never been a bitch so I don't act bitchy

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Strike

My father was a high school teacher in downtown Oakland, California. One of my earliest memories is of my mom putting me in the car every day and driving us down through the in-those-days scary streets to bring my father lunch. He was on strike. I'm not sure how long it lasted or how many visits we made down there that year, but my father would eat his sandwich on the trunk of the dirty little two-door gunmetal green Toyota as his fellow teachers held signs, smoked cigarettes, and walked in circles outside of the school they loved. Because they were offered a contract they could not accept. It was one of the bleaker scenes I witnessed in a childhood not unfamiliar with bleakness, but there was also something about it that stirred me and filled me with pride. Because I sensed they were doing the right thing. And that the right thing sometimes sucks.

Last night I went to the Convention Center downtown for the Writers Guild of America’s general meeting about the strike possibility. (The meeting can be read about today online almost everywhere. Nikki Finke's spin is pro-writer. Most others are pro-The Six Giant Corporations Trying To Stop Paying Writers Residuals, which is only surprising to the most Polyannish out there since the media outlets are mostly all owned by said Giant Six.)

The meeting was standing room only and was quite inspiring. They lead us through negotiations to this point in a very sane and clear manner and the guild members cheered and applauded and groaned and displayed a good deal of solidarity—solidarity I’ve never gotten to feel with fellow writers since I write alone. The meeting gave me confidence in the leadership of the guild in a way I hadn't had before. Sure, seeing such well-known figures as showrunners from Lost, Desperate Housewives, The Shield, and CSI up on the dais helped, but I also walked away impressed by the heads of the legal and negotiating committees, as well as Patrick Verrone himself (who does not draw a salary for his tireless work, by the way).

Look, unions are on the way out, and I believe that’s bad for America. Corporations have been picking them off like snipers, and now they’re trying to do it to us as well. And it’s hard to arouse much sympathy. We’re a white collar union. The guy who created Two and a Half Men will never arouse the sympathy of plucky "Norma Rae" standing on a manufacturing table holding a union sign. We're not coal miners. But the bottom line is that a vast majority of union writers are just middle class folk trying to get by in a crazy-making industry where finding yourself out of work for years at a time is the norm. And it is during those times where the residual system allows many of those writers to be able to make the mortgage payments.

Well, the studios are engaged right now in a plan to do away with that system. It's very simple: we made an extremely shitty deal years ago on VHS tapes because they said, "Well, it's a new technology. Let us pay you 4 cents per tape because manufacturing costs are so high and we don't know if it'll even catch on. And then we'll renegotiate after studying the issue." So we took the deal. And do you think they ever renegotiated? Even when manufacturing costs came way down? Even after the price point dropped from 75 bucks per tape to 10? Even when far-cheaper-still-to-make DVDs were invented and then exploded as a business? Even when television shows became wildly popular on DVD, thus eroding the syndication market? Hell no. After fucking you once, Big Business certainly isn't going to suddenly grow a conscience and un-fuck you years later out of the goodness of their heart. And that's exactly what they're trying to do right now. Fuck us hard. Not only are they refusing to renegotiate DVDs (claiming giving us 8 cents per DVD instead of 4 would make them too sad), they're trying to jam all "new media" like streaming and digital downloads under that same equation; they have actually refused "for overriding business reasons" to negotiate at all over new media. (Streaming video would be completely unpaid, even if it's ad-supported because they claim all streaming video EVEN IF THEY SHOW THE EPISODE OR FEATURE FILM IN ITS ENTIRETY is "promotional”. Seriously.)

Here's why this is a blatant attempt to get rid of the residual system: once we accept the digital download rate of "DVD shitty" and the streaming rate as "fuck you you get nothing," that's it. That’s never going to change. But what will change? Over the next however many years, we will all be watching television as digital downloads or streaming video. Thus, as Broadcast and Cable distribution goes away, so do the hated "residual" rates they have to pay writers (and actors, and directors) for first run and repeat shows over the television airwaves and cable waves! We’re back to the days before we got residuals at all. Defacto 100% rollbacks! Union busted! Rupert Murdoch gets to buy another island! Huzzah!

The studios claim we should accept shit and let them "study" new media for the next three years and THEN we can negotiate a fair residual rate. In other words, they think we're idiots. And why shouldn't they? We took it 20 years ago on VHS. They claim they have no idea how to monetize new media, yet at the same time they turn around and sell ads on their video streams, sell their shows on iTunes and Amazon Unbox, and tell investors how they have this awesome new revenue model that's going to keep them healthy for decades to come! (Especially if they can stop paying the content creators a fair wage. Boy oh boy.)

So basically, it's genuinely now or never. We make sure we get paid for when our product is delivered via the new delivery systems NOW, or we give it up forever. Professionally, I'm happy to and ready to strike; I will spend my fall walking back and forth with a sign in front of the studio lots, waving to the executives and producers I know as they drive past. But personally, I'm crushed and depressed and scared. This happens to be a weird watershed insane moment in my career where I have 4 television pilots going at the same time, including one very high profile pilot I'm doing at ABC with a couple of sitcom heavyweights already attached. And I'm dead scared the projects will all go away. And that in three months I won't be able to make my mortgage or my car payment. Pam is on the only real breakout hit of the new season and sort of this weird oasis of hope for television comedies, and its momentum could be stopped dead in its tracks if the strike lasts. It's terrible. I only wish we were the fatcat dickheads some of the media is trying to present us as. I wish it were true. But it's not. We don’t want to strike. It could bankrupt us. But at this point we have no choice. Basically: If not now. Then never.

TV veteran Ken Levine has a really good entry with his thoughts on things. Wish us luck.

Edited to add: someone posted this in the comments on one of Nikki's Finke's updates and it cracked me up:

Last night at the CC was a trip. Kinda like the big opening scene in the 'Warriors,' ‘cept with a bunch of nerdy TV staffs. "Look! The guys from Two and a Half Men are here! And Samantha Who. Crazy, man!"

"Can you dig it?'"


Blogger Sara said...

Stee-I had to delurk to say that I'm really hoping you guys come on on top of this. I'm a union girl born and bred. My dad is an exec board member, my brother is a permit worker, and I worked my way through college thanks to IATSE local 16. I think this strike is really important for the health of all unions, not just the theatrical ones.
I'm really pulling for you on this.

11:13 AM

Anonymous mary ann said...

My sister is an organizaer for SEIU. My grandmother was the first female rep in her union. I'm with you guys. Keep fighting. It is necessary.

11:56 AM

Blogger Omar said...

I've been thinking about you guys and wondering how it's affecting you and what'll happen. Thank you for explaining it so clearly -- I hope you come out the other side with a good contract agreement and all your projects intact.

Fight the power!

12:20 PM

Anonymous Glark said...

Ugh. Sending negotivibes your way.

12:41 PM

Anonymous Tara said...

I was thinking about you and Pam last night. Good luck and give 'em hell. (I knew Patric Verrone was good people -- he's an ex-"Futurama" writer.)

2:31 PM

Blogger Kristen said...

Thanks for the clear explanation. I'm overseas and find it hard to stay totally aware of all news from back home. As a (hopeful) future employee on some television show and as a person with a liberal, union-supporting heart, I'm rooting for you all!

3:02 PM

Anonymous Jon said...

As a SAG member and a reality tv story editor, I hope you guys get everything you deserve. You're right; it's now or never. Give 'em hell.

4:02 PM

Anonymous carey said...

I am someone who has never had a job protected by a union (I work in advertising). I grew up in a family where my dad owned a small store that never grew beyond “mom and pop” status. Although I consider myself liberal on nearly every platform, I am sorry to say, I have never been able to embrace fully the concept of unions in today’s world.

Perhaps it is just pure jealousy I have never had an organization fighting on my behalf for salary, health care provisions and work environment. That responsibility has always fallen squarely on me and before that my father. I wish no one ill will and hope the strike ends quickly in favor of the Writers Guild. Can someone explain to me why some get to enjoy the benefits of a union’s power and influence while others (with similar job/career characteristics) are left to fend for themselves? I really do want to change my perspective!

4:45 PM

Blogger mary ann said...

Carey - It's mostly a matter of choice. Many employers are very hostile about unions because to employ people, pay them fairly, give them a degree of job security, and provide benefits is much more expensive than to just employ people and ignore the rest. However, any group of employees can get together, contact a local, and ask to get help starting to organize. What follows is usually lengthy, difficult and completely worth it. Then with any luck you get to pay dues, work under a contract, and have rights.

In some states, if some employees at a place join a union, they all must (called "Closed Shop"). In others, if some join the union, the rest can choose whether or not to (this is called "Right to Work"). Either way, some employees are covered by a union and others aren't because that's what the employees choose, or because the employer is so completely hostile to unions that they make it nearly impossible for the employees to unionize (that's how it works at Wal*Mart).

I hope that helped.

5:59 PM

Blogger Linda said...

Carey: I think you'd do better if, rather than trying to embrace the concept of unions and all they do, you tried to evaluate each situation individually.

Some unions are corrupt, some are run by leaders who look out for senior workers at the expense of junior workers, some screw the rank-and-file for the good of the institution of the union, and some make unreasonable demands and try to avoid making compromises that all other workers have to make. There are lots of things that kind of make unions look bad that go by on the news from time to time.

HOWEVER. It seems to me that in the case of writers, it's even clearer why they must have unions and must negotiate together. It's not an industry with built-in stability. By nature, it's job-to-job work, feast or famine (as many have pointed out), and access to benefits is just not the same as it would be at a company where you stay for years. Making these folks negotiate individually when they may change employers every six months is not realistic; they have no time to accumulate power with the particular employer.

I guess what I'm saying is...rather than trying to come down as "unions good" or "unions bad," look at what the individual folks in the individual situations are doing. It seems to me that in this particular case, the reasonableness of the writers' expectations is obvious, and the long-term damage they stand to suffer if they don't put a foot down now is considerable.

10:26 AM

Anonymous Stephie said...

I was going to leave a comment exactly like Omar's. You really explained it well. High fives for you, Pam and Frank.

5:44 PM

Anonymous Jennifer said...

Add my voice to the chorus of thank-yous for the explanation. Here's hoping the strike is over as quickly as possible with you guys getting what you damn well deserve.

10:01 AM

Blogger jax said...

Stee, I wondered what you would think about Techdirt's take on this ("Titanic Crew Strikes Over Deck Chair Arrangement"):

1:45 PM

Blogger Kristina said...

I, too, am delurking to thank you for your explanation, but I'm wondering how studios can expect production to continue on shows what with actors being in their own union, etc. - how is their showing up for work not crossing the picket line?

I really know nothing about unions, so I apologize if this is a deplorably ignorant question.

1:54 PM

Anonymous nabbalicious said...

Good luck to all of you! Writers deserve so much more than they've been getting. Here's hoping you guys come out on top.

8:57 PM

Blogger karen said...

To me the issue seems pretty straight forward: you create something, you should get paid for it.

Pamie mentioned getting paid royalties for her book. I'm in the licensing world (books, specifically), and the royalty structure and what we have to go through make sure everyone gets paid is kind of a pain in the ass, but completely necessary. The illustrators, the writers, the voice talent--they all created something. They get paid for it. Makes sense.

Keep fighting!

7:55 AM

Blogger Christian said...

As a rep for a white collar union myself (OPEIU Local 35), a member of my own union, a bargaining team member, and lead negotiator, I want to express my full and unconditional solidarity with you.

As I need to run soon to help a woman keep the healtcare coverage management is trying to take away from her (she's in the middle of a battle with brain cancer, and undergoing daily chemo and radiation treatment), I have to make this shorter than I'd like. I do, however, want to respond to a couple of comments made in the responses to your post.

First: Are unions perfect? Not a chance in hell. But, I'd rather have them than not. Aditionally, they raise the wages and benefits for all workers, regardless of their union status - the Economic Research Institute has done some great work on documenting this fact.

Second: Do some unions (notably the Auto and Steelworkers) negotiate contract which 'screw' younger workers? Unfortunately, yes. This is completely short-sighted, and as a union activist who's under 30 myself, it pains me to see it. The answer, however, is not to disengage. Rather, it's to become involved and fix the problem; complaining over a cup of coffee with your coworkers changes absolutely nothing.

Third:I would argue that all jobs are unstable. This is especially true for non-union employees. This is added impetus for all of us to stick together. The companies shure as hell are not looking out for us. It's high time that we start looking out for ourselves.


11:46 AM

Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I am not in a union but I support your strike. I wish I could walk the line with you!

7:05 AM


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