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On March 24, after two weeks of frustrating contract talks, negotiators for the WGA (Writers Guild of America) notified the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) that, because the talks were stalled, they had no choice but to ask their 12,000 members to give them strike authorization. It was a bold move.
As sparklingly glamorous and self-absorbed as Hollywood’s entertainment business is, when it comes to contract negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA (or the DGA or SAG-AFTRA), they’re depressingly similar to those between, say, a group of pipefitters and welders and the IAM (International Association of Machinists).
The issue is money, plain and simple. Money in the form of money, money in the form of benefits, money in the form of staking a claim to new technology. Accordingly, as in any contract negotiation, logic, honesty, fairness, and generosity will play no part. It all centers around muscle. Think of being hit with Hunter Thompson’s “million-pound shit hammer.” Hence, the threat of a strike as a weapon.
In truth, strike authorization, in most cases, doesn’t constitute a genuine “threat.” Yes, the negotiators need it to demonstrate that they’re serious (because you can’t go on strike without the membership’s okay), and yes, it counts as evidence that the rank-and-file is on their side, but beyond that it’s seen more as a display of saber-rattling and macho posturing than a prelude to serious action.
I was a negotiator on six contracts with an industrial union (chief negotiator on four of them), and we called for strike authorization five times. Of course, we got it every time. The only occasion on which we didn’t ask was at negotiations following a tough 57-day strike three years earlier. That was because, typically, union members aren’t willing to hit the bricks twice in a row, and who can blame them? We knew it, the company knew it, and the company knew that we knew it, so there was no point pretending.
Also, it goes without saying that if you don’t get strike approval after requesting it, you’re totally screwed. Asking and failing to get strike authorization is tantamount to announcing that the membership either doesn’t trust the union, or is unwilling to fight for a decent contract, which, in either case, is going to kill you. You may as well stand on your hind legs and say to the company, “We’ll take anything you give us.”
Not only must you get strike authorization when you request it, but it’s almost imperative you get it with a spectacularly overwhelming mandate. Every one of our strike authorization requests was approved by more than 90-percent of the membership, which shouted out loud and clear, “Solidarity!” A 55-45 vote for strike authorization, while passing, sends every kind of wrong signal to the company.
But this is where the Writers’ threat of a strike is a bit different. They’re a tough, extremely committed outfit, who reek with credibility. The WGA had a strike in 2007-2008, one that lasted 100 days, and succeeded in creating havoc. No new movie or TV scripts for more than three months? The AMPTP had to jump through hoops to keep the show running.
While the WGA has not set a precise date for a strike vote (which, in my humble opinion, was a weak move, because it makes you look slapdash and indecisive), it’s expected to happen within the next two weeks. We all need to root for the writers. They’re the ones with the discernible talent, the ones who create the product, the ones who do the heavy-lifting. Like workers everywhere.