As the Writers Guild strike stretches into its fourth week, Michael Schur is feeling resolute.
Well known for co-creating such hit series as Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, Schur is a member of the WGA Negotiating Committee headed up by Chief Negotiator Ellen Stutzman and Co-Chairs David A. Goodman and Chris Keyser, which at the beginning of May led the writers’ walkout on film and TV production, as negotiations with the AMPTP over everything from guild minimums and residuals to AI broke down.
Schur came up under Greg Daniels on The Office after launching his career at SNL, having been given the opportunity to experience firsthand all the nuts and bolts that go into producing quality television, something that can’t be said for many aiming to rise through the ranks today.
Deadline caught up with the two-time Emmy winner outside Amazon Studios on Friday, where maybe 80 to 100 writers picketed, to discuss the “diabolical cost-cutting thirst” of the companies comprising today’s AMPTP, as well as inter-guild solidarity, the Screen Actors Guild’s “heartening” recent call for a strike authorization vote, “manufactured” narratives surrounding the strike, the willingness of showrunners who write alone to welcome others into their writers rooms and why a concession on AI alone will not be enough to end the strike.
DEADLINE: Where do you see things standing at the moment, as far as negotiations and the temperature amongst WGA members?
SCHUR: There’s been no discussions with the companies since the day we called the strike. We didn’t anticipate there would be; the ball’s entirely in their court. We can be in Sherman Oaks in half an hour if they want to talk to us, and they’re serious about making a deal. Currently though, our negotiation is the strike. That’s what we’re doing now, is negotiating with the unity and the solidarity of the Writing Guild.
So, the temperature among the writers has been great. I’m at Amazon today. The negotiating committee is trying to get to all the lots in the first few weeks to just make sure everybody is fully aware of what’s going on and see if they have any questions. And everyone’s really supportive. People feel very unified. I think people are really fired up. The problems that face the Writers Guild have affected literally every writer at every level. And that’s great because it means that everybody understands why we’re doing this.
So, it’s been really lovely. I ran into like 15 people here I haven’t seen in a really long time, and that’s kind of weirdly fun. Striking is not fun, but being amongst other writers is.
DEADLINE: How do you see the situation this contract cycle, as far as solidarity amongst the guilds?
SCHUR: Well, first of all, we’ve had members of every other union in town join us in the picket line regularly. Not one or two, but dozens and dozens, and hundreds and hundreds, from IATSE and SAG-AFTRA, and the Teamsters and Local 40, and the laborers. That has been wonderful, and again, I think it’s because everyone is feeling the squeeze. There’s no one who works in any part of this industry who doesn’t understand exactly what the companies are doing and how they’re trying to squeeze all labor everywhere, always. So, that’s been great.
As far as what’s going on with the DGA and SAG, we don’t know. They’re different unions, they have their own priorities, they have their own strike agendas and negotiation agendas. We’re in touch with them, but it’s kind of none of our business at some level. There are things that they are asking for that are patternable to the Writers Guild; there’s plenty of things that aren’t. If the DGA makes a deal, it doesn’t solve most of our problems, and the same is true of SAG. I was heartened by SAG asking for a strike authorization vote because it means they’re serious about negotiating and trying to get a good deal for their members. That’s all we want for any of these unions is to get a good deal, right? So, the inter-guild solidarity has been great. They are handling their own business as they should. It’s not our place to tell them what to do or their place to tell us what we should do. But it does feel like there is a unified feeling amongst all of the guilds that this is a time when action is required of a different kind. So we’ll see what happens, you know? We’ll see what happens with the DGA, and then SAG, and then probably us after that.
DEADLINE: As a veteran of network TV, what’s your take been on the strike’s disruption of the Upfronts and the prospect of a nonexistent slate of scripted programming at networks like ABC looking ahead?
SCHUR: That’s what happens when you refuse to make a deal with your labor force, is your labor force makes themselves heard. Production gets disrupted, and people walk with signs, and they honk horns, and they make themselves heard. So it wasn’t surprising. I mean, the sort of diabolical cost-cutting thirst of the companies has consequences. And the consequences are you can’t keep driving your labor force further and further into a pit and expect them not to fight back and say, “Hey, we make the stuff you sell. You can’t not pay the people who make the stuff you sell.” So, yeah. Whether it’s simply because of the Writers Guild being on strike, whether another union joins us on strike, time will tell. But you cannot treat labor forces this way and expect them not to have a reaction.
DEADLINE: Some are wondering whether differences of class between writers will factor into how the strike plays out — whether the top 1% of showrunners will stand firm in their support of the other 99% of writers when the going really gets tough. Do you see that kind of dynamic factoring into the situation?
SCHUR: No, I really don’t. I think this a kind of manufactured narrative that people are trying to say is going to be a problem. I am a showrunner-level writer; I was just walking with a bunch of very young writers. We all feel the same way…The reason that I’m out here is because there are young writers right now who simply do not have the opportunity that I had to build a career in Hollywood as a TV writer. That sucks; they should. And there are writers who are very young and who are out here for the same reason. Like, “I want this to be my career and it can’t be.”
And by the way, screenwriters are out here because slowly but surely over the last 10, 15, 20 years, they’ve been driven to a point where they can’t make a living either. Late-night comedy variety writers can’t make a living. At its base level, no one can make a living. No one can build a career unless you already have one, and even then, it’s really hard to sustain it.
So, I think it’s left over from ’07, frankly, that there’s this kind of invented narrative that I don’t know where it’s coming from, that there’s going to be some kind of class division. I don’t sense that at all. I don’t feel it. I don’t think it’s true. You hear narratives all the time creep out through the media when there’s labor actions like this one where it’s like, “This is going to be a problem.” And you’re like, “Well, according to whom?” I think there’s a lot of theorizing and imagining that happens, and I’m telling you, I do not think that’s a problem.
DEADLINE: Obviously, the scenario of a showrunner writing all episodes of their series is not the norm, and yet we’ve heard about the AMPTP pointing to someone like The White Lotus‘ Mike White, who does so, to suggest that the WGA’s demand for minimum staffing requirements in the writers room is unreasonable. What do you think about that? Do you think showrunners that work alone will be willing to make adjustments to their creative processes to accommodate the proposed changes?
SCHUR: Look, there are 600 television shows; there’s one Mike White. The purpose of the guild is to protect the 599 people who aren’t that one person, right? It’s like, [the Los Angeles Angels’] Shohei Ohtan is a hitter and a pitcher. If all baseball teams told all of their employees that they had to both be all-star level hitters and pitchers because one guy did it, that wouldn’t seem fair. And it’s not a perfect analogy, but the goal of the union is to protect the 7000 episodic TV members who aren’t the very small number of people who prefer to do it in the way that they prefer to do it. And if the very worst thing that happened was we saved 6,958 jobs and four people had to hire three consultants to give them a second set of eyes on their episodes of their show, I think we would take that deal.
I think that’s a fair deal. And I even think that the very small number of people who happen to run their shows that way would agree that that’s a pretty good trade-off. So, this idea that you point to the one or two or three exceptional outliers who do it in one specific way, and that somehow the guild should rearrange itself so that everyone else’s job is vulnerable, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So yes, we anticipated the companies seizing on the narrative…because there are a handful of extremely exceptional outliers who tend to run their shows in one very specific way that is not the way that 99.9998% of all showrunners throughout history have run their shows. We anticipated that they would use that argument. We heard that argument; we have counteracted that argument. That argument is boring, and I wish people would stop bringing it up.
DEADLINE: There are much discussed parallels between the place of AI in today’s negotiations and new media in the early 2000s. But how have members of the Negotiating Committee approached the task of coming to grips with the newly rapidly ascending force of AI and how one might regulate it?
SCHUR: It’s not hard, honestly. You just have to look into the future. We know what they’re going to use it for, what they want to use it for because they’ve told us, and because we’ve seen it happen in other industries. There are plenty of journalists who have essentially been squeezed out of their labor force because things like AI or the mechanization of the art form has started to creep in. Artists are complaining, visual artists are complaining, musicians are complaining. That Weeknd song that turned out to be not a Weeknd song…[It’s] like, this is what they want. They want to not pay human beings and use machines instead, and the guild is not going to allow for the replacement of human writers with machines.
But it’s also important to note that like this is one small part, right? AI is not the thing we are striking over. AI is a symptom of the disease that we are combatting, and the disease is that they have a fair amount of contempt for the people who work for them. They don’t want to pay us; they don’t want us to be paid weekly. They want us to all be sort of gig employees who wait around in our houses, and they call us on the phone and say, “Hey, we’ll pay you 200 bucks to come write four jokes today,” and then you have to hope that they call you again tomorrow.
That’s not a recipe for a stable workforce, or frankly, for success for them. They’re not going to build good shows out of that, or movies out of that. So, AI is one of the…tools that they are using to try to just shrink the workforce, to try to get rid of term employment, to try to get rid of people who have stable lives and careers. So if they said tomorrow, “Ok, fine, we won’t use AI,” that would not end this strike. That would be a step towards ending the strike. But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here, or the only thing we’re fighting for.
DEADLINE: What will it take to keep momentum up amongst guild members, should the strike extend for months?
SCHUR: The things, I think, that retain solidarity and keep people’s spirits up are transparency in the process, and we’ve tried to be as open…You know, we sent everyone in the guild a detailed information sheet on the day the strike was called about exactly where we were in negotiations because we have nothing to hide, and we want everyone to know exactly what’s going on, to the best of our ability. To the extent that we can tell everyone what’s happening, we want everyone to know, and it turns out when you trust your membership and tell everyone exactly what’s happening, they tend to like that. And it also tends to educate them and make them feel like they know what we’re fighting for.
I think as long as people know what we’re fighting for and they think that what we’re fighting for is worth fighting for, then the spirits will remain high. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard. It’s hard to walk in a circle for hours at a time. It’s hard not to be in TV writers rooms or working on screenplays or pitching ideas. That’s what we want to be doing; we don’t want to be doing this. But the things that will keep our spirits up are transparency, a sense of purpose, a sense of unity. I think the solidarity from other guilds has been wind in our sails already, and I think that will continue. So, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because so far, it’s working.