Trek Captain Strikes for the Future
Writers combat the greed of the few
This article contains excerpts from a larger conversation
Bill Wolkoff doesn’t want to strike. He has to.
By now, you’ve heard what’s happening in Hollywood. If you haven’t, the Writer’s Guild of America is on strike, and production on basically every film and television show has been brought to a standstill. We reached out to former Open Pike Night podcast (OPN) guest and Star Trek Strange New Worlds writer/producer Bill Wolkoff to seek clarity on the details from someone holding an actual megaphone.
“I’m striking for future writers, who are inheriting a gig economy and not a career.”
[Listen to the Full Interview Here]
OPN Caller Abby: What’s something you wish the public knew with greater clarity with regard to the strike? What’s your elevator pitch?
BW: The middle class amongst writer ranks is being slowly eradicated from this business. That’s my main reason for striking.
Outside of the elevator pitch? 15 years into my career, I consider myself lucky. I’ve been treated well as a TV writer by Paramount, but I am the exception that proves the rule. It is becoming increasingly difficult for writers to earn a middle-class living in the industry. Even on a show like Star Trek, our showrunners have to fight for their staff.
The advent of streaming has created a whole new world of loopholes where the studios can remove writers from the process as much as possible - leading to what can amount to a gig economy for writers… with some writers having to drive for Uber when they’re not in a room.
I’m striking for future writers, who are inheriting a gig economy and not a career.
OPN: When did you realize the system wasn’t working?
BW: I’ve also worked extensively in animation. The contract for IATSE 839 (Animation Guild) is not great for writers. So I’ve really felt how difficult it is to string together a career. Again, this is not about the super rich writers, they only make up a small percentage of our ranks. This is about middle-class writers who are just like everybody else.
In kids’ animation, it’s extremely hard to maintain a full career. Sometimes you have to hold two jobs at the same time, and you’re always scrambling to get the next one, and you’re scrambling to do development work while you’re working on something, just to get by, just to make your year. When I was in that world, it really came into focus for me how scary it is.
The studios and the companies would be perfectly happy for the Writers Guild to have a similar contract to the way they treat IATSE 839.
The gains that we make in our contract will help benefit future unions. All the gains we make, they can make the argument for when they go up. There are a lot of great writers and great people and great artists in that union that are not treated well by the studios.
OPN: When you say “make your year,” you’re saying writers have to write a certain number of weeks to maintain the benefits you get as a member of the WGA, is that correct?
BW: Absolutely. It’s very easy to lose your health benefits in this industry now. A lot of writing now happens in what are called “mini-rooms,” and that’s why a lot of writers haven’t made enough in order to qualify for health insurance.
In 2014, I was on Star Wars Rebels, and that was a non-union show. On Rebels, the way they structured the room, you would go in for writer’s conferences for a couple days, and you would get paid for those days, and then you were sent off to write your outline and write your script - and you got a script fee, but you weren’t making bankable hours. And also, none of the money I made went to health benefits because it was a non-union show. So I lost my insurance that year. I was fortunate that I was able to get on Covered California that year.
So that’s how easy it is; “You get the privilege of working on Star Wars, yay! But guess what? You lose your health insurance. YAY!”
“It’s fucking historic how much union solidarity we have had.”
OPN: We’ll try to ignore the irony of Star Wars: Rebels not being a union show. So you are a Strike Captain - what does that mean and how did you become one?
BW: I was a Captain through the agency campaign in 2019. So when the WGA launches a campaign, they look for Captains to communicate to members what the campaign is, what the Guild’s position is, and then to see what the members are thinking and feeling. Then, I can communicate that to my rep at the WGA. The Captain is basically a liaison between the members and the leadership.
So after 2019, they asked me to become a Contract Captain. The last time the WGA negotiated was in 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, so we couldn’t really fight for anything in 2020. We had no way to withhold our work if we needed to, so everything was put on the table and all of our issues that we wanted to fight for in 2020 got pushed to 2023.
So it’s all building up to educating the leadership as to what our membership is feeling. Then the leadership assesses everything that I’ve said and every Captain has said (there’s hundreds of Captains in the WGA) and they look at what on average the membership is feeling. And what they came up with was, “Wow. We did not realize that the career of writing is in as much danger as it is.”
That’s how the WGA came up with their list of proposals that they brought to the AMPTP. After they were not able to come up with a fair deal, then I became a Strike Captain, and now we’re on strike. Today was day 16.
OPN: Do you get a Number One, as a Captain?
BW: (Laughs) I’ve been saying this for years now, that I am officially a Star Trek Captain.
OPN: What’s your warp command?
BW: Fair deal now!
OPN: The support for the WGA from other unions has been huge, and even other non-entertainment unions too. Is this a much bigger thing than anyone was expecting as far as the solidarity and support being shown?
BW: I’m allowed to swear here, right? It’s fucking historic how much union solidarity we have had.
It’s very different than it was in 2007. IATSE and the Teamsters did not support the strike, and there was a lot of bad blood between IATSE and the WGA at the time. It is 180 degrees from that right now. IATSE has been fully supportive of the strike, the Teamsters have been amazing. If they see a picket line, they’re not gonna cross it.
So the strike has been very effective in hurting production and slowing it down. That’s the only way we are going to get the studios and companies to come back to the table - is if they start to hurt in their pocketbook. It’s the only way. We have to use the power that we have, and that is to withhold our work and use our lawful picket lines to disrupt production.
Now, I have to add that the studios and companies are very clever and are using union-busting ways to try to get around that.
OPN: Wait a minute, we thought union-busting was illegal?
BW: Well, it is. But I’ll give you an example.
As I understand it, this is a recent federal law that allows companies that are lawfully struck that also cater to other companies that are not being struck to designate areas that are called “neutral” for the other companies to come and go without having to cross a picket line. So what does that mean? That means that every studio that has business that is not WGA affiliated can lawfully designate what they are calling a “neutral gate.”
This gate is not supposed to be traveled by any employees or any teamster trucks that are affiliated with struck WGA productions.
Now, would it shock you to learn that those gates are in fact being used for that?
“We are asking to share in the success of our work when it is successful for the studios.”
OPN: So what we’re getting is that the “Romulans” have set up a “Neutral Zone” and then violated it repeatedly…everything comes back to Star Trek! We’ve been following you on Twitter and seeing the discussion of neutral gates being moved, or the neutral gate not being neutral. We can wait as long as we have to for new Star Trek. We stand in solidarity, and if we can do it, we think others can do it.
And we don’t expect everyone to be fully read up on what’s being asked for; we’re talking 2 percent of profits. We’re not talking the 25 or 50 they should be asking for in our opinion, we’re talking 2 percent. This is a life-changing amount of money for thousands of people, but not for the people that are withholding it. It is not an unreasonable thing.
BW: Thank you for bringing up that figure. It’s actually 2 percent of the profits from our work alone. Their profits and revenues are astronomical, and they tout them to their shareholders all the time and then turn around and tell us that there’s no money.
I do wanna be specific about it; it’s about a fair deal. We are getting paid, but it is not a fair deal.
It’s two percent of the profits from our work alone. To put it even more simply, we are asking to share in the success of our work when it is successful for the studios and companies. That requires them to be transparent and tell us when the work is successful. They don’t want to do that.
OPN Caller Jessie from Alaska: Do you have any tips on breaking into the industry? I have a handful of spec scripts, but after sending them out I got virtually no responses. Now I’m pursuing a master’s degree in Space Operations.
BW: Jessie I gotta say, that’s amazing that you’re getting a degree in Space Operations. That’s going to help you with writing, too! The first thing I would say is I’m sorry that it’s not a great time to break in at the moment. But this happens a lot, historically, in our business. When new technologies are brought in, the studios and companies start to use them. It happened with VHS, it happened with the advent of sound, it’s happened over and over again in our business; they find loopholes to pay writers less.
This is happening again now with streaming. It looks like it’s gonna happen with the use of AI.
This is going to resolve. It will resolve. I am striking for writers like you, Jessie. So that when you come into this business and you do make your success as a writer, that you inherit a world where you can have a career. That’s why this fight is so important right now.
It takes a long time (to break in) for some people, and it takes a short time for other people. That is just the business. I was a late bloomer, it took me fifteen years to become an established writer. I have friends that it took 1-2 years, I have friends that took 5 years. Everybody’s journey is different, but keep on your journey. What you’re doing is the right thing; you’re writing. And now you’re getting more life experiences, so it sounds like you’re discouraged, but I would say, “holy shit, you’re doing everything right!”
Keep doing it, just keep doing it and keep writing. Eventually, luck will be shining on you, and you’ll have done all this work to be in a position to maximize that luck when it is in front of you.
Hear more from Bill on the use of generative AI in the entertainment industry, the lack of creatives at the top of studios, and why the WGA is just so damn good at striking - listen to the full interview now on your favorite podcast app.