They are usually fresh from the picket lines when they sink into plaid booths behind red Formica tables, or pull up to the terrazzo tables, not far from the jukebox that switches from Sam Cooke to Joan Jett.
The room is noisy with their chatter, their laughter. Their emergency savings are dwindling, but hey, sitting together over free milkshakes and tuna melts, things don’t feel so bad.
Such is the daily scene at Swingers, a beloved retro diner in Los Angeles, where the lunch and dinner crowds are dominated by Hollywood writers still on strike.
For more than two months, they have been fighting studios for better wages and job security, and there is no hint of a deal on the horizon. And yet, spirits are high.
“This is the time when you’d think things would go away, people would get tired,” said Scott Saltzburg, a writer for the game show “Weakest Link” on NBC, who sat at a corner table on a recent weekday with a friend. . “And I don’t see that at all.”
Since the beginning of May, 11,500 screenwriters have gone on strike against Hollywood studios and entertainment companies in a fight for higher pay and better working conditions. Writers say their industry has increasingly become a gig economy in which they are forced to juggle income with side hustles. Those in the lowest paid tier take on dog-sitting and delivery jobs to make ends meet.
Writers say they are frustrated at being slowly squeezed out of a changing industry. The Writers Guild of America has warned that the profession is at stake as fewer episodes of each show are ordered, writers’ rooms shrink and companies like Netflix and Amazon limit their residual payments. The. writers also want restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence.
For their part, major studio executives face a business model in crisis as viewing habits and advertisers turn away from broadcast and cable networks. Stream services have continued to lose money, and executives say there is little room in the situation for an increase.
“Somehow the WGA caught management at an awkward moment,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a retired film historian who taught at the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not a time when they’re feeling rich and fat and sassy and might want to share. Instead, it’s a big mess, and we’ve seen layoffs and cutbacks.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the interests of the studios, points to the high salaries that writers can already achieve and says that companies have offered outsized salaries and residual raises. The alliance resisted the proposal of the union for a minimum number of writers in staff for shows, saying that this would be an employment quota that does not agree with the creative process.
Most productions in Los Angeles were disrupted by writers’ picketing. Other trades that serve the industry — the suppliers, customers, prop houses — are nice, but painful.
“It’s been really hard — it’s so slow, and nothing’s happening,” said Dan Schultz, vice president of Prop Heaven in Burbank. “We’re a helping business, and things roll down. We are at the bottom of that hill.”
Mr. Schultz said the prop house lost at least 80 percent of its business because of the strike. Requests for props for live events or commercials have helped, but there is no pivot that can compensate for regular production work. Currently, the company’s 28 employees focus on in-house projects such as cleaning and organizing areas of the showroom.
At Western Costume, which has outfitted actors in movies for more than a century, the 120,000-square-foot warehouse full of rentals has seen little traffic lately.
“When we’re busy, it’s like a train station — there’s a constant stream of customers coming in and out,” said Gilbert Moussally, vice president of costume operations. “It’s almost zero at this point.”
During the writers’ strike in 2007, the California economy lost $2.1 billion, according to one rating. The difficulties could intensify if the actors also go on strike after their contract with the studios expires on Wednesday night.
The current writers’ strike is expected to last longer than the 100-day walkout in 2007. Many writers said that guild members seem particularly determined, and that morale is much higher this time. At picket lines across the city, there are theme days (think cosplay or Beyoncé), TV show reunions, karaoke Fridays. Guild members are receiving support from social media, and strike captains have been inundated with donations of drinks, snacks, sunscreen and food trucks.
And there are free burgers and fries at Swingers, an institution that has always attracted industry regulars.
Drew Carey — the actor, comedian and game show host — currently reimburses the restaurant for every meal, plus a tip, that is ordered by someone who flashes a Writers Guild membership card. Mr. Carey made the same grand gesture during the previous strike, which he also extends at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.
Every week, his tab at Swingers runs more than $10,000. Without it, “I’m sure we would be completely hurt, and we were, the first few weeks,” said its owner, Stephanie Wilson.
The restaurant has its own Hollywood story arc: An iconic hangout where employees who are like family shut down during the pandemic. An actress/waitress turned manager and mother of three is scraping together funds from relatives and friends to buy and revive the place.
Mrs. Wilson, 41, now oversees a main center of the strike. “Writers are, I think, kind of the backbone of everything,” she said.
By early evening on Monday night, the diner’s servers changed shifts, but the clinking of plates and glasses did not pause. The last rays of the sun lingered on tables, where customers squinted at the light.
Sitting across from her husband and co-worker, Anya Meksin tried to finish her chopped salad while they stopped their 2-year-old son from climbing over the top of the stall. The family came to the diner at least twice a week, trying to stretch the savings they were relying on.
Just before the strike, Ms. Meksin, 41, was hired for “High Potential,” a new detective series on ABC. But the work will start only after the union has a contract.
The free dinners and the opportunity to be around people in similar situations became her comfort zone.
“It feels,” she said, “like a union diner.”