School of Industrial and Labor Relations alumna Ellen Stutzman ’04 was taken by surprise when she received the call to serve as chief negotiator for the Writers Guild of America in February. But nearly nine months and a 148-day strike later, Stutzman and the 11,500 screenwriters in the union walked away with protections from artificial intelligence, staffing minimums in writers’ rooms and subscription-based bonuses, among other significant gains following negotiations with the once-unyielding Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. An overwhelming 99 percent of the WGA voted to ratify the contract on Oct. 9.
“[I am feeling] an intense amount of pride for what writers were willing to do… I’m pretty much in awe of that,” Stutzman said, having made several appearances at the picket lines. “I feel like this is a really important year in the labor movement.”
Stutuzman graduated from ILR in 2004 and began working as a research analyst at SEIU-UHW, a health care workers’ union, before working numerous roles at WGA. Over the years, the WGA has had major wins in support of writers’ rights through the 2007 writers’ strike, disputes with top talent agencies and other movements in support of pension and health funds.
“It was just a lot of responsibility, knowing we had a big agenda. We needed to make real important gains,” Stutzman said. “[I felt] an even greater weight because people have walked off the job. They’re putting their careers and their future in the business on the negotiating committee, myself and the staff that has to bring the deal in.”
More than 11,000 film and television writers walked off the job when the strike began on May 2, pausing production and grinding Hollywood to a halt, citing concerns about studios’ use of artificial intelligence, “mini-rooms” that had forced writers to work short term gigs for long hours and little pay and streaming-based residuals.
The writers were eventually joined on the picket lines by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — which represents both film and television actors — who began their strike on July 14. The “double strike” was the first time since 1960 that two of Hollywood’s three major unions — the WGA, SAG-AFTRA and the Directors’ Guild of America, which represents film and television directors — had gone on strike simultaneously.
SAG-AFTRA remains on strike, with negotiations having begun on Oct. 2.
Throughout the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major production companies including Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros., remained steadfast in denying writers’ demands early in the strike. The alliance coordinated with Stutzman and the WGA for negotiations in August but the two sides were unable to strike a deal.
“It’s kind of amazing how long it takes for them to realize you just have to make this deal,” Stutzman said. “The companies made us an offer in August that started to address some of our issues, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Stutzman described her negotiation strategy as always keeping the most essential proposals on the table regardless of the studios’ smaller promises, including staff writer script fees and money diversion in health and pension funds.
“If people are gonna go on strike, the strike has to have meaning,” Stutman said. “The writers realized that we were fighting for issues in every area — and when we’re fighting on things like artificial intelligence, it affects everyone.”
According to Stutzman, because of the writers’ determination and commitment to the movement, the strikers were able to stand their ground, drive the studios to their bottom line and have them give up what the WGA really wanted.
“Interestingly, because the things that we needed the most were the things that were hardest for the companies to give, they were the things that we would keep fighting for,” Stutzman said. The companies kind of gave other things along the way, in hopes that that would be enough to end the strike. It wasn’t, and that was how we ended up making certain gains.”
The tide finally turned in early September, when the production studios agreed to meet with Stutzman and the WGA’s negotiating committee.
“When the companies came into the room for the final few days of negotiations, they were just different,” Stutzman said. “When you want to make a deal — when you finally recognize the power that writers are exercising when they’re on strike — a company says ‘okay, we can do some of the things you’ve been demanding.’”
The AMPTP and WGA ultimately struck a deal on Sept. 24, and writers returned to work while they voted on the deal.
Stutzman said her passion for labor rights and organization began at Cornell, where she delved into her interests by organizing with student groups on campus.
“Cornell and going to the ILR School is the reason I’m in the labor movement,” Stutzman said, reflecting on her participation in the Cornell Organization for Labor Action. “Student activism was what shaped my professional career of wanting to fight for workers.”
As a member of COLA, Stutzman recollected disrupting the implementation of laundry and uniform provider Cintas due to concerns over overtime pay, discrimination and complaints over health and safety. Stutzman led protest chants against Taco Bell in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who picked the tomatoes Taco Bell used in their food. Having been a student during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Stutzman was also involved in protests over Guantanamo Bay and helped build jail cells on the Arts Quad to comment on America’s holding of prisoners without trial during the Global War on Terror.
In the spirit of recent waves of student activism at Cornell — including the Make Cornell Pay movement and support for the unionization of the local Starbucks — Stutzman applauded Cornell’s student activists, and further advised students to make use of allies and the local community.
“[COLA] did a lot of work with people in the community, so I would say it’s important to have allies outside of students within Cornell — community activists who can help and have resources,” Stutzman said.
According to Stutzman, there is still more work that needs to be completed following the ratification, and WGA remains committed to supporting SAG-AFTRA in their efforts to secure a deal.
“We are still out there on the picket line supporting SAG-AFTRA, and we will do that until they get a deal,” Stutzman said. “Actors joining writers on the picket line was a huge thing — the two unions haven’t stuck together since 1960.”
Stutzman said that the WGA will continue to work on policy issues related to the outcomes of the deal, such as its artificial intelligence aspects, which have gained widespread attention for their potential impact on the labor force. She added that with these new provisions, the WGA’s next step is to work to educate agents, managers and lawyers to make sure these new rules are properly enforced.
“Everyone will get a little breather, and then we’ll go right to having to enforce the agreement,” Stuzman said, looking forward.
Reflecting on the tumultuous past year, Stutzman said she was proud of the work WGA was able to accomplish when the screenwriting community came together with sacrifice and determination.
“[The outcome] was amazing — the movement and feeling that people have of sticking together and making real gains,” Stutzman said. “It’s just an amazing thing to have been a part of.”