Writers Are Fighting a Long History of Pattern Bargaining: ‘We Are in a New World’

In the summer of 1952, guilds representing directors and actors reached a historic deal with Hollywood studios to earn a residual on TV reruns. But the Screen Writers Guild held out for a royalty — a percentage of the gross, not a flat fee — and declared the first-ever writers strike.

After three months, the writers accepted the residual and returned to work.

That is the definition of “pattern bargaining,” and that has been the protocol for contract talks for the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA ever since. The largest studios and platforms make a deal with one guild, and the other two are usually forced to take the same general terms.

The WGA is now in the middle of its eighth industrywide strike. Once again, union leaders are railing against pattern bargaining. In a message to members on June 1, the WGA called the strategy “gaslighting,” and said that it wouldn’t work this time around.

“The era of divide and conquer is over,” the guild said.

As the strike continues, the critical question is: Will it end the way most previous ones have, with the WGA taking a version of a deal already approved by another guild? Or will it break from history?

Speculation about how the strike that began May 2 will ultimately end has become more prevalent since the DGA reached its agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on June 3.

The Directors Guild bargained for increased minimums and a better streaming residual, terms the AMPTP could seek to apply to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, which began its talks on June 7.

The DGA deal removes the threat of an unprecedented triple strike, while leaving the possibility of a double strike if the actors walk. That happened once — in 1960 — when the Screen Actors Guild won comprehensive residuals and a pension and welfare plan after a one-month strike. (The WGA strike in 1960 began two months earlier and went on for two months after, resulting in similar terms.)

“If the actors strike, I suppose one could make analogies to 1960,” says Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee, in a text to Variety. “If they don’t, there is no perfect analogy. Though the writers, alone, may be on strike, there is still unprecedented labor solidarity and broad public support, in the industry and beyond… We are in a new world.”

The WGA also has argued that this strike is different because the writers, actors and directors are pursuing different issues. While there is overlap in residuals and pay hikes, the WGA is focused on writer-specific goals.

To some extent, that is always the case. When the actors got a deal in April 1960, the WGA told its members: “It goes without saying that our problems in many areas differ from those of SAG and that we in no sense feel bound by the specifics of their deal.”

In 2008, the writers had to give up on certain writer-specific concerns and accept the pattern set by the DGA for the union’s right to cover the internet.

Even if the historical pattern holds, however, resolution isn’t necessarily imminent. The writers have often held out for weeks or months after the other guilds make their deals, hoping the pain of the strike will force additional concessions.

The longest writers strike, in 1988, lasted five months. In that case, pressure within the WGA began to build, and there was a public campaign by a faction of writer-producers who by then opposed the work stoppage.

There are no signs of that disunity this time around. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA have won strike authorizations with 98% approval, and support on social media is likewise nearly unanimous. Maybe this time is different.

“Historians like to find the continuities across different events,” says Kate Fortmueller, professor of film and media at Georgia State University. “The more this unfolds, the more I think it is unique in Hollywood labor history.”

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