WGA & SAG-AFTRA Join Labor Organizations Calling On California To Grant Unemployment Benefits To Striking Workers

SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America West are among more than 20 labor organizations lobbying for passage of a bill pending in the California legislature that would make striking workers in the state eligible for unemployment benefits, as they are in New York and New Jersey.

SAG-AFTRA has now been on strike for 40 days, and the WGA for 113 days.

The bill – SB 799 – is sponsored by Sens. Anthony Portantino and Maria Elena Durazo and Assemblyman Chris Holden, who are looking to fast-track it.  

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“SB 799 is critical legislation for all working Californians,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator. “Striking workers deserve the same protections that are afforded to other employees when they are not working. No one wants to go on strike – it’s an action of last resort and workers who find themselves in this position should not be penalized by withholding of state unemployment insurance benefits just because employers refuse to make a fair deal.”

“For nearly four months, the studios’ strategy has been to starve writers into accepting a contract that does not fix what the business practices of the studios and streamers have broken,” said Meredith Stiehm, president of WGA West. “Years of eroding compensation and working conditions have left writers with fewer resources than ever to weather periods without work. Unemployment insurance for striking workers is a commonsense solution to keeping workers afloat and local economies healthy.”

“It is already law in New York and New Jersey,” she said, “and has been utilized by our union siblings in the Writers Guild of America, East. California needs to catch up and meet the demands of the time. We are supporting this legislation so that other workers who need to strike to stand up for their rights can depend on unemployment insurance benefits to help sustain themselves during a work stoppage.”

In New York, striking workers are eligible to receive up to $504 a week for 26 weeks, while in New Jersey they can receive up to $830 a week for 26 weeks. But in California and elsewhere it’s zero because state laws there prohibit strikers from receiving unemployment insurance as they’re considered to have left their jobs “voluntarily.”

Lorena Gonzalez, executive secretary-treasurer and chief officer of the California Labor Federation, told Deadline this month that she thinks that’s “shameful.” In 2019, as a member of the California Assembly, she introduced AB 1066, which would have granted unemployment insurance to strikers. Her bill passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate by two votes. 

“Striking workers have earned their unemployment insurance benefits,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “They deserve to use them when they are unable to work. We can’t have workers economically insecure because they’re forced to go out on strike, it harms them and their families and has rippling effects on the entire community.”

Other labor organizations calling for the change include the California IATSE Council, Actors’ Equity, the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, the California Labor Federation, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, and the California Nurses Association.

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, the unions said that “Workers are going on strike in record numbers, despite the hardship, to fight for better working conditions, wages, and job security. 11,500 Writers Guild of America members have been on strike since May 2nd. In July, 150,000 members of SAG AFTRA joined the writers for the first dual strike in the entertainment industry since 1960, shutting down production across the country. These two strikes demonstrate workers’ commitment to fighting against company practices that increase worker precarity and threaten the sustainability of the overall industry.

“Workers have gone on strike in part because of the intransigence of employers to come to fair and reasonable agreements. The entertainment industry employers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have made it clear that they are willing to exploit workers’ financial precarity in order to break the strike.”

The letter notes that the New York state statute that provides for unemployment benefits for strikers was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, “Paving the way for California to pass similar legislation.”

The unions went on to say that “The right to strike to improve working conditions, wages, and address other issues in collective bargaining is a fundamental worker right that is codified in law for employees in the public and private sector. The decision to go on strike is not one that union members take lightly. Striking workers lose all income for the duration of their job action. Workers deplete their savings as bills pile up, rent and mortgages go unpaid, and debt accumulates. Corporations rely on the expectation that striking workers will have few resources, and their strategy is clearly to starve workers until they give up their demands for better wages, fair compensation, and job security.

“UI is funded through payroll taxes paid by employers. Employers in California pay a percentage of the first $7,000 of workers’ wages, one of the lowest wage bases nationally. That means California employers pay taxes on a significantly lower wage amount than employers anywhere else in the country. The tax rate paid on the wage base varies for each employer, depending in part on the amount of UI benefits paid to former employees. An employer can qualify for a lower tax rate when fewer claims are made by former employees.

“The opposition claims that this bill will extend tax increases on all employers, but that is due to the existing UI debt caused by the structural insolvency of our system. UI benefits are generally charged to an individual employer, not the system overall. Employers who do not force workers to go out on strike will not see taxes increase because of this bill. Tax increases will be borne by employers with workers on extended strikes.”

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