WGA strikers, students tell Warner CEO: ‘Pay your writers’

Writers Guild-East (WGAE) strikers and their supporters from Boston-area unions, recently organized Boston University graduate and residence-life workers, and graduates in red caps and gowns — more than 1,000 people — converged on BU’s commencement May 21. The target of their anger: the union-busting commencement speaker, David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery.

Boston University graduates join WGA strike line, May 21, 2023. (Photo: Maureen Skehan)

The protesters checked in at the university’s Playwrights’ Theater, which workers there had turned into strike solidarity headquarters for the day. The theater is home of the Graduate Playwriting Program at BU. The demonstrators all signed up there to get picket signs and be assigned to gate picket duty. 

WGAE strike captains assigned picketers to the main entrance and the VIP entrance to the stadium event. The main force stretched two blocks along Commonwealth Avenue. There they greeted thousands of graduates and their families with news of profound labor conflict at the prestigious campus.

The solidarity between students and workers had grown over the past year. In recent months over 4,000 BU graduate and residence-life workers voted in near-unanimous landslides to join the Service Employees Union (SEIU). 

Teach Brown and Zaslav a lesson

Then on May 3, outgoing-BU President Robert Brown announced Zaslav for commencement speaker, the day after WGA began their well-publicized national strike. Brown’s words threatened university workers, the WGA and the students. Immediately the student workers went into action, reaching out to WGAE leadership in solidarity and demanding that the administration immediately “Cancel Zaslav!”  

Thousands of BU students pay $50,000 per year and more to earn Fine Arts degrees, including screenwriting, media arts, film technology, music, acting and theater arts. Their “Cancel Zaslav!” campaign featured Hollywood-quality social media, posters, petitions, film and community events, which went viral as Boston Globe headlines had for weeks announced its hundreds of labor and community supporters and reached millions coast to coast. 

Solidarity spreads

The solidarity throughout the BU community — whose 140 acres of campus and dormitories make it one of Boston’s largest landlords — reached thousands more neighborhood workers at Starbucks, Target, Taco Bell, REI and Alphabet, who joined the call denouncing BU’s overt union busting, as did local political leaders. 

A widely disseminated BU Young Democratic Socialists (YDSA) leaflet summarized the attack as “a slap in the face to both the writers on strike . . . and to the graduating seniors at BU who plan to work in the industry.”

Anya Epstein of WGA-East commanding the strike line at BU commencement, May 21, 2023. (Photo: Maureen Skehan

Anya Epstein, a leader of WGA-East from New York City, commanded the chants atop a Jersey stone barrier outside the Nickerson Field main entrance. Some 7,526 graduates and their families first heard her message loud and clear: “No Wages, No Pages!”

Hundreds of graduates raised their fists and took turns in the line, many writing pro-union messages on their caps, including the crowd favorite: “F*!# Zaslav!” A few brave gowned graduates refused to cross the line, skipping the corporate pomp, but getting A+ for solidarity.

‘Bye-bye to AI’

Epstein’s most sustained chant spotlighted Zaslav and fellow Hollywood studio moguls’ headlong drive to replace writers’ talented labor and artistry with artificial intelligence (AI), a major issue of the now month-long industry strike. 

“When I say AI, you say bye-bye! AI, bye-bye! AI, bye-bye!” drowned out BU’s pomp and circumstance outside the stadium. Even blocks away, where VIPs exited limousines to reach the theater through a side-entrance picket, they had to hear the chants.

Inside, when President Brown rose to introduce Zaslav, whole sections of graduates, many holding new degrees in media and entertainment writing, raised solidarity hell. They and their family members immediately started booing, heckling, turning their backs and chanting for 22 minutes. 

At one minute and 21 seconds into a widely reported video, a righteous graduate stunned the aviator-sunglassed boss Zaslov, yelling out, “F— you, you piece of sh–!” Hundreds rose to their feet cheering and began rhythmically clapping and chanting: “Pay your writers!” The disruption didn’t stop until Zaslav, an alumnus of BU’s law school who had pocketed $286 million of workers’ surplus labor over the past two years, sat down in a disgrace that went viral.

WGA’s leaflet explained the stakes: “While Warner Bros. Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav prepares to speak at Boston University’s commencement, television and screen writers are facing the most comprehensive assault on our compensation and working conditions in a generation. The studios have taken advantage of the transition to streaming to underpay writers at all levels. . . 

“The same race-to-the-bottom practices that hurt writers hurt workers up and down the call sheet. That’s why so many are standing with writers: the entertainment guilds and unions, international writers’ unions, other labor organizations and political and community leaders.”

To support and join the writers’ strike lines, go to wgastrike.org.

Steve Gillis is a 37-year member and an elected leader of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, United Steelworkers Local 8751, now working for the members and retired from driving. USW Local 8751 brought their loudhailer sound equipment to the WGA-East action in solidarity with the strikers.

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