press as feather bedding. That we just want to create jobs that don't need to be there. But in reality, there are two versions of how television is made. One is where you build a room of different people with different voices, life experiences, different career levels. And all of those people build a show, they grow the show, they grow with it and change. They build a collective voice. That is where a young writer of color can shine.
But then the new version is what the studios want, where you take a mini room, you take a bunch of writers of color and you just strip-mine their experiences to build your characters, to build your storylines, to build your world. You just take everything from these writers and then you let them all go in silence. And then you have the white old man showrunner freelance a couple of scripts out to his white old man friends, and they make the show that way.
With this version, these writers don’t get credits on the show. They don't have their name on television, they don't get paid a script fee, they don't have any experience to show on their resume, and they're locked out of the industry. So it’s a huge thing for writers of color to not get screwed and to not get their experience appropriated into some white guy's vision for a one time check.
And I think with late night…the studios pushed really hard to say, “we want guest writers. We want to bring in a trial writer.” In late night, you get hired 13 weeks at a time. That's how we live, 13 weeks at a time. Every 13 weeks, they can let you go. You're on a long term contract. But every 13 weeks, every three months, they can just say, “no, you're gone and you're fired.” And so that's the insecurity we live with. And not only did they push back on us and say, “well, we want to pay you guys a day rate, we would rather just pay you by the day, they also said, we want to institute a trial writer program where you only get hired a week at a time up to six weeks.”
What do you think the anxieties of a Black writer or actor are at the moment, compared to the rest of the union?
I have opposite answers because I think we understand we have so much more to lose if we lose this fight. If it becomes a smaller industry for just superhero showrunners and their one or two friends, then we are totally screwed. We cannot survive in an industry where you have to be a big name super showrunner, or someone that is equal to them to get to write TV. We won't get to be in that system. So we know that we can't afford to lose it. So I think that there's anxiety there. I remember talking to people when we first started picketing, talking to these white people —some of whom I care about a lot —but white people who were worried about picketing, worried about coming out publicly, demonstrating, worried about how it was going to go with the police. And I could only say, “My man, if you were in these streets in 2020, this is so much nicer. These pickets are so much more calm, I am not stressed at all. When we were in the streets in Midtown, without a permit, just shutting shit down, that was tense. This is not tense. This is so chill.
I think people are catching up and getting on board, but I think for people of color, it's like, yeah, protest is part of life, so there's not added stress. This is business as usual. We have to fight to be able to vote. We have to fight to be able to be people. We have to fight to be able to have our history taught in school. We have to fight for a fair wage. It's another fight, man. We've been doing this all our lives.
What do you think is the end game here?
I think we're going to win. I think it's going to take a while. If I thought we were going to half win, if I thought it was going to be whatever, then I would say that. But no, I think we are. And I think when we do win, I think it's not just about us, the actors winning and us winning, the Associated Federation of Musicians winning, all of this, this labor movement, winning serves as a reset of the relationship between labor and corporations in a way that I think will be good for all Black people. Because, again, it's kind of the thing you always run into in these systems, they're not afraid enough of us. And I don't mean that in terms of a physical, violent threat. I mean, they are not afraid enough that we will take our labor away and we will shut the economy down, and we will shut their industries down, and that will drive their stock prices down, and that we will do it even though it's hard for us.
My wife is a flight attendant for American Airlines. They're taking a strike authorization vote starting tomorrow. They've been negotiating for four years. I think that there is a big movement of people who are like, this system is too broken. It's time to reset it. I think for a lot of Black people, there should be a little bit of a sense of relief that everyone else is catching up to us because we've been saying for 400 years, “Hey, time to start doing system resets.” And they do a little stutter step. And the last one that they did was in 1968, and then they all patted themselves on the back and said it was done. Well, OK, it's 50 years later. Let's go. Let's do a better one.
Do you think that there's been a contrast in that day to day [on the picket line] between the Black writers and white writers or actors?
No. I think the thing that's been so great in this is that in a world where we’re writing so many different kinds of shows for so many different kinds of people, this has been an incredibly unifying experience. Where you step onto any picket line, anywhere, you pick up a Writer's Guild sign, you pick up a Writer's Guild hat, you put on a button, and nobody's asking any questions past “Are you a writer? And do you want a fair wage?” I love that. That it has truly been like we are all in it together.
What percentage of the union is not just willing but able to march on any sort of regular basis?
So some people are once a week, some people are four days a week. Some people cannot physically march. It's hot and they're busy and so some people can't picket, and so they've helped in other ways. We have telephone banking to get out support. We have people who are running our donation banks and helping organize relief efforts for writers and crew members. We have people who put together all of our picket signs. So there are plenty of ways that people end up helping out, even if they can't get up and walk in a line. And we're very clear and open because people have all different ability levels, social comfort levels, all sorts of things. That it's just about contributing to the bigger effort. If marching in a circle is not the thing you can do, that's OK.
In 2007-2008, we had to assign shifts. We had to email people and say, “OK, you've got a picket here, you've got a picket there.” We don't have to do that this time. We set up a picket. People are there.
Greg Iwinski Photo Credit: Mindy Tucker
How would you contrast your experience between the last strike and this one from the perspective of representation, the experience of being Black and striking?
I mean, I think if you look at the messaging and you look at the videos, you look at the committee, you look at who was doing stuff at those picket line pictures from '07-'08, there are just far less people who are diverse. There are far less people who are not white. And so I think just even the photos of the picket lines themselves speak to the diversity that has changed.
And I also think about the fact that we are having the kinds of pickets we're having in LA. There was a drag show contest judged by, I believe, the president of the WGA West and some other people on the picket line. We did a trans day of visibility on the picket line. We've had two or three Black writer pickets. The black writer picket in LA had 400 people show up, that’s 400 Black writers who didn't have to be the only one, who didn't have to be the token. It was like all of them were there in Community. We've done HBCU Alumni day. We've had all sorts of visibility, all sorts of themed and organized tickets. We're doing an Immigrant Day just for immigrant writers. We're doing all sorts of stuff that recognizes who people are, that builds up community, lets people meet each other. So it's just a totally different world in terms of who the Writers Guild is made up of this time.
What is a representation like on the other side of the table? Who are you all dealing with?
Grim, my man, let me say this. They all use Microsoft Laptops. Look, I don't know the people who are just at the table. They may have other teams with them in terms of business affairs, labor lawyers, but it's heavily white. I know that there's at least one Black man, an older Black man, and a couple of women of color, but just in terms of tone and in terms of vibe, it's that thing that we all know too well, which is they're all gaslighting us about our experience. And so it really doesn't matter who the face is that's telling you that.
It's just an incredibly familiar experience. Like, I think about when Yahlin Chang, who makes Handmaid's Tale, we talked about how much free work that she had to do to get her show done because of how showrunners are stretched past their contracts. And they simply told her, that doesn't happen. And thinking about just repeatedly this kind of incredibly white, powerful mindset that can come from any voice that's getting paid by a big studio, that is just the we are saying injustice is happening. They are telling us it's not.
When screenwriters were like, we're being asked to do infinite rewrites for free, their solution was, “Do you want to meet with producers who can explain to you why that isn't true”? That was the idea they gave to us on the next to last day of negotiating. There's a familiar feeling. So I'm glad there are people of color on the negotiating committee, because it's like, “Oh, I know what this is. This person isn't even interested in negotiating.” When people talk about us walking away or not being willing to negotiate, if you are a person of color, that's the emotional tone we were dealing with. And you think we're so far away from ever reaching a solution, because you won't even admit a problem. That's where we are with the studios.
Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.