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The Importance of Unions as WGA Strikes Continue

What are unions, what do they do and why are they important? Two Millersville professors discuss their merits and analyze the WGA strikes.

With Labor Day approaching while multiple on-going strikes are featured in the news, it can be beneficial to review and learn what the functions of a union are and why they may vote to strike.

Dr. Kelly Banna, professor of psychology and past president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties Millersville University chapter, explains that one of the main functions of a union is collective bargaining.

“Collective bargaining basically grants employees the ability to negotiate working terms and conditions, including salary and pay, at the group rather than at the individual level,” she says.

“Employees elect people from their bargaining unit to negotiate with the organization on their behalf. By negotiating in concert, they wield greater power to effect changes that benefit workers, in part because the organization often cannot afford to lose all of its workforce, and in part because employees who work in a collective bargaining environment often negotiate for greater employment security,” Banna continues.

One such union at Millersville University is APSCUF, which seeks to ensure fair working conditions for faculty employed within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Each PASSHE campus has its own local chapter, executive board and representatives.

Last month, APSCUF announced that it stands in solidarity with the unions who are currently on strike, including the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The WGA has been on strike since May, with SAG-AFTRA joining in June. The strikes have been high-profile due to the big names involved and for the effects this could have on the film and television industry.

“The work stoppage is affecting all aspects of entertainment,” says Dr. Stacey Irwin, professor in the media arts production program. “Historically, we can see from past strikes how the industry has changed. New shows and movies will not be coming out when we expect them. Any work not completed before the strike started is just sitting there in the queue.”

“Even nonunion work is stopped or stalled. Freelance work is also affected, and that is a different side of the industry. I think that it will take years to recover.”

While some independent films and film festivals can continue under the strike guidelines, movie theaters may begin to feel the effects of the strike as new movies stop releasing.

“In most cases, independent films are lower in budget and are not large moneymakers for cast and crew,” Irwin explains. “Movie theatres where festivals are screened are also feeling the strikes, and the independently owned ones will begin to close their doors, because if there are no new movies, theatres are not making money.”

“I’m guessing that the nature of entertainment could change quite a bit depending on how long the strikes last. Consumers want choice in their viewing, and producers are not going to be able to deliver new content without WGA and SAG-AFTRA members.”

“This absolutely has affected our alumni and faculty in the entertainment industry,” Irwin adds. “We have alumni working in a variety of entertainment industry positions who are looking at their future and wondering, what comes next?”

Some of the key issues for both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes include fair pay and proper residuals for the duration that a media work is available to the audience – something that has changed significantly with the introduction of streaming. The use of AI in writing has also been called into question.

“Many professional entertainment writers have practiced writing for many years,” says Irwin. “They started as young writers, were ‘brought up’ in a writer’s room mentorship environment and are still not making a living wage based on contemporary entertainment business models.”

“Not everyone can write for entertainment. It is a craft,” she adds. “Writers want their role in the process rewarded. It takes many different kinds of labor to make good entertainment media. Writing is central to this process, and good writing is the gold standard.”

Banna says that there are many ways to show support for a union, including refusing to engage in commerce with the relevant companies, walking picket lines or donating money to help fund supplies for striking employees.

“When a union voices support during a strike, it carries the weight of the whole membership, and there is strength in numbers,” Banna says.

“I cannot speak on behalf of State APSCUF, which has the prerogative to release official statements of support for other striking unions, but in my opinion it’s important to support other unions when they strike for two main reasons,” she concludes. “First, we sympathize with those workers and want to see them treated fairly and with respect, and to see their labor fairly valued. Second, each successful negotiation for one union strengthens the bargaining position of other unions—we want to see them succeed because it increases the likelihood that we will also be successful in our negotiations.”

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