At first glance, it appeared this past Wednesday like a crew of about a half dozen picketing writers outside a Chelsea warehouse had single-handedly shut down a day of production on “Billions,” the prestige Showtime drama, for the third time during the Writers Guild of America TV writers strike.
In reality, the skeleton crew of writers wasn’t acting alone. The picketers’ appearance had triggered a domino effect of solidarity from other television worker unions that ended up stopping the show’s production that day.
Production shutdowns have become a regular feature of the writers’ strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade group representing producers, major studios and streaming services. Working in concert with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members and Teamster truck drivers, members of the Writers Guild members have either shut down or halted at least a dozen productions as part of the ongoing strike the union is waging in New York, according to the WGA.
Other affected shows include FX’s “American Horror Story,” Apple’s “Severance” and “The Penguin,” HBO Max’s new Batman show, among others. Paramount Media, the owner of Showtime, did not respond for comment about the “Billions” picket.
In New York and Hollywood, the Writers Guild has found a loyal ally in the IATSE, which has in many cases worked as the muscle on set to enforce the writers strike and quite literally seize production — a move that comes with financial stakes for the IATSE crew members. Each day IATSE members sit out a production, they are not getting paid.
“It’s a really cool, incredible thing that we know any crew member that chooses not to cross is giving up their day’s pay,” said L.E. Correia, a strike captain at the “Billions” set. “They could cross our picket line, and so the fact that they’re choosing not to is a really powerful thing. And I think it’s freaking the studios out.”
Though IATSE represents sound technicians, carpenters, makeup artists, set decorators, costume designers and other behind the scenes workers, its members are very familiar with the plight of the writers. A year and half ago, the union authorized its own strike during contract negotiations with AMPTP, and just narrowly came to an agreement to avoid their first strike in the union’s 130-year history.
“Labor has to stick together. Workers have to stick together,” IATSE President Matthew Loeb recently told Variety about the writers’ strike.
On Wednesday morning, WGA East picketers had arrived early to “Billions” to set up shop. According to one strike captain, the catering trucks saw them and decided to turn away to avoid crossing the picket line. When the show’s producer saw the picketers, one strike captain said that they sent much of the production crew over to their other shooting location in Brooklyn, only to find another picket line had been set up there.
While IATSE is uniquely positioned to aid the striking writers, they are not alone in their support for writers strike. CUNY Professional Staff Congress members, among other unions, flocked to rallies that WGA held this week outside “upfronts,” the annual showcases that media companies hold to promote their lineups in hopes of attracting advertisers. Warren Leight, a strike captain and showrunner for “Law & Order: SVU” said Communication Workers of America showed up to a prior picket outside “Billions” set.
“There’s a moment of union solidarity now that just hasn’t been the case and I think it’s in response to the unbridled corporate greed,” Leight told NY1 host Errol Louis on his podcast.
While WGA members report that members of the actor’s union, SAG-AFTRA, has been supportive on the picket line, its real test will come June 7 when it begins to bargain for its own film and TV contract with AMPTP. In a preview of what could come next, its national board voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend that the union’s members authorize a strike in advance of the contract.
“If SAG takes a strike authorization vote, I think that will be tremendous. Because the studios know that if SAG is on strike and the writers are on the strike at the same time that it’s like really game over,” Correia said.
One thing that the ”Billions” picket line made clear: support for the WGA is not limited to those in unions. As the picketing members gathered for a pizza break, a random passerby pulled over her SUV to roll down her window and shout at the picketers “Hell yes get that money!”