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Strike Notes from a Screenwriter

Our strike is a victory against negatives. We successfully resisted the studios on rollbacks. And the union remained united, solid and militant in the face of the media conglomerates’ obvious intent to break or enfeeble the Writers Guild of America, west and east. The strike the conglomerates’ film studios provoked had the unintended consequence of strengthening our union and uniting the membership as never before.

By staying out, we staked our claim to future income via DVD residuals, internet, streaming etc. And established a beachhead in the new technology. Nobody knows if this will turn out to be a bonanza or a bust.

And, perhaps most important in the long run, we felt in our bones, in our expanded strength and abilities, both personal and collective, the solid truth of the old slogan, “In union there is strength”.

Although the WGA was sniped at by the theatrical craft union IATSE, we were strongly – and vitally – supported by SAG, the actors’ union. And not only SAG but many individual Teamster drivers who balked at crossing picket lines even if the Teamsters International was helplessly bound by a no-strike contract. These guys were terrific.

For me, one of the amazing things walking the line was how often passing police cars and fire trucks honked in sympathy.

Each of the guild’s previous strikes, going back 40 years or more, had demands that favored one group of writers over another. It’s the nature of the entertainment industry. As a feature film writer, not TV or (yet) internet, at first glance I, and my feature movie partners, had no dog in this fight which focused on TV. But the fact is, ALL guild writers, regardless of which media they write for, coalesced into a formidable industrial-union machine that forced the studios to return to the table and bargain like mensch.

I doubt if any of us will come off this strike without feeling the long-term emotional kick of participating in, and witnessing, the union’s solidarity, organizational flexibility, good humor, and elan. Much praise has been heaped on our ‘leadership’, especially the high-powered union negotiating committee made up of intimidatingly successful writers and writer-producers, any one of whom probably could take over a studio mogul’s job and do it more competently. But my strongest admiration is for the rank and file, especially the 300 strike captains and coordinators who kept the strike going day in day out, morale up down or sideways. Simply put, we owe them a lot.

Just for the moment I don’t want to hear any bullshit about ‘what was it all about, you people write shit’ anyway. We obtained a smashing, if limited, victory by hanging in, managing one of labor’s few triumphs today. Indeed, though we made mistakes and stumbled along the way, other unions might want to look at how we did it, if not as an exact blueprint then as an inspiration.

Women played an especially important part in the strike as captains, coordinators, pickets etc. That’s a whole article in itself.

The outside pressures on us to settle were enormous. You felt it from the essentially hostile media (esp. the trade paper Variety and not excluding the NYTimes and our local paper, the LATimes): from the Directors Guild who undermined our bargaining position by going for a weak ‘template’ contract; our own guilty awareness of ‘collateral damage’ among ‘below the line’ movie/TV workers not in our guild who were badly hurt economically by the work stoppage; and by a strong undercurrent of hostility to writers as a species not only among studio executives, who traditionally believe they can do it better if only they had the time, but also among the knuckledragging citizenry.

What is surprising is how loyal the ‘show runners’ (TV writer-producers), who occupy a vital strategic position in the industry, not only stuck with the union but were some of the most militant on the picket line and in the negotiating committee. Show runners are also bosses so at the beginning it was a flip of the coin how they’d behave. They were great.

Originally, the studios sent in their labor relations hitman, a tone deaf Dick Cheney-I’ll-teach-these-upstarts-a-lesson type named Nick Counter, on the presumption that our previously not-terribly-militant union would en masse faint dead away in the presence of a real hard-knuckle guy. But when the studio bosses finally registered our unity and toughness they got rid of him, probably forever, and began to bargain seriously. There were all sorts of backstairs intrigues, involving union and company chieftains, agents, middleman lawyers etc.. That’s who reporters love to focus on because it’s easy sourcing and it’s celebrity. But rank and file unity, as tired as that phrase is, is the real story of the strike.

I’m curious about one thing. Rupurt Murdoch’s role. The two studio guys who finally blinked and came to the table were Bob Iger of Disney and Peter Chernin of Fox, the latter owned by News Corps, the Dirty Digger himself. Chernin’s sudden return to the bargaining table had to have Emperor Murdoch’s permission. Yet Murdoch is known for his venomous anti union history – I was at Wapping outside London where he broke the printers’ strike – but also his second-thought sense of profit and loss realism. Somebody in the conglomerates’ boardrooms must have finally registered just how solid we were and are, and told their henchmen, “End it.”

A final note. By and large, the writers guild is composed of not only veterans but young and inexperienced and dare I say conservative women and men. For many of them this is their first episode of labor struggle. They were wonderful! And they won’t forget.

CLANCY SIGAL is a screenwriter (‘Frida’, ‘In Love & War’). His books include ‘Going Away’, ‘Weekend in Dinlock’, and A Woman of Uncertain Character. His previous strikes include the auto workers, office workers, student journalists, grownup journalists, film cleaners, teamsters, postal workers and coal miners. He lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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