A Brief History of Television Writers: 1949-1979, Part 3

In the early 1950s, as network TV grew in popularity, stories written for the small screen became more intricate and more important. To gain the recognition they felt they deserved, TV writers began to unionize. It took over a decade and even then, writers had to fight whenever their contract came up for renegotiation.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The 1959-1960 Strike

Negotiations between a multitude of Hollywood unions and producers came to a head in early 1959. Although the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees was able to agree upon a new contract with the producers on January 31st, 1959, other guilds were still fighting. The Screen Extras Guild, their contract up on April 1st, was seeking wage increases. The Writers Guild of America’s contract, meanwhile, lasted until May 15th. (Recall that the Writers Guild was in contract with a variety of different organizations for a variety of different types of film, radio and television writing. The television film contract would not expire until January of 1960.) The top officials at the Guild decided that, due to the lack of a substantial pay-TV system in place, threatening to strike over payments for pay-TV was unnecessary [72].

On April 2nd, 1959, seven Hollywood unions held an unprecedented meeting to discuss ways to promote “greater solidarity in future industry negotiations.” The unions included the Writers Guild of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, the American Federation of Musicians, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the Radio and Television Directors Guild [73]. Later in April, the Writers Guild met independently to discuss how to proceed with negotiations with the Motion Picture Producers Association of America regarding a new contract. Wages, censorship and affiliating with British writers were key points of the meeting [74].

Negotiations began falling apart in mid-1959, first with the major studios and then with independent producers. Talks with the major studios were called off and the contract set to expire on May 15th was extended to November. However, talks with some fifty independent producers on royalties for post-1948 films on television and payments for pay-TV were going nowhere, so the Guild authorized its negotiating team to call a strike in August with a unanimous vote [75]. The strike was called for October 10th, and after continuing negotiations failed, the Guild struck against 56 independent producers. On November 1st, with the strike still underway, the Guild signed contracts with three of the independent companies: Mirisch Company, Inc., Harold Hecht Productions, and the Stanley Kramer Company [76, 77, 78]. And on November 4th, the Guild authorized its negotiation team to strike against the major studios as well. In mid-November, the Screen Actors Guild met to determine if they, too, would strike, with their contract up on January 31st, 1960 [79, 80].

In December, the Screen Actors Guild also began negotiating both with the major studies and the independent studios. And the Screen Directors Guild merged with the Radio and Television Directors Guild to become the Directors Guild of America, while the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists opened informal discussions on a merger. A stronger, unified front would make negotiations easier. Also helping was support from abroad: the Screen Actors Guild announced that British Equity would support a strike if one was called and the Writers Guild said it had similar arrangements with European writers groups [81].

Although negotiations continued, and several additional independent studios signed agreements with the Writers Guild, on January 16th, 1960 the Guild went on strike against the major studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Allied Artists, and Walt Disney Productions. Although the strike by writers was certainly not to be taken lightly, the studios were far more concerned with a threatened strike by the Screen Actors Guild [82]. Less than a week later, the Guild met directly with the heads of the major studios [83]. Not all writers, however, were thrilled with the strike. The so-called “hyphenated” writers, those that were also directors and/or producers themselves, found themselves in a bind as the strike wore on. The Guild made some concessions that allowed writer-producers to perform a handful of “writer” duties without being accused of breaking the strike. In late January, negotiations between the Screen Actors Guild and the major studios continued [84].

Complicating matters for the Writers Guild was its separate contract with ABC, CBS and NBC, which was set to expire January 30th. Only days before the contract expired, both sides agreed to extend it to February 6th. On February 9th, the executive council of the Guild announced that a strike could come at any moment and resumed negotiations [85, 86]. On February 23rd, the Screen Actors Guild announced a strike against the major studios to begin March 7th, pending improvements in negotiations. Two days later, the Writers Guild came to an individual agreement with Universal-International, which broke with the Association of Motion Picture Producers and offered to pay writers between one and two percent of “income obtained by the company from any sale or lease of post-1948 films to television [87].

On March 3rd, Frank Sinatra defied the major studios and signed with the Screen Actors Guild to allow his company, Dorchester Productions, to continue working on Ocean’s 11. Tony Curtis and his Curtleigh Productions also signed with the Screen Actors Guild. The Screen Actors Guild was also negotiating with several of the independent producers that had previously signed with the Writers Guild [88]. On March 7th, the threatened strike by the Screen Actors Guild began, causing some 4,000 lay-offs among seven of the eight major studios. Universal-International, already signed with the Writers Guild of America, also signed with the Screen Actors Guild, agreeing to pay three-and-a-half percent (more than what it offered to the writers) of income on post-1948 films sold to television. Thus, by the start of March, most of the major studios were under strike by both the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, while independent producers were under strike by the Writers Guild of America only, and the television networks facing the threat of a strike from the Writers Guild [89].

In mid-March, the Writers Guild extended its strike to freelance writers working on network filmed shows. Staff writers were added to the strike on March 21st [90, 91]. On April 8th, the Screen Actors Guild gave up its demand for payments on post-1948 films shown on television and settled with the remaining major studios. However, until a membership vote, the Actors Guild only authorized work on films that had been interrupted by the strike, no new films [92]. The Writers Guild continued its strike against just about every potential studio — theatrical and television — in Hollywood. In late April, members of the Western Region of the Writers Guild of America voted down a proposal from several television film producers despite the fact that it had earlier been accepted by members of the Eastern Region [93].

Although the strike with the Screen Actors Guild had been settled, other guilds were beginning to cause problems for the studios. The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America (which worked without a contract) and the Directors Guild of America (with a contract to expire on April 30th) were both looking for additional payments on theatrical films sold to television. And the Screen Actors Guild began negotiations with the major studios for a contract covering made-for-TV films. The Writers Guild, meanwhile, continued to turn down offers from both the networks and the Association of Motion Picture Producers [94]. In late May, the Guild turned down a joint proposal from the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Alliance of Television Producers. The networks were beginning to worry the strike would delay the upcoming fall season. When the Writers Guild strike extended to television, most shows had a majority of their scripts completed, so the impact of the strike was not largely felt. As the strike wore on, however, the networks were stuck attempting to persuade advertisers that ratings would not be adversely affected by the strike [95].

The Screen Actors Guild extended their contract with the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Alliance of Television Producers in late May. It expired on April 30th but was extended to June 30th to allow negotiations to continue [96]. On June 10th, the Writers Guild announced it had reached an agreement with the Association of Motion Picture Producers to end the long strike against the major studios. The new contract would last three-and-a-half years and include a bulk payment of $600,000 to pension and welfare funds for the Guild, plus a percentage of income of on theatrical films made before 1960 on television, and a smaller percentage for films made after 1960. The Guild’s membership voted and approved the new contract on June 12th but continued to strike against the networks and television film producers [97, 98].

Following on the heels of one new contract, it seemed like a second new contract was only a matter of time. On June 16th, it was announced that the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Television Film Producers were very close to an agreement to end the strike and sign a new six-year contract. On June 20th, the membership of the Guild voted to approve the new contract, which gave them royalties, salary increases, and contributions to a welfare plan [99, 100]. In early July, the Screen Actors Guild also reached an agreement with both the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Alliance of Television Film Producers. The Screen Extras Guild, however, was threatening its own strike [101]. With so many new contracts being signed, it was only a matter of time before the Writers Guild also settled with the television networks, allowing broadcast television to continue marching merrily forward.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Works Cited:
72 Pryor, Thomas M. “Hollywood Views.” New York Times. 8 Feb. 1959: X7.
73 Shepard, Richard F. “C.B.S. Sounds Taps for Ernie Bilko.” New York Times. 2 Apr. 1959: 63.
74 Schumach, Murray. “Writers to Meet on New Demands.” New York Times. 16 Apr. 1959: 28.
75 Schumach, Murray. “Screen Writers May Call Strike.” New York Times. 1 Sep. 1959: 20.
76 “Writers on Coast to Strike Oct. 10.” New York Times. 2 Oct. 1959: 23.
77 “40 Writers Out in Movie Strike.” New York Times. 13 Oct. 1959: 44.
78 “Pact Ends Strike At 3 Film Companies.” New York Times. 1 Nov. 1959: 59.
79 Schumach, Murray. “Strike Approved at Major Studios.” New York Times. 5 Nov. 1959: 39.
80 Schumach, Murray. “Hollywood Poser.” New York Times. 15 Nov. 1959: X7.
81 Schumach, Murray. “Hollywood Blues.” New York Times. 13 Dec. 1959: X9.
82 Schumach, Murray. “Movie Writers Schedule Strike Against Major Studios Today.” New York Times. 16 Jan. 1960: 14.
83 Schumach, Murray. “Heads of Major Studios Enter Strike Talks With Film Writers.” New York Times. 20 Jan. 1960: 25.
84 Schumach, Murray. “Writers Divided by Film Strike.” New York Times. 26 Jan. 1960: 27.
85 “TV Strike is Put Off.” New York Times. 20 Jan. 1960: 51.
86 “TV Strike is Backed.” New York Times. 10 Feb. 1960: 75.
87 Schumach, Murray. “Actors, Studios Resume Parleys.” New York Times. 26 Feb. 1960: 23.
88 Schumach, Murray. “Sinatra Settles with Film Actors.” New York Times. 4 Mar. 1960: 19.
89 Schumach, Murray. “Actors’ Strike Shuts Hollywood Studios.” New York Times. 8 Mar. 1960: 1.
90 “Writers Strike Grows.” New York Times. 16 Mar. 1960: 75.
91 “Writers Strike Grows.” New York Times. 22 Mar. 1960: 39.
92 Schumach, Murray. “Work to Resume at Studios Today.” New York Times. 11 Apr. 1960: 43.
93 “Writers Reject Offer.” New York Times. 30 Apr. 1960: 15.
94 “Composers, Lyricists Threaten Movie Strike on TV Film Issue.” Wall Street Journal. 9 May 1960: 11.
95 Shepard, Richard. “Writers Reject TV Contract Bid.” New York Times. 27 May 1960: 67.
96 “Actors Extend TV Contract.” New York Times. 28 May 1960: 45.
97 Schumach, Murray. “Screen Writers and 7 Studios Settle Strike Begun on Jan. 16.” New York Times. 11 Jun. 1960: 12.
98 “Film Writers Vote Strike End.” New York Times. 13 Jun. 1960: 33.
99 Shepard, Richard F. “TV Bible Stories Planned By N.B.C.” New York Times. 16 Jun. 1960: 67.
100 “Writers Approve Pact.” New York Times. 21 Jun. 1960: 67.
101 Schumach, Murray. “TV Pact Pleasing to Movie Actors.” New York Times. 4 Jul. 1960: 9.

Originally Published November 5th, 2007
Last Updated April 29th, 2018

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