Friday, May 30, 2008

Looking Back at the Writers' Strike, Part 2

Article on the recent writers' strike in Hollywood (part 2 of 2) by the always erudite Craig Mazin.



As promised, part 2 of our post-strike analysis focuses on the strike as tactic. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should we do it again? Should we have done it at all?

I would have written this sooner, but Grand Theft Auto IV kind of got in the way. And yet, as I was completing a mission in which my assignment was to kill a bunch of construction workers on strike, I was reminded of this unfinished essay (more on GTA4 to come, including an appeal to its creative genius to consider going union…despite that nasty bit of business with those construction guys).

The most important question is the one that’s the toughest to answer. Did we need to strike?

Well, it’s not that tough. The answer is “no,” because I refuse to believe there is no set of circumstances that would have obviated our collective course of action. There’s a parallel universe where we didn’t strike and got the same deal or better. Has to be. But barring science fiction and the presumption of some impossible-to-foresee manner in which we had to avoid a strike…could we have?

Probably not.

There were three major factors that precipitated the strike.

The first was…let’s call it “history of bad AMPTP behavior.” The strikes of the 80’s and the DVD rollback led to an eventual peace, but it was a victor’s peace. We were humiliated by the loss, and it’s humiliation, more than the specifics, that created an untenable balance. It didn’t matter that we made gains in the early 2000’s (like our internet rental rate, which is better than the sell-through rate we just fought for). The bitter sting of the stick in the eye never went away, and any attempts to negotiate around it only made matters worse.

You could feel the rage simmering…at least, I could feel it when I was on the Board. Something needed to be done to exorcise the failure of the 80’s

The AMPTP, by the way, is entirely to blame for this. Rage in reaction to humiliation is not only human, it’s appropriate. I’m no peacenik. If you best me in an unsportsmanlike way and make me look bad, my rage is a gift from the millions of years of humans before me, and I’m gonna use it.

The AMPTP should have understood this better, but they didn’t get it.

So…you have this history of bad blood generated by the AMPTP, and then the second factor is the rise of Patric Verrone.

Patric is a smart guy, but I also think he’s naive in many ways. I think he thinks he’s a pragmatic idealist, but he’s not. He’s a philosopher, and his philosophy was “oragnize, organize, organize.” Patric said many times that we were weak because we didn’t have enough jurisdiction.

Patric’s philosophy…to win a strike, you need to be stronger. To be stronger, you need reality television and animation. To win those, you need to attack the companies and shame them into conceding the jurisdiction.

This was a naive plan, bordering on a stupid plan, and it was also based on a faulty premise (our strength isn’t in our numbers, but in the quality of our membership.

Patric and crew began a series of corporate campaigns, wildcat strikes, street theater, lawsuits, disruptive protests and political lobbying designed to piss the companies off.

Which it did.

But that’s all it did. For all of his efforts, Patric organized fewer reality employees than the DGA did simply by being quiet and doing their DGA thing.

So, we have bad bood fomented by the AMPTP, we have Patric antagonizing the AMPTP to a point where they think he’s a nut…and then…we got the “counter offer.” Granted, we went in asking for a ridiculous laundry list, with numbers that made us look completely irrational, but so what? Chalk that up to dreamy dream dreams and get over it.

The AMPTP couldn’t. They fired back with a proposal to eliminate residuals, eliminate separated rights, establish their right of prima nocta…well, not the last one, but close enough.

That counter offer managed to confirm for WGA members what Patric had been saying all along: these guys were gonna try and take our lunch.

Time to fight.

Once the strike began, it seemed to me that you could classify WGA members into one of the following four basic groups.

The Militants were probably spoiling for a fight long before this one came along. Old guard militants feel like a punch in the face is the most likely thing to get us respect and results. New guard militants are what I call the “swirly-eyes gang,” infatuated with whatever Patric Verrone and David Young suggest is the path to success.

The Loyal Majority may have not been involved much in the union, but once the strike came, they picked up their arms and went to war. They marched, they stood fast, if they questioned leadership they did so very quietly, and they believed that the strike was very winnable…if only everyone would stick together and fight.

The Loyal Minority obeyed the strike rules, walked the picket lines and likely voted to authorize the strike, but they quickly grew concerned about the tactics of the leadership, the efficacy of the strike itself, and the demands the union was making…and weren’t afraid to talk about it.

Sneaks, Scabs n’ Quitters were the writers who cheated during the strike by writing or who didn’t cheat but opted to go ficore.

Now, there will always be militants, and there will always be sneaks, scabs and quitters. The former probably need therapy to address serious issues in their character, and the latter have no character to fix. But the largest group of writers will always be in that middle group.

One of the success stories of this strike is how that big middle kept itself together. Unlike strikes of the past, the skeptics never drifted into rebellion. Nor did the unionists slip into irrational zeal. By and large, everyone kept it together, and that’s a credit to the membership above all. Naturally, some people must engage in strike superiority. Tests of loyalty and so forth.

The hell with those people.

If you didn’t write and you followed the rules, I salute you.

For that reason, I look upon the strike of ‘08 as a mitigated success. We have a chance to go into ‘10 with more leverage than ever before, although it will take some serious changing. Still, we have a chance, and the cohesiveness of the membership has manifested that chance.

Mitigated, though, because many mistakes were made.

Out of naivety, I think, leadership believed they could pull a surprise attack. Catch ‘em with their planes on the ground, and declare victory over a stunned enemy.

We really have to stop thinking like this. Frankly, we have to stop thinking in terms of “beating” and “kicking corporate ass” and “winning the strike” and all that sort of nonsense. C’mon. This isn’t a movie. Here’s reality. The AMPTP can’t be “beaten” in any useful sense of the word, and even the most strident of us will still happily turn around months after the strike and take their money. Why not? That’s the deal, right? They pay, we work.

There’s never going to be a quick victory. As such, we should permanently eschew any tactics designed to get us one. Remember how the Teamsters were gonna back us? Lie. Total, bald-faced lie intended to flip the companies out and “force them” to the table. Oy. All that happened was that our bluff was called. There was no Teamster support (and by the way, I don’t judge the Teamsters on that one for a second).

The showrunners refusing to perform producing duties? Again, an attempt at the five finger palm of death. Again, this achieved nothing except unnecessarily exposing a number of our best and brightest to legal action (and perhaps worse…public reversals of their initial refusal to perform said producing duties).

Location picketing was another misfire, in my opinion. Many believed that it was part of the “by any means necessary” tactics required to end the strike and get a better deal, but the truth is that tactics like this will simply never work. All they did was continue to drive the other side into the arms of the DGA (more on that in a bit) and disrupt the production of writer’s work.

Here’s a fun fact (warning: the following is my opinion that I’m tarting up as fact). One of the best things to come out of the strike was the United Hollywood website, which managed to strike a balanced, positive and inclusive tone while still managing the work of cheerleading. I’m happy to be good friends with one of the founders, a buddy of another, and an all-around admirer of a third (who knows who she is, and I still think she should do what I said she should do, even though she won’t and I can’t blame her, but whatever).

What’s great about UH is that it comported itself with dignity. Yelling like a jackass in the middle of a taping of a talk show isn’t dignified. It’s also stupid and ineffective and oddly punitive, considering the hosts of all of the talk shows had to go back to work. But mostly…it’s embarrassing. It would be good to not do that ever again.


We have this possibility of leverage.

Here’s what we really need to do before ‘10 to convert it into gains.

We need…we really need……we reeeeeeeeeally really need…

…to start facing the reality of the DGA.

Yes, I tend to agree with those who say that the DGA made a better deal than they would have had we not struck.

No, that’s not a good strategy for the future. You don’t want to be the Guild that consistently puts its members out of work so that another union can dictate to the striking union what the terms of settlement ought to be.

That’s just a bad outcome.

Nonetheless, we are the bad cop and they are the good cop. No problem there. We need to work with Jay Roth and Michael Apted and the DGA. We need to settle the petty differences. That may require a different E.D. or a different President or both or neither.

Maybe everyone will smarten up.

SAG is clearly not the answer now, nor has it ever been, nor shall it ever be. SAG has managed to screw up unification with AFTRA not once but twice, and in the aftermath, bungled relations with AFTRA (called “a scumbag union” by Justine Bateman, board member of SAG and…diplomat…?) so completely that AFTRA decided to negotiate on its own after decades of joint bargaining with SAG. SAG is currently standing by with a dazed look on its face as AFTRA makes the DGA deal with the AMPTP. SAG still thinks they can get a better DVD deal. Good lord.

If Patric and whoever succeeds Patric and David Young can manage to get over their ideology (which has failed…okay?) and forge ties with the DGA, there’s nothing wrong with our union being the screaming crazies in the street…as long as it’s part of a greater bi-Guild strategy in which we are an equal partner.

I don’t ever want to see the WGA strike again unless our elected leaders and our appointed NegCom members are going to be the ones hammering out the terms in some capacity.

Look, we’ve proven we can strike and stick together, even if we disagree about tactics, even if the companies force majeure us, even if the strike lasts longer than we might have thought, even if the settlement isn’t what we thought we’d get or what we believed we were promised.

For that, I think we ought to demand some control over the outcome.

The DGA. We have to partner with them, or we are doomed to be fodder.


Brian M Logan

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