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A Remembrance for Labor Day

Because of our fascination with glamour and money, mundane events that happen in Hollywood seem way more exciting than mundane events that happen elsewhere. This goes for everything from Hollywood courtships, to Hollywood marriages and divorces, to Hollywood babies, to Hollywood drug and alcohol arrests. They all titillate us. Great Britain may have its royal family, but America has its movie stars.

This same fascination more or less applies to Hollywood labor unions as well. Let the Steelworkers or Mineworkers or IAM (International Association of Machinists) go out on strike, and the general public usually greets the news with a collective yawn; but let Tinsel Town’s TV and movie scriptwriters hit the bricks, and most people are going to take notice.

In 2007, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) went on strike against the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), the people who run Hollywood. Glamour or no glamour, this was your classic case of Labor vs. Management. The writers vs. the producers. Those with talent vs. those with money. Proletariat vs. bourgeoisie. Oppressed vs. oppressor. Surfer vs. ho-dad. You get the picture.

The 2007 strike was the third major strike in WGA history. The first walkout occurred in 1959-1960, and lasted almost six months, which, in movie studio time, is about eight years. By all accounts, the writers won that strike, having obtained from it not only their first comprehensive health and pension plan, but the right to “residuals.” Residuals is money a writer (or actor) gets when their shows are re-aired.

For decades producers have made millions of dollars in advertising revenue off re-runs. That a small fraction of that money should go to the men and women who wrote the original scripts (and without a script, you ain’t got a show) seemed eminently fair. Still, fair or not, it took a debilitating six-month strike before the producers would part with any of that dough.

Alas, the 1988 strike was a different story. The ’88 strike, which also lasted roughly six months, was largely centered around money earned from home video. And in this regard, the AMPTP stonewalled the union, plain and simple. They pretended that home video didn’t generate anywhere near the revenue the union claimed it did. Unable to persuade the Alliance to give them a larger cut—even a modest one—the WGA had no choice but to strike.

The 1988 strike was a terrible flop. While the union deserves enormous credit for not buckling, for doing exactly what a principled labor union is supposed to do when it faces crunch time, the WGA pretty much got their butts handed to them. They were on the street for six long, uncompensated months, and once they settled and returned to work, they realized they had basically gained nothing. Score another one for the producers.

In many ways, the 1988 strike was the progenitor of the 2007 strike, with the writers still bitter and frustrated over how they’d been denied a fair share of VHS, cable, and DVD (which were invented in 1995) revenue, while the producers continued to get rich. Because it was a fantasy to expect to recover lost revenue, the WGA decided to hold firm on the next cash-generating technological innovation coming down the pike—so-called “New Media,” the streaming of shows on the Internet.

Once again, the producers screwed them. And why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they cheat them? They have more money, more connections, more guts, more guns. Plus, they have the accountants and lawyers. Predictably, the AMPTP pretended that this new technology was just a fad, a passing fancy, that it was too early to take it seriously, that only when the Internet was shown to be an authentic and reliable source of income would they even consent to discussing shared revenue.

But the WGA was hip to that tactic. They knew that, as with VHS, cable and DVDs, once this new technology was firmly in place, once the lawyers and accountants had their grubby paws on it and money was already going into the producers’ pockets, it would be too late. To have any chance at getting a fair shake, they had to catch these guys before they could obfuscate and devalue what they had.

The WGA struck on Friday, November 2, and began picketing the following Monday. The strike lasted roughly 100 days. It’s fair to say the WGA didn’t get anything close to what they wanted. One thing that hurt them was the DGA (Directors Guild of America) agreeing to a new contract on January 17, 2008. Once the DGA accepted the AMPTP’s offer, the WGA didn’t have a prayer of getting a better one. On January 24, a week after the directors settled, the WGA recommended ratification of the AMPTP’s last, best and final offer. The strike officially ended February 9, 2008.

What stands out about the 2007 writers’ strike is how similar it is to every other strike. Whether strikes involve well-coiffed screenwriters living in Malibu, or blue-collar workers living in Gary, Indiana, they all break down to same thing: a battle over money. Moreover, the tactics used by management are almost always the same—whether dealing with a Hollywood guild or a pipe fitters union.

A writer I know told me that in the 2007 negotiations, the AMPTP used a transparent “rollback” tactic. This is where a company pretends to be serious about taking away something very important, then allowing you, in the eleventh hour, to “talk them out of it,” leaving you with the buoyant feeling that you succeeded in stopping them from doing something they had no intention of doing. In the AMPTP’s case, the threatened rollback was to take away WGA residuals.

This Labor Day we should take a moment and ask ourselves why so many of us root for the Establishment. For a country that, historically, has taken great pride in embracing the underdog, we seem to have lost our footing. We root for the wrong side in labor vs. management disputes. Working people are the underdogs. All of them. This includes union workers. Can’t we see that?

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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