It’s been a hell of a year. We did what doubters and the AMPTP said we’d never be able to do: we held together. I’m particularly proud to have been part of it as a member of the Negotiating Committee.
If a strike is a time for unity, the aftermath of success is a crossroad, a time for thoughtful evaluation of our priorities and strategies for the next cycle. Do we draw the right lessons from this past year, and build on all we’ve done? Or do we draw the wrong lessons, and squander it?
That’s why I’m running.
For the last three years, we’ve thrown massive resources into organizing reality, with little to show for it. We’ve focused on reality as means to a specific end: to restore our hegemony over network prime time and to put teeth into our strike threat.
The thing is, we learned -- to my surprise as much as anyone’s, frankly -- that we didn’t need reality to wage an effective strike after all.
Of course, there was always another, more pure reason to get reality writers covered by the Guild, to get them benefits like health and pension and minimums: if they are writers, it’s simply the right thing to do.
If we’re willing strip away the means-to-an-end aspect, it might be much more easily attainable. Here’s what we do: first, we put together a panel of reality showrunners who are already WGA members, to codify exactly what constitutes reality “writing”; second, we approach the companies and offer to put those writers under a separate MBA, just like the newswriters.
We’d be trading off something we learned we didn’t need anyway, while a) taking care of the people we purportedly want to help, b) making such a deal more attractive to the studios, and c) freeing resources to pay more attention to the needs of current members which have been neglected.
Enforce, Enforce, Enforce
For one thing, the Guild needs to get more aggressive about chasing down late and non-payment. If our staff isn’t adequately designed for that, we should consider outsourcing the work to the kind of accounting firm which is. If we ask the members to strike over residuals, then we owe it to the members to be relentless about their collection.
Working conditions for screenwriters have deteriorated radically over the past five years, exacerbated by the decline in available jobs. Studios now shamelessly demand free rewrites, and routinely make multiple writers do an unconscionable amount of free work before the job is even assigned. The Guild needs to codify some standard working guidelines, and needs to be proactive about policing for violations, rather than leave the burden on members who rightly fear career reprisals.
I just directed my first feature, and the Editors Guild was all over us from the start, phoning my editor regularly and even dropping in unannounced, all because one of our producers had run afoul of that Guild in the past. That union’s aggressive protection of its members was an inspiration.
Return to Truly Representative Leadership
In 2005, Writers United introduced an unprecedentedly partisan approach to Guild politics. In the absence of any other such organized movement, they haven’t just dominated the WGAw political landscape, they’ve owned it outright. Through three cycles, every single elected candidate -- a total of thirty in a row -- has run on a slate under our current president or under his endorsement. That fact alone signals a breakdown of representative democracy.
The Board of Directors ought to be a deliberative body comprised of the best minds we can gather, drawing the greatest possible wealth of Guild and workplace experience, and representing a philosophical cross-section of the membership. That’s exactly what this year’s Negotiating Committee turned out to be, and the membership was better off for it.
Your Board, however, has not been that for some time.
Prepare for 2011... but Prepare Wisely
Anyone who heard my speech at the Convention Center on the eve of the strike knows that I believe in what we did this year, not only as a way to protect middle-class writers as new media emerges, but as a necessary demonstration to management that we can and will stand together against rollbacks, now and forever. We accomplished all that, and I’m proud of it.
But it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that our own newfound militancy raised the temperature and significantly elevated the likelihood that we’d find ourselves in a position where we had to strike. The rhetoric escalated on both sides, we demanded a lot, they demanded rollbacks, and ultimately both sides were so confident of winning this game of chicken that we crashed.
And it was a crash. The strike was costly: tens and tens of millions, maybe more, in direct lost earnings; fewer pilots produced and smaller staffs in the aftermath; brutal hardships for co-workers with little or nothing to gain in our fight. A recent article in the LA Times estimates the cost to the
All of this matters, and it’s not disloyal to the Guild to talk about it.
In this environment, with traditional entertainment in transition, and a career as a steadily working writer so much harder to maintain, a return to the approach of the 1980s, with a triennial work stoppage more or less expected, would be suicidal for the industry, and for writers.
Which is why preparing for 2011 can’t simply be a matter of keeping the strike captains together and starting to compile our next wide-ranging, high-asking Pattern of Demands, toward the next game of chicken.
Effective preparation for 2011 means using our success as a starting point for conversations -- beginning now -- with the people we’ve had the hardest time talking to, even if it means listening to things we don’t want to hear.
Start Talking and Keep Talking
Foremost, we need to repair our fractured relationship with the DGA. This utterly dysfunctional good-cop-bad-cop act happened to work out this time, but we can’t allow dysfunction to become ingrained policy.
Our current leaders took the approach that the WGA-DGA relationship would always be sour and allowed it to deteriorate even further. This was a mistake. But I believe it’s correctible: the last twelve months should be proof to both sides that a rapprochement and healthy collaboration is very much in our mutual interest. Let’s take the lead.
Beyond that, we ought to be having frank discussions with the AMPTP throughout the cycle, and should never be afraid of early negotiations. That doesn’t mean a return to the CAC approach of the 90’s, and it doesn’t mean taking striking off the table. But talks which clarify honest points of contention are preferable to bellicose public pronouncements and brinksmanship which inspire nothing but the same from the other side.
New areas of dispute will arise over the next three years, especially as specific new media issues become practical rather than theoretical. A successful 2011 will mean figuring out the things we need, and then guiding management and our sister Guilds toward a deal which treats writers fairly.
Let this year’s action stand always as a reminder of our will, but let us never forget that a fully successful negotiation is one which yields a good deal without a strike.
Labor peace has value to writers, too.
What I’ll Bring
I’ve been a steadily working writer for two decades, and I’ve worked in almost every writing capacity in our two main areas, from the bottom up through showrunner in TV and writer-director in features. Guild issues aren’t theoretical to me; I’ve lived their real-world applications and still do.
I think I’ve managed to maintain the regard of a wide swath of the Guild’s philosophical spectrum, which allowed me to play a number of useful roles toward preserving unity during the strike. I’m particularly gratified to have the endorsement of so many of the extraordinary men and women with whom I served on the Negotiating Committee.
Please give me your vote and allow me to keep working in the interest of writers.