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On the Picket Line With TV Writers Outside Disney’s Money Pitch

At the WGA picket line, even staff writers on big shows say gigs don't pay enough, and are unreliable.

1:56 PM EDT on May 18, 2023

A group of striking WGA writers holding signs outside of NYC's Javits Center, on a cloudy day.

WGA members and supporters picket outside of the Javits Center. (Hell Gate)

Hemmed between the cold green-gray facade of the Javits Center and a line of shiny black SUVs and cop cars, the crowd of striking WGA writers was not projecting intimidating strength on Tuesday afternoon. 

Cops smirked, lazing about with rifles in hand and dogs on their leashes; event staff vaped and called for attendees to stay to the left and have their tickets out; executives wearing crisp suits with Jordans peered through their sunglasses into their phones, hustling into Disney's upfront presentation. The latter mostly tried to ignore the strikers, though some had the grace to offer sheepish, apologetic smiles. Above, a Jumbotron blared advertisements for "The Little Mermaid" and "Jeopardy."

An hour in, some combination of authorities—private security and cops—had succeeded at halving, then quartering, the amount of sidewalk they were permitting the strikers to march on. By about 4:30 p.m., the picketing writers had been pushed down to south of 36th Street, relegated to a small corner of the long promenade outside the convention center, where they wouldn't much disrupt the flow of Ubers ferrying executives. Someone wearing a WGA West shirt began urging someone in a WGA East shirt not to acquiesce so meekly to the instructions to move.

"What are they gonna do? You really think they're gonna arrest us?" they said. The other complained, "They're just gonna send us all home."

Two members stayed obstinately in the crosswalk up at 37th Street, one of them ringing a cowbell, willing to offer at least some inconvenience. "They said we're not allowed to be on the sidewalk, so we're not on the sidewalk," they said. (Subway DJ was there playing music, of course.)

Brooks Allison, a WGA member, was with a friend of mine, Paris, a comedian who works at my favorite bar and also at an alarm clock start-up. Allison, who works at "The Tonight Show," described himself as lucky that that gig pays his bills, but also said he was 34 and living with two roommates in Bushwick. 

"It's very common for writers in New York to have to find other jobs to pay the rent," WGA East Executive Director Lowell Peterson told me. "The gigs are shorter than they used to be, the number of jobs is not what it used to be, the writers' rooms are smaller, the length of time between gigs is longer, the residuals are lower. If you combine all these things together—" At that moment, a gust of wind blew away the union's tent. "We have to deal with the winds of time," Peterson quipped.

There was a quirk factor at play. One sign said, "You're forcing us to socialize," another, "This is my cardio." The signs attempted wit, but wit doesn't have quite the potency that outrage does.

I sent a text: "There's a theater kid energy here I'm trying to power through."

"It's a picket line, it's performance," someone wrote back, adding, "The man wants you to think you're too cool."

I talked to the guy without the cowbell at the crosswalk, who said he just joined the union in 2019. "Most people that I know, once they get into the WGAE, have crossed the threshold into hopefully making their living [as a writer]," he told me, adding that he once heard someone quip that it was easier to get into the Navy SEALs than the Writers Guild. That livelihood is not always reliable, he said: "You hear about people being out of work for a while. Work ebbs and flows." 

As part of my brain clocked Niche Internet Microcelebrity sightings (Conner O'Malley, Ira Madison III, and the guy who played Roman's friend for a day on "Succession"—SAG-AFTRA, the actors' union, was there in solidarity with the writers), I will admit to feeling a reactionary tingle.

But as my text exchange with a friend reminded me, while it's fine to feel that liberal arts-educated so-and-sos like myself should be a little less annoying, once you start thinking that "my liberal arts-educated peers are so annoying that I don't know if I'm in solidarity with this strike because it's too cringe," you're doing some suit-wearing executive's dirty work inside your own head. Inside the convention center, Variety reported, Disney's presentation showed the company was feeling the effects of the strike, relying heavily on unscripted programming. Besides, even in the mind of the most normal guy or the most red-pilled Twitter Blue-subscribing Star Wars fan, someone writing for "The Tonight Show" should be able to afford to live in New York City in a one-bedroom apartment, at least, right?

I pulled L.E. Correia, who wrote for "Big Mouth," out of the line. "I feel very lucky," she began, and told me that the aim of the strike is precisely so a crowd of WGA writers in the future might be drawn a little less from the natural wine bar crowd. "In addition to the basic, like, 'Holy shit David Zaslav, you made 250 million fucking dollars last year, be real, give us a normal amount of money,'" she said, "part of what this is about is structurally opening up the career to younger and newer writers."

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