Dispatches From The Picket Lines: WGA & SAG-AFTRA Rally To Support California Granting Unemployment Benefits To Striking Workers; NYC Event Focuses On Climate Change

This is Day 129 of the WGA strike and Day 56 of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Striking writers and actors rallied on Thursday outside Amazon Studios in Culver City to show their support for a bill pending in the California legislature that would provide unemployment insurance to striking workers. Strikers in New York and New Jersey are entitled to collect unemployment benefits after two weeks on the picket line, but striking workers in California aren’t eligible because they’re considered to have left their jobs “voluntarily.”

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Senate Bill 799 would change that if makes it through the state legislature and is signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It passed the Assembly Insurance Committee last week and the Legislature has until September 14 to send it to the governor’s desk for signature. A similar bill passed the Assembly in 2019 but failed in the Senate by two votes.

WGA West President Meredith Stiehm, who testified last week in Sacramento in favor of the bill, said at today’s rally that “if you lose your job or get laid off, you can apply for unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, we can’t do that. People on strike can’t do that in California. They can in New York. Our sister union in the East is able to do that. And so, it’s something that we need to catch up to, and it’s something that would have helped us if we had it in place before now.”

SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher, who also testified last week in Sacramento in support of SB 799, urged the picketers to contact their state legislators to press for its passage.

“Our survival should not depend on the whims and fragile egos of would-be dictators,” she told the cheering crowd. “And providing a lifeline for striking workers in the form of unemployment insurance helps to level the playing field in a small way. Withholding our labor from exploitive employers is our right, and we shouldn’t have to court financial ruin to exercise that right. If companies can only get workers to return to their jobs by starving them into submission, then something is very wrong with their business model.”

SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Ben Whitehair told picketers that “It is disappointing that California doesn’t have this yet, but better late than never. It is time because unemployment insurance is here for people who are ready, willing and able to work. That is what we want. We want to go back to work. It is our employers who are preventing that.”

IATSE International Vice President Thom Davis, expressing his union’s support for striking writers and actors, said that the denial of unemployment benefits to striking workers in California is part of the companies’ bargaining strategy.

SB 799, he said, “would effect a significant imbalance that’s currently within our collective bargaining structure. As it is right now, the employers use this as a tool. They use this as part of their strategy, to impact us and to hurt us during negotiations.”

Thanking state Senator Anthony Portantino for introducing “this important bill,” Davis called on the state legislature to “make sure that it is a unanimous passage, and we also call on the governor for his signature.”

L.A. County Federation of Labor President Yvonne Wheeler told the rally that “Strikes have always been about justice, and while strikes may demand significant sacrifices, workers should never have to endure being hungry, being homeless or filing for bankruptcy due to temporary unemployment. And right now, it’s shameful for the state of California to prohibit these workers from accessing unemployment insurance benefits while they’re out on strike. You earned these benefits and you deserve to have them.”

Meanwhile in Manhattan…

With a permit but no barricades for marching in the street, organizers of Thursday’s Climate and Labor Justice Picket squeezed onto the sidewalk in front of Amazon offices in Manhattan and went ahead with about 60 people walking the line amid worries that police would break up the rally.

Instead, a few NYPD officers hung back watchfully while picket line minders from the striking Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA unions worked to keep a lane open for pedestrians on busy Tenth Avenue in Hudson Yards.

On another day of local temperatures in the 90s, the weather was an unavoidable topic at a climate-themed rally “Y’all, it is so frickin’ hot today, oh my God!” television writer Sasha Stewart exclaimed. “We are all literally feeling the effects of global warming right now.”

Yet speakers said the subject of climate change — which they also connected to labor rights — is consistently under-represented in film and television. Producer-director Lydia Pilcher, co-chair with Stewart of a Climate Storytelling Working Group within the WGA and the Producers Guild of America, called it a case of “climate silence”  — born out, Pilcher said, by a recent study that found the topic getting short shrift in programming.

“So what we were seeing is a world that didn’t really match the world that we’re living in,” Pilcher said, adding that “old tropes and old narratives” still hold sway among the gatekeepers at major film and television studios.

“This is a worldwide crisis and it should be all over our culture,” Stewart said of global warming. “But we have been limited by what the studios will allow.”

Daphne Frias, a climate activist and organizer of the upcoming September 17 March to End Fossil Fuels in New York, said she wants to ensure “that the stories of those who are affected by these crises and injustices are actually heard,” and not just in fictional on-screen programming.

“I want to hear stories about climate refugees having to leave their homes because they’ve been destroyed by natural disasters,” Frias said. “I want to hear from the people in Lahaina and Maui  recovering their communities.”

Touching on high rates of asthma in underserved communities with polluted air, and the impact of widespread climate anxiety on mental health, Frias said, “I want to hear stories of human beings.”

Among the marchers on Thursday were two people trying to set an example: Scott Z. Burns and Matthew Rhys, showrunner and star, respectively, of the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations, which is centered on climate change.

Burns and Rhys told Deadline that they agreed with rally speakers that ecological stories are crying out to be made.

“I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Scott on a [show] that touches very heavily on this,” Rhys said. “And if we have those opportunities, I think there is little to no time left for us to be doing that.”

“I think that storytelling is maybe the best way that we in this industry have to communicate what’s going on in the world,” Burns said. He added that it’s “important that we also begin to understand climate change and our role in it — and the solutions for it — by telling stories.

“And that’s something that we also have to educate the streamers and the people who buy our work [about], that that is something that the audience is ready for,” Burns said.

Speakers also said the entertainment industry has work to do to reduce its own carbon footprint and that workers, not studios, will have to lead. “In California, the studios literally cut down trees on the picket lines so that workers would be hot,” Brandon Tizol, a New York-based labor organizer, said. “They’re literally cutting down trees to cut down worker power. It does not get more on-the-nose than that.”

The rally also served as a preview to the March to End Fossil Fuels, with speakers from a youth climate organization, Fridays for Future, that is one of the march’s main organizers. Group members on Thursday said that it’s working-class people and the poor who bear the brunt of droughts, flooding and pollution amplified by global warming while the wealthy can relocate to cleaner air and higher ground.

Adérìnsola Babawale of Fridays for Future urged marchers to take “a stance against late-stage capitalism” and dispense with “respectability politics” when fighting for environmental rights. She also told the WGA and SAG-AFTRA members on the picket line: “Stay rockin’, stay writin’, stay strikin’, until you get the deal you deserve.”

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