SAG-AFTRA actors and Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers walk the picket line in front of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles July 17, 2023 (OSV News photo/Mike Blake, Reuters).

A day on the picket line begins with considering the heat. It’s August. I live in the Valley. Even in the best of times, even in a merely “normal hot” summer and not a “climate change is breaking daily temperature records across the globe” summer, it would be quite hot, and spending hours outside in direct sunlight during the middle of the day would be the kind of thing I would work hard to avoid. But because there is a strike going on and I need to picket, staying home is not an option. And so I consider the heat and how best to protect myself.

The Writers Guild is on strike and has been for months. On August 9, we officially reached one hundred days. The Screen Actors Guild has been by our side for the past month, having joined the strike during the hot weather and staying while it gets even hotter. The toll on each of us is specific, personal. It varies depending on our economic circumstances, our health, where we are in our careers, whether we have children or pets or relatives we care for—and if any of them feel like walking in circles with us in the noonday sun.

At times, the challenge that has been hardest for me has been the weird alienation that comes from not doing a job that I love, or the anxieties around what lies on the other side of this for myself and for our whole industry. Sometimes it’s insecurity borne of hearing other writers chat about the novels they are writing in their newfound free time or the spec scripts that they can’t wait to unleash. But today, I am mostly thinking about getting dressed.

After three months, I’ve hit on my ideal picket ensemble, a look that I like call “amateur zookeeper.” I wear long, loose pants, a Writers Guild strike t-shirt, with a pale-blue SPF 50 button-down on top. To this I add a giant straw hat, sunglasses, thin gloves (both for sun protection and sign grippage), a fanny pack for my ID, keys, and Writers Guild card, and bright turquoise walking shoes.

It keeps me cool in the literal sense—and only in the literal sense.

I grab my water bottle (a staff gift from a show years ago, now so banged up with wear and tear that the show’s name has worn off) and head out the door. From where I live, I can walk or bike to Disney or take the bus to Universal. If I’m meeting a friend—the picket catch-up is the new “cup of coffee or maybe a hike”—I’ll drive or take the subway to Amazon or Netflix or Paramount.

Some days—with a great conversation with friends, delicious snacks baked by our intrepid strike captains or dropped off in a box from Jay Leno, a fiery and inspirational speech or two—it’s genuinely fun, a delightful, transportive experience. Most days it’s fine: not the exercise I’d seek out, maybe, but if you keep your headphones out of your ears (and most people do), there’s always someone interesting to talk to. Some days, it’s less than fine. All days it’s hot.

And, when conversation lags, there’s time to consider big questions. For one, why are we doing this? Well, that one I know the answer to: the disruptions of the streaming model make it much harder for writers to earn the living they used to, and more disruptions are on the way. We’re striking for the same reason that we struck over VHS technology and the advent of the internet—because large companies will always use technological advances to harm workers unless someone stops them. Because we’ve watched other good, creative jobs get gobbled up by hedge funds and monopolies and we don’t want to be next. Because we’ve seen that you don’t get what you don’t fight for.

We’re striking for the same reason that we struck over VHS technology and the advent of the internet—because large companies will always use technological advances to harm workers unless someone stops them.

Other things I wonder: Why can’t a group of writers script better rally chants? Seriously, folks. “Hey hey / ho ho” in 2023? And, why did it take so long for Universal to give us a few feet of sidewalk to stand on? No clue.

But the thing I think about most is the idea of solidarity: how destabilizing it feels after decades of internet-based atomization followed by COVID-era seclusion to be in a large, powerful group of strangers actually talking to each other.

How precious, how rare it is to be doing something alongside another person. It’s not purely an act of charity, nor an act of pure selfishness, but an act where our collective behavior benefits us both—an act that makes no sense unless it’s done by a group for a group. If I personally had stopped working in May and paced up and down in front of Disney for months, I would have been a curiosity, at best. Probably I simply would have been invisible. But in the thousands, we have the potential to disrupt billions of dollars of entertainment industry business and thereby make ourselves noticed. It works for all of us but only if we all do it.

To quote from Fratelli tutti, and here Pope Francis is quoting himself:

Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means combatting the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land, and housing, the denial of social and labour rights.

For me, the opportunity to be on strike is a chance to put this often theoretical notion of solidarity into practice. To embody the sometimes hollow op-ed encomium to “focus on what unites us instead of what divides us.” It is certainly more comfortable to sit on a couch in the air conditioning and have ideas about society. Sitting comfortably and having ideas about society is one of my greatest pleasures (please invite me on your podcast). Walking in the same circle with no shade next to jackhammers, striking up chit-chat with someone I’ve never met before is not comfortable at all. Sitting comfortably also allows me to curate the circle of people I interact with, whereas on the picket line, we get all kinds of folks: extroverted actors in sequins, elder screenwriters weeks away from hip surgeries, young support staff showing their encouragement and gently networking, members of IATSE taking the opportunity to explain the labor issues facing their union in advance of their own negotiations this fall. People bring their kids. People bring their parents. People bring their dogs.

In Fratelli tutti, Francis remarks of digital relationships, “They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication.” I promise you that, especially given the prevalence of natural deodorant in the Los Angeles writer/actor community, we are getting very well acquainted with each other’s smells and perspiration.

And we are also getting accustomed to a style of communication that feels like the opposite of internet speech. Online, the only discourse options are Twitter (do I have to call it “X”?) despair or Instagram jubilation. Our lives are either the unceasing grind of late capitalism as filtered through self-diagnosed mental illness or an amazing series of vacations and professional wins.

The best way that I’ve found to encounter reality is daily: on the line, in the heat, side by sweaty side. For as long as it takes.

But on the picket line, people can just talk, for real. I ran into a woman while picketing whom I know well enough to have seen the glossy exterior of her successful career, but while we walked, she opened up about the toll it took—and the horrible treatment she received from the companies for whom she created profits. I ran into a man, again someone I really don’t know that well, who opened up to me about parenting challenges with disarming honesty. I’ve had people tell me about industry professionals who lied to their faces, jobs they were promised that never materialized, the day they decided once and for all to freeze their eggs. None of these were succinct quips of gloom or glory; they were the stuff of life, as it’s lived. Messy, hesitant. “Is this too much?” “Can I talk about addiction?” “I don’t want to name names, but—”

And I talked too, about what’s been going well for me and what’s been hard, about work stuff and life stuff and the place where life stuff meets work stuff. I’ve walked with women decades older than I am who opened up about the sexism they faced in their early careers. I’ve walked with recent grads who are anxious that the degrees they just took out loans for may be in a field that no longer exists.

I’ve talked, but I’ve tried to listen more. And, when there’s nothing else to say, I’ve tried to fill in the silence with companionable presence. To walk politely, accommodating people’s different paces and gaits. To make sure that people remember to hydrate. To share my sunscreen.

Sometimes someone is going through something to which there is no easy response—there are people who talk about their employment-dependent health insurance lapsing in a few weeks or their partners needing to pick up extra work to make up for the loss of income. A strike is meant to be painful for the corporations, but it is not easy for the strikers or other affected workers, and there are problems that no Jay Leno doughnuts can fix. (The Entertainment Community Fund is the best financial resource for anyone in the business who is facing hardship—or for anyone not in the business who would like to donate.)

One of the reasons it’s easy and pleasant to have ideas in air conditioning is that there’s always a better plan somewhere else, one not burdened by the unpleasant humanity of actual people. I can’t know that there’s not a hypothetical Earth 2 where a strike was averted because everyone was smarter and better than the Earthlings we have here. But I do know that, given everything we’ve seen over the past months and years, and given the deal we were offered, striking felt like the only choice. And that once we had begun, we were committed to winning. As Francis reminds us, ideas may be fun, but “true wisdom demands an encounter with reality.”

And the best way that I’ve found to encounter reality is daily: on the line, in the heat, side by sweaty side. For as long as it takes.

Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright, screenwriter, and essayist. She spent four seasons as a writer/producer on Hulu's acclaimed series The Handmaid's Tale. Her most recent work was as writer and Executive Producer of Extrapolations, the first television drama centered entirely around climate change, for Apple TV +. She is the 2021 laureate of the George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts & Letters for outstanding work in the category of fiction writer or dramatist.

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Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents
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