After showing signs that they were inching toward an agreement that would settle the five-week strike (which began on November 5), talks between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Produces (AMPTP) abruptly broke down Friday afternoon. And judging from the terse statements issued by both sides, it could be a while before the parties get back together at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City and resume their bargaining.
Evidence of how far apart they are: Even at this relatively late stage in negotiations, with the major sticking point of how to divvy up revenue from New Media still unresolved and looming large, the union has included on its agenda the right to engage in “sympathy strikes,” where WGA members can honor the picket lines of other unions without losing their jobs. This an incendiary issue, one guaranteed to pull the Alliance’s chain. Accordingly, the AMPTP has insisted that the union formally withdraw, in writing, this and five other agenda items before they agree to re-meet with them.
Complicating the process peripherally is the fact that the Directors Guild of America (DGA) is already champing at the bit to begin its own contract negotiations (even though its contract doesn’t expire until June), which could put indirect pressure on the WGA to settle. Historically, the DGA has preferred to get its bargaining out of the way early According to reports, the WGA leadership is trying to keep the DGA away from the table until its own strike is settled, which, considering last Friday’s breakdown, may not be soon.
It’s been noted that strikes, like bad marriages, are remarkably similar to one another. In fact, in their provenance, their mechanics, and their fallout, strikes tend to be close to identical. A Teamster strike is like a papermakers strike is like a teachers strike. And this WGA work stoppage is no exception.
Strikes, particularly long ones (two months or longer) follow the same trajectory. They begin with a near-giddy sense of bravado and defiance; they move through a period of relative calm and sobriety; they enter a period of low-grade panic and reassessment; they end with disillusionment and resentment.
This is in no way a criticism of strikes; it’s simply a description of the phenomenon. Without the realistic threat of a strike a union has no leverage whatever, because without the threat of a strike, the only choice a union has is to ultimately agree to accept the company’s offer. If the company has no fear of a shutdown, it has little incentive to sweeten the pot. What a membership loses monetarily in the short term by going on strike, it gains in the long term, by showing its willingness to fight.
For the WGA membership, the coming weeks will be a challenge. On the one hand, they already realize that holding out for all the union can get in a 3-year contract is not only the wisest course of action, but, now that they’re on the bricks, it’s the only course of action. From this point on, all they can do is stay loyal and committed, and trust their negotiators to make the right decisions.
On the other hand, with the Christmas holidays approaching, and the two sides, seemingly, miles apart, the membership harks back to the 1988 strike, where the WGA stayed out for 22 weeks, and those memories haunt them. Not to second-guess anyone, but staying out for 22 weeks transcends a strike; staying out for 22 weeks amounts to a siege. And a siege mentality is a dangerous one, because it invites fatalistic, self-destructive impulses.
One can only hope that the parties see their way clear to return to the table soon. David Young and the WGA bargaining team have handled themselves brilliantly so far. They’ve staked out a clear position, stuck to their plan, and gotten the loyalty of the membership. This dispute is about money. It’s now up to the Nick Counter and the Alliance to get serious about sharing the wealth.
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: email@example.com