‘We are not backing down’: Striking film, TV writers get ready to picket in Chicago

Chicago has more than 100 Writers Guild of America members whose professional lives now are on hold.

SHARE ‘We are not backing down’: Striking film, TV writers get ready to picket in Chicago

Former “Saturday Night Live” writer Katie Rich, who plans to picket Wednesday in Chicago, shows one of her pro-union T-shirts.


TV and film writers may be concentrated on the coasts, but Chicago has a few, and they’re raring to go Wednesday when members of the striking Writers Guild of America plan to picket outside NBC Tower downtown.

Ali Barthwell, a writer with “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” will head from her home in the Ukrainian Village to join her fellow writers on the picket line. Since union leaders failed to reach a new contract with the trade association that represents Hollywood studios and production companies and walked out May 1, she’s been a committed supporter of the strike.

“Look at the way the studios have been handling writing as a profession: They’re trying to make it a gig system instead of a career,” said Barthwell, 34. “And it is just unconscionable that they are able to turn out hand-over-fist record profit, and nothing would be possible without writers. When the power of the laborer has gone down, they have to be able to take some of that power back, and a strike is the way to do it.”


Ali Barthwell attends the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, where she and the other “Last Week Tonight” writers were winners.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

Barthwell, who’s taking a break from the HBO show while she recovers from leukemia and a stem cell transplant, attended Oak Park and River Forest High School and went to Wellesley College. After graduating, she immersed herself in Second City — first as a student, then an actor before becoming a teacher and director. When the pandemic shut everything down in 2020 she applied for a spot in the writer’s room on Oliver’s New York-based show, got the job and worked with colleagues from around the country to create the show virtually. During her time there, the staff received two Emmy Awards.

“There was an episode on Black hair that I was one of the writers, and I really enjoyed working on that story about discrimination that black people face for their hair,” she said. Barthwell hoped to return to work in May or June — then the strike happened.

“The health care I’ve been able to have access to is because of guild health insurance. I’ve been able to manage taking time off and get better and reach out for guidance and help, and writers who come after need the same assurances and ability to generate a living and take advantage of what the union offers and not feel like a gig worker,” she said.

“John Oliver and other late night hosts have been sending food trucks to the picket lines in Los Angeles and New York. So there’s definitely solidarity,” she said.

Brett Neveu, 52, a writer and guild leader who lives in the northwest suburbs, estimates there are more than 100 union writers who live in Chicago and the surrounding area.

“I hope all of them and their friends and family will come to the picket Wednesday,” he said.

Headshot of playwright and WGA member and strike captain Brett Neveu.

Brett Neveu adapted his play “Eric Larue” into an upcoming film.

A Red Orchid Theatre

Best known as a playwright, Neveu adapted his play “Eric Larue” into a film that will feature Michael Shannon’s directorial debut. It’s set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.

“I had a few other projects I was working on, but everything is just on pause,” said Neveu, who feels lucky to have another gig teaching screenwriting at Northwestern University.

“Not everybody has that,” he said, “especially younger writers who are starting out. It provides consistency of income and the ability to live and buy groceries and that kind of stuff.”

Neveu said he isn’t sure who will show up to support the guild. Michael Shannon? Former Dolton resident Jane Lynch? Any number of actors might be on hand for support, he said.

“I hope the new mayor shows up. That would be really cool. I know he’s a big union supporter,” he said.

Katie Rich, a South Sider who came up through Second City, wrote for “Saturday Night Live” and “Chicago Party Aunt” and splits time between Chicago and Los Angeles, said she has three union T-shirts she needs to choose from to attend the picket Wednesday.

“We are in this for the long haul. We are not backing down. We are not stopping any time soon. My dad worked for Commonwealth Edison, my husband is a construction worker from Philadelphia, and Chicago is a union town, and I’m just so proud to be part of the union that I am.”

Rich has a few projects on hold. Her first job as a teen was for a party bus company in Chicago. She later waited tables at a Bar Louie across the street from Wrigley Field.

Nina Bargiel, 50, has been writing for mostly kids television shows (including “Lizzie McGuire” on the Disney Channel) since 2000 and recently moved back from Los Angeles to her childhood home in Glen Ellyn to be closer to her parents.

A strike is necessary, she said, because the ability to make a decent living is under threat, for her and others coming behind her.

“People always think, ‘Oh you must have a house in Malibu and are raking it in.’ I do OK. But some years are real lean, and some years are not,” Bargiel said.

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