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Labor's Only Real Weapon The Writers' Strike Continues

The Writers’ Strike Continues

by DAVID MACARAY

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is already into the twelfth week of its strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), They’ve been out since November 5. That’s one hellaciously long time to be out of work, even for a cause you believe in, and even when you know your old job will be waiting for you.

Ask anyone who’s ever hit the bricks, and they’ll tell you that a strike, particularly a long one, can be a life-altering experience. In truth, no matter how critical the issues that precipitated the walkout or how committed the union membership that did the walking, anything beyond 5 or 6 weeks is enough to put you in a monumental funk. If the Writers hold out for another month or two, things could get very complicated.

In no way is this meant to second-guess the WGA’s agenda or tactics. The WGA and its membership know what they are doing. Just as no one on the outside can look into a marriage and make an accurate assessment of its merits or viability, no one on the outside can observe the workings of a labor union and fully appreciate the mindset that led to calling a strike.

To assess the factors that contribute to a strike, you have to be on the inside. Without that unique perspective, you really have nothing meaningful to say about it. Which is why it’s so silly to hear all these third-parties and "informed observers" weighing in with their sage advice about what should or shouldn’t happen next.

Some good news for the WGA: It was announced on January 22 that the two sides are getting back together for "informal talks," after the AMPTP had abruptly broken off negotiations several weeks ago. Auspiciously, these talks will occur against the backdrop of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) tentatively accepting a 3-year contract from the AMPTP, even though its contract wasn’t due to expire until June 30.

Almost certainly, there will be pressure on the WGA to use the Directors’ deal as impetus for a settlement of their own. Among the provisions included in the new contract, the AMPTP gave the DGA a larger share of New Media markets, which was a key demand of the WGA, and a critical sticking point in their negotiations.

Specifically, the DGA was given jurisdiction (with certain exemptions) over material that is produced specifically for the Internet, along with a 100 percent increase in residuals for downloads of TV shows, and an 80 percent increase for downloads of movies. Progress was also made in the area of "ad-supported" content, such as prime-time TV shows that are streamed on TV websites, and there was "sunset language" included which permits the parties to reassess New Media markets once the contract expires.

Again, it’s too early to know how good the Directors’ contract really is. Improvements were made to several areas of their existing agreement, and there were no rollbacks, which are definite pluses. But even assuming the WGA gets a similar offer from the AMPTP, it’s hard to say if it will be enough to end the strike. After all, the WGA’s needs and concerns aren’t necessarily the same as the DGA’s (whose 13,400 members include directors, assistant directors and production managers). While similar in some ways, they are different Guilds, with different agendas.

In any event, there’s little doubt that the AMPTP will attempt to use the DGA’s contract as a means of stampeding the Writers toward a settlement. The Producers know that news of the agreement will cause some of the rank-and-file to become antsy, and are aware that Hollywood has a history of "pattern bargaining" (where the first contract out of the blocks becomes a template for those that follow).

But there’s a curious phenomenon that occurs during long strikes. Put simply: The longer the membership stays out, the greater the risk of the situation metastasizing from "strike" into "siege." Once a certain point is reached, a small but hardcore segment of the membership tends to slip into what can be called a "siege mentality." They take the view that because they’ve already been out so long, suffered so many hardships and made so many sacrifices, only a "Cadillac" contract will be enough to bring them back.

Settling for terms that fall significantly short of those included in the union’s original agenda will be interpreted as capitulation. It will elicit rage. It will be taken as evidence that the whole goddamn endeavor was a waste of time and money. The only thing that will get this militant minority to vote to return to work is for management to give them pretty much everything they asked for, which, of course, ain’t going to happen.

It’s a tricky situation for the union, one dripping with irony. When going out on strike, the union leadership always counts on the full commitment of the membership. Frankly, they hope that the rank-and-file hangs tough and doesn’t cave. So when a vocal, hardcore segment of that membership publicly challenges the leadership’s own level of "commitment" by questioning its willingness to continue to fight for what it set out to achieve, it can get a bit dicey.

Coincidentally, one of the shortest and one of the longest strikes in U.S. history both occurred in Southern California. The shortest one took place in 1987 and involved the very same Directors Guild of America. The DGA’s strike (the first and only strike in their 63-year history) lasted a grand total of 15 minutes, literally. According to reports, the union negotiators had barely left the room before they were called back, and the parties reached an agreement.

And one of the longest strikes in history was the one called by the LA Newspaper Guild against the old Herald Examiner newspaper, the former daily rival of the Los Angeles Times. The union walked out in December, 1967, and didn’t settle until March of 1977. They were out just a few months short of 10 years. Talk about a "siege mentality."

It’s impossible, really, to wrap your mind around a 10-year strike. There’s simply no perspective in which to place it, no point of reference. What does it mean to be on strike for 10 years?? Obviously, everybody has found new jobs, and new union officers have been elected. But were the members still receiving strike benefits? Were people still picketing? Were union and company officials meeting regularly . . . for a whole decade? Needless to say, the strike badly crippled both the workforce and the newspaper, neither of which fully recovered.

The key thing to remember about strikes, even ones that end badly, is that they are labor’s only available weapon. They’re the only bullet in the chamber. While boycotts and public relations campaigns have been known to work, their successes are largely hit-or-miss; plus, they are ventures that require organizational skills and funding. Strikes are the more attractive tactic. Besides being user-friendly, they hit the company immediately where it hurts most-in the pocketbook.

Another thing to remember about strikes: If they weren’t labor’s most effective weapon, management wouldn’t dread them so much.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net