Thursday, July 24, 2008

And at the Same Time... In Praise of Writers United

Since posting my critical comments here over the last week or so, I’ve been finding myself frequently in conversation taking the other side, and explaining to critics what’s gone right in the Guild since Writers United came in three years ago, and I think it’s worth talking about a few of those things here.

First, and most obviously, they threw one hell of a strike. To the extent one believes that we were never going to get a fair deal on new media without striking at some point, it can’t be denied that we’d never have waged nearly so effective a strike without the army they built.

Second, they managed the relationship with SAG beautifully and much to our benefit. There were some, myself included, who thought our relationship with the DGA was ultimately going to be more important, because the directors were going to make the first deal, but our leadership thought that the strength we’d gain from SAG’s support would far outweigh whatever we’d lose if the DGA went its own way. In the end, they were as right (and wrong) as I was: yes, the DGA made the first deal, which drove our own, but SAG’s support, highlighted by the shut-down of the Golden Globes and the threat that posed to the Oscars, was a big part of the engine which pressed the AMPTP, and pushed the DGA, toward the deal that they finally made.

Third, there were a number of smaller scale victories which came through the new wave of internal organization, for example the showrunners’ stand against free work for the internet.

And the last which I’ll mention is maybe the most important: these guys managed to change writers’ relationship to our Guild in a fundamental way which I never would have believed possible. Before Writers United, the vast majority of us looked at the Guild as a needed bureaucracy -- an insurance agency, a collection agency, a credit determination agency. But now, for the first time since the long, sad 1988 strike, I think most members believe that the Guild can actually stand up and do something.

And it needs to be said that that happened because these guys got out there and showed up and did the work, day in and day out, outreach after outreach.

Take none of this as a walk backward from my recent criticisms. To be sure, the daily realities and enthusiasms of Writers United as a political movement have gotten in the way of the Board’s critical policy-making and oversight functions. I’m convinced that a more philosophically heterogeneous Board, more closely resembling this year’s Negotiating Committee, would serve as a better check and balance on the kind of extremely activist officers and paid staff we now have.

At the same time, though, critics, myself included, would be unfair to view Writers United only through that prism. A balanced, centrist appraisal has to acknowledge the accomplishments, too, even while calling for an important change in the composition of the Board going forward.