Neil Gaiman had worn some version of a black T-shirt nearly every day for the past 36 years. Then, on a balmy Tuesday in May, he decided to make an important wardrobe change.
“I’m wearing the first red T-shirt I’ve worn since 1987 because I’m a member of the W.G.A.,” Mr. Gaiman, the best-selling writer of “The Sandman” and “Coraline,” announced from a picket line in New York. “I’m on strike.” His tomato red shirt, which featured an illustration of a raised fist holding a pencil, bluntly declared that it was time for writers to put their pencils down — though in all capital letters, and with a choice obscenity for good measure.
Across New York and Los Angeles, T-shirts advertising support for creative workers’ labor unions are nearly everywhere you look. On the subway, in line at the grocery store and at the coffee shop, creative types and their allies in both cities are eager to wear support for the strikes on their literal sleeves.
The Writers Guild of America, the labor union that represents 11,500 screenwriters, went on strike in early May after failing to reach an agreement with Hollywood producers on the details of a new contract, including compensation for work on streaming services and the use of artificial intelligence. When SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, decided on its own strike last week, the dispute took on new proportions. As the demonstrations head into a 13th week, a pressing need has arisen: clean T-shirts.
“When you’re picketing several days a week in your W.G.A. strike T-shirt, not to be too vivid about it, but laundry becomes a pressing concern,” said Josh Gondelman, a writer and comedian who lives in New York. “Anywhere you can get additional W.G.A. T-shirts becomes a topic of interest on the picket line, just from a practical point of view.”
Members of the Writers Guild get two T-shirts when they sign up to picket, and the weather in both cities has been miserably hot, meaning picketers can’t get away with wearing the same two shirts several days in a row without doing laundry. (“Even though we’re operating on a short week, I want to assure everybody that my WGA blue shirt still smells as if it’s been a full one,” the writer Mike Royce said on Twitter.)
To meet this need, online retailers immediately began popping up, hawking shirts with various W.G.A. logos and no clear information about where the proceeds of those shirts ended up.
Enter WGAStrikeShirts.com. The online shop, run by a screenwriter and 12-year member of the Writers Guild named Tripper Clancy, sells W.G.A. and SAG-AFTRA strike paraphernalia including hats, tank tops and Mr. Gaiman’s pencils down T-shirt. Since its creation on May 5, the website has sold more than $100,000 worth of merchandise, according to Mr. Clancy, with 100 percent of the net proceeds going to the Entertainment Community Fund, a charity that supports performers, artists and entertainment industry workers.
Its best sellers include a plain white shirt with black lettering that reads, “Pay the Writers and the Actors and the Crew and the Teamsters and Anyone Else Who Makes You All the Money,” and a black T-shirt with a red “fist of solidarity” naming unions involved in the strike.
As the strike has dragged on, union merchandise has started to inch toward the ubiquity of New Yorker tote bags. Since WGAStrikeShirts began selling apparel, actors like Ike Barinholtz and Tatiana Maslany and filmmakers like Nick Stoller have been spotted on the picket line sporting message shirts. Jason Sudeikis recently turned up to support the strike in New York in a “Writers Guild on Strike” baseball hat, and the black SAG-AFTRA shirts given to members have also been a popular picket line choice: Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano and Christian Slater have all recently appeared in theirs. This week, because of the extreme heat, SAG-AFTRA began handing out white T-shirts that Mandy Moore, Vanessa Hudgens and others immediately took to the streets.
Personal style has long been a way to express political or social affiliation, but what one wears to the picket line is especially important: By wearing matching union gear, workers become a visual representation of the solidarity they’re attempting to reflect.
“Especially with a strike or any kind of solidarity event, you want to have a visual impact and show the strength in numbers,” said Sara Tatyana Bernstein, a fashion and cultural studies professor who co-founded Dismantle magazine. “Clothing is often expressing individuality and expressing your personality. In this case, it’s more about expressing your community and collective power rather than individuality.”
Fashion, Professor Bernstein said, has always been a cornerstone of political expression, particularly when it comes to union action. She pointed to the 1937 department store strikes in New York City, where Woolworth workers wore their uniforms while sitting down on the job, as well as the French Revolution, during which slogans were sewn into expensive waistcoats to signal solidarity with the revolutionaries. She said the slogan T-shirts worn on the picket lines of this summer’s strikes were a contemporary extension of those practices.
Yet figuring out exactly where to buy T-shirts that support labor movements can pose a bit of a dilemma, especially when it comes to secondhand shopping. Vintage union T-shirts have long been a hipster favorite, but many secondhand sellers have become wary of peddling them for fear of being accused of making money off a cause they weren’t a part of.
“Selling vintage New York City Union merchandise, specifically labor unions, is a sensitive subject with union workers,” said Kevin Fallon, the owner of the popular online vintage store Fantasy Explosion, which recently opened a brick-and-mortar outpost in Brooklyn.
“In the past I received DMs and emails requesting I stop selling it because they were afraid of impersonators on job sites and the stolen valor,” he added, “so I try not to sell N.Y.C. labor union stuff anymore.”
For the team behind WGAStrikeShirts, transparency is key. The shop prominently advertises that it is run by W.G.A. members, with proceeds going to the support fund. And though each shirt is not created in a union shop, they are screen-printed in one, and all of the financials are disclosed in a Twitter thread every month.
Wearing matching union merch to the picket lines and beyond has helped bring a feeling of solidarity among writers who frequently work alone. The best thing about wearing them, Mr. Clancy said, is that “you get people out of the woodwork that say, ‘I support you, I stand with you.’ You also get people asking you questions like: ‘Why is the guild on strike? Why don’t you guys just make a deal with the studio?’”
“Every time that happens, he said, “it gives you an opportunity to explain.”