Since 12:01 PDT on May 2, 2023, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike. This follows months of negotiations aimed at compensating screenwriters fairly in a time of the “streaming wars” and post-pandemic lockdowns during which many viewers noticed once more how much we rely on TV for not only entertainment, but also comfort and escapism. This is not the first time WGA has gone on strike, but it is still a relatively rare occurrence, and every time it has happened in more recent history, such as in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 2007-8, the impact was immediate.
These earlier strikes resulted, in part, from fundamental changes in how people consume TV: the advent of cable and home video in the 1980s and the deregulation pushed by the Reagan administration; and in the early 2000s, the impact of DVD and the release of season and series boxsets, as well as forays into online distribution. Most screenwriters, especially television writers, have historically not earned a lot of money compared to others in the industry, but many secured at least a more regular stream of income thanks to residuals from syndication or home sales. Streaming has changed the industry; especially in the last ten years – even as network TV and especially the trusty procedurals, such as the various iterations of NCIS, remained. The rise of Netflix spurred the development of an enormous variety of platforms as every major studio or media conglomerate has gotten into the game, creating a vast new television landscape that leaves consumers wondering how to best subscribe to all of these, or strategically access what they can afford any given month. The price tag for TV is high these days, but industry standard wages for writers remains low.
So, what does all of this have to do with historians and other scholars? In addition to the fact that a lot of us watch TV or participate in fandom, many of us also study and lecture about TV; I for instance, regularly teach a seminar on “A History of American Television”, a primer to the medium and its history. Crucially, however, academics need to pay close attention to how this conflict unfolds, because our labor force faces very similar issues.
Academic writing is not directly compensated. Authors of academic books are lucky to earn 5–10% of royalties, which may amount to a coffee a year when that cheque comes in (at inflation prices it’s probably a shot of espresso). In Germany, where I live and work, it’s not uncommon for scholars to pay around 4000 euros out of their own pocket (!) to publish their dissertation as a monograph. Publishing the dissertation is required to legally carry the title of “doctor”, and the market for German language academic literature is even smaller than for English. (I sidestepped this exploitative process by writing in English and publishing with a small UK-based press, but even I haven’t earned more than around 300 euros since I published in 2021.) Edited collections usually amount to countless hours of unpaid editorial and administrative labor, only for most of them to end up as expensive hardbacks a handful of university libraries buy. I have co-edited five collections— one of them a Routledge handbook with over 60 authors that is directly responsible for several grey hairs on my head. It now costs $180 and I still await my celebratory iced latte, while Taylor & Francis make bank on the fact that they can sell single chapters as downloads, among other things.
And this is the crux: academic publishing, like television, is increasingly controlled by media conglomerates, especially at the level of academic journals. Several smaller university and independent presses have managed to survive and publish a lot of academic books. But journal publishing is beginning to increasingly look like a pyramid scheme. Scholars sometimes have to pay a fee to be published in them, and smaller journals tied to academic associations now require a year-long subscription as a prerequisite for publication. Even if publication is free, the writing itself remains uncompensated. Those who serve as peer reviewers for journals are also uncompensated, a reality that is especially problematic when peer reviewers themselves are precarious scholars. When an article is published, a scholar gets a line on their CV and maybe a handful of citations—if colleagues can get past the paywall and actually read it. Thanks to paywalls, companies who own these journals (discussed below) charge good money for access; $30—40 for one article is not uncommon, but the bulk of money is charged through subscription models to libraries. Meanwhile, scholars themselves—including those who paid a fee to publish—do not earn one cent, even if their article is heavily downloaded and frequently cited.
Who owns most journals? Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier, and Springer. These companies used the increased pivot towards e-publication during the pandemic to buy up more and more journals. Even Open Access models are increasingly exploited by these conglomerates. Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, made almost $10 billion in revenue in 2019, and was thus more profitable than Netflix. Scholars? They continue to be precariously employed in vast numbers, and earn next to nothing off their intellectual and creative labor. Screenwriters? Well. Ashley Nicole Black (A Black Lady Sketch Show, Ted Lasso) is surely living it up on her $1.51 residual check. Of course, scholars do not solely live off of writing, unlike screenwriters. If academics, some of whom are indirectly compensated via salaries for their writing (albeit in ever smaller numbers and to ever-shrinking degrees), can grasp our exploitation by conglomerates, it is clear that we should show solidarity with professionals who depend entirely on being adequately compensated for their writing.
The WGA demands are entirely reasonable. They are asking for more secure positions as, increasingly, so-called “mini (writer’s) rooms” dominate the landscape, turning more and more of the writers into gig workers. Higher ed, too, relies heavily on gig labor, most notable for teaching. Writing is already uncompensated, the rest will follow (I for instance, have taught a class for free, and others for 500-1500 euros for the whole seminar, including prep and grading – which is common practice in Germany.) Universities increasingly think and act neoliberally.
In the UK, where a lot of academic workers are unionized, strikes have been frequent in the last few years. In Germany, few scholars join unions, and the reasons for this are manifold:
- University lecturers used to largely be tenured state workers (the so-called Beamte) and were thus forbidden from striking, but these times are long gone; over 90% (!) of academic employees are now on limited-term contracts.
- There is a federal law called Wissenschaftszeitgesetz that limits years of employment at a university, which means the precarious employment conditions can’t be fixed by striking.
- And, crucially: scholars have been persuaded that academic labor is not, in fact, labor. Academic culture and a highly competitive job market encourage a vocational mindset: we are supposed to be grateful to even pursue the noble cause of scholarship; our job is a calling – like, say, a writer, or an actor. A workforce with this mindset is easy to exploit. And exploited we are. In the long run, labor conditions in both academia and the entertainment industry will continue to privilege those who can afford to live on little to no income, which will not help diversify either field. Given the importance of both higher education and the entertainment industry in shaping how people view the world around them, a decline in diversity in these industries is very, very bad, to say the least – especially as the holders of full professorships are already not particularly diverse right now.
It’s unclear how long the WGA strike will last. Some suspect studio bosses saw this coming and are sitting this out on their yachts while writers look for employment at Target or scrape by on savings. There are many ways to support the striking writers. Donate to the Entertainment Community Fund. Join the picket lines in Los Angeles or New York. Support boycotts if they are called. If none of this is possible for you, at least be loud and use these hashtags on social media: #WGAstrong, #dothewritething, #Fans4WGA, and may I propose: #Scholars4WGA. Honestly, I don’t think a long list of reasons should be required for supporting workers who demand fair pay and labor conditions, but if any scholars are on the fence, the similarities between higher education and the entertainment industry in 2023 should be clear. We are facing the same enemy: late stage capitalism. While fascists will burn books, neoliberals will simply stop paying for them. And stop paying their writers. There’s power in a union, folks. Join one.
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