Yesterday, in New York, Michael Eisner shared his thoughts on the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America) strike. As the keynote speaker at a “Media and Money” conference, hosted by Dow Jones and the Nielsen Corporation, the former Disney CEO, Eisner described the strike as “stupid.”
Although it’s no surprise that such an opinion would be expressed at a Dow Jones function (What else is one going to hear at a DJ affair? That strikes are brilliant tactical moves?), or that a business executive expressed it, Eisner’s observations turned out not to be as harsh or demeaning as they seemed.
Eisner explained that he was speaking only of the union’s timing. Indeed, he had no problem with the WGA’s ambitions. In fairness to Eisner it should be noted that when he ran Disney he was viewed as an “enlightened” boss. Instead of forcing the NLRB to hold elections, he allowed employees to join unions by using the card-check method (if a majority signs cards they automatically get to join), which is a huge advantage for labor. Compared to Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s CEO, he was Walter Reuther.
Eisner argues that the new technology the WGA is quibbling over hasn’t been given ample time to define itself or show its full potential, and that it’s too early to demand a showdown with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers) over this issue. Insisting that the Alliance share the bounty now is like a greedy or panicky commodities speculator forcing farmers to pick their crops before the majority of them have had time to ripen.
Eisner’s premise isn’t entirely wrong. It’s an axiom among negotiators that when a union goes on strike (actually pulls the pin, and not just waves a grenade and makes scary noises), the membership needs to be certain the timing is right. They need to know, despite their exuberance and storm-the-Bastille mentality, that they’re hitting the bricks at the opportune moment.
For most corporations, a strike is tantamount to a declaration of war. The Alliance is no exception. From management’s perspective, a strike is a bewildering, unprovoked and, frankly, self-destructive attack by gullible and wildly ungrateful workers. And even though strikes never come as complete “surprises’ (Taft-Hartley requires the union to give 10-day written notice before shutting down), they’re still treated as horrifying mutinies.
In fact, one reason companies wait several weeks before finally agreeing to sit down with a striking union and begin the sticky re-negotiation process is because they’re determined to “punish” the traitors. They want to force the Great Unwashed and their union leadership to simmer in their own juices before rewarding them with rationale dialogue.
That recent GM-UAW strike, the one that lasted barely two days, was more than an anomaly; it was a freakish footnote to labor history. A strike ending before the paint on the picket signs has time to dry? That definitely falls into the 1% category.
But why is timing so important? It’s a simple truth: You can’t expect union members to go out twice in a row. Strikes are simply too debilitating, too draining and frightening to be inflicted consecutively. So if you call one, you damn well better get it right. Since the 1980s, the number of unions that have gone out on back-to-back strikes is probably as rare as those who stayed out only as long as the UAW did against GM.
And when a union is perceived as unlikely to strike, it makes them dangerously vulnerable to a management power play. Knowing that the members don’t have the stomach for another war encourages companies to pile on. Another union axiom: The bargain that follows a protracted strike invites mischief. That’s why timing is so critical.
But this doesn’t mean Eisner is correct. His advice that the union wait until the full potential of new technology is clear before making its move sounds good, but it ignores two facts. First, because technological innovations are constantly being introduced into the marketplace, there will never be a static point of reference; there’s always a “revolution” around the corner. If the WGA waits until everything gets invented before making their move, they may as well call in the dogs and piss on the fire.
Second, if the union doesn’t take the initiative right now, at this juncture, while things are still in flux, the producers will grab up all scientific goodies for themselves. What’s that old saying about possession being nine-tenths of the law? In five years it will be significantly harder trying to pry the AMPTP loose from something it now regards as proprietary.
It happened with fiber optics and the advent of cable television, and with the VHS. Not seeing these innovations coming, the union was late and unfulfilled in sharing in the revenue. From the WGA’s standpoint, their best tactic is to hook up as soon as possible, and take their chances. Given recent history, who can blame them?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org