Monday, July 14, 2008

End of Strike Essay on Unity

Before I move on to current and forward-looking topics, I want to re-post here a longish essay I wrote following the meeting at the Shrine just before the end of the strike, which originally ran on United Hollywood and a number of other Guild-related sites. It was an attempt to frame the more underappreciated aspects of our success, and I think it's still a valuable launching point for us to start thinking about what comes next.

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On Unity, Demonology, and the Legend of the Dirty Thirty

We have in the Guild our own demonology, mostly rooted in the fractious Eighties, with its legacies of the Union Blues, the hated home video rate, the DGA which settled too easily, and the devastating five-month strike of 1988 whose only triumph was that for nearly two decades both sides went to great lengths to avoid another one.

So as this year’s strike wore on, and as members tried to read the tea leaves and speculate on the negotiations (or lack thereof), helped little by a leadership and Negotiating Committee necessarily constrained in its candor, demons were invoked, analogs assumed, fears raised, anger stoked. Much of this was probably unavoidable. But as this all winds down and the first draft of history is being written, some clarifications are in order, toward understanding who we are as a Guild, what we accomplished and how we did it, and how much we have to build on going forward.

A good number of our members approached this round with a certain fatalism, a belief that no matter what we did, the DGA was going to make a deal first, and that we’d get the DGA’s deal. It was assumed, too, that the DGA -- historically strike-averse and willing to settle for less -- would take “a bad deal.” Of course, we on the Negotiating Committee and Board would tell members on the picket lines that we wouldn’t have to take their deal if we didn’t like it. That was indeed true, but everyone knew that the strike would get immeasurably tougher if the DGA settled first.

In retrospect it’s clear that, unless we were willing to settle for a mere extension of the last contract, accepting the DVD rate on electronic sell-through and leaving all other new media issues tabled for another three years, the AMPTP was never going to negotiate seriously with us before they made a deal with the directors.

That put the DGA in a tough position. They could take the kind of basic no-frills extension we were offered (perhaps with a most favored nations agreement which assured them new media jurisdiction and residuals comparable to ours, once we settled). Or, they could do the harder thing, negotiate more aggressively than they’ve traditionally done, and try to land a deal good enough to provide an acceptable template for our own. This latter choice would be highly complicated by the dysfunctional relationship between the two Guilds. They had to be asking themselves, how much would the writers really want, or need, to settle? Our Pattern of Demands, of course, was a high ask, and didn’t provide much of a clue. Moreover, mistrust between the two leaderships precluded the WGA’s confiding in the DGA with any kind of acceptable “bottom line.”

Nonetheless, the DGA stepped up to the moment, used the power of our strike as leverage, bargained hard, and landed a better deal than we expected.

It can’t be emphasized enough that this year, the traditional, anticipated pattern was turned on its head.

This year, we didn’t get the DGA deal. This year, the DGA got our deal.

All would be better if the relationship between the Guilds were healthier, and this should be a primary area of attention over the next few years. For starters, we owe them a big, public thank you, which we’ve yet to give them. They owe us one, too.

Anyhow, two days after the terms of the DGA deal were announced, the WGAw members of the Negotiating Committee met informally at John Bowman’s house, and agreed that we were moving into the endgame. There were still some things we’d need to negotiate beyond what the DGA had attained, but it was now clear to us that our strike had been a great success.

But we chose not to talk about that. Whether because some of our leaders truly thought they had a shot at getting a lot more out of the studios, or whether they thought that any positive talk would undermine our chances of getting even the crucial smaller points we needed, or whether merely because of (understandably) bruised egos, the official word on the DGA deal was no word at all.

And in our deafening silence, the Guild began to polarize.

The more militant, weaned on the stories of past DGA sell-outs, assumed this to be another one. At the same time, the more strike-weary, hungry for a way out, wanted us to embrace the deal without delay. And our membership’s two edges began to get angry at one another. You could feel it on websites like WriterAction, and you could feel it on the picket lines.

John Wells’s widely read internet piece in praise of the deal became one of the lightning rods for the polarization. About this, a couple of things need to be said. First, critics should compare Wells’s written comments about various deal points with John Bowman’s at the Shrine on Saturday; we on the inside didn’t love everything in the deal as much as Wells seemed to, but in truth we were satisfied with the great bulk of it, and just didn’t feel like we could say that yet.

Second, I spoke to Wells the day his e-mail hit the internet, and he explained to me why he supported the DGA deal as a basis for ours, and why he’d been willing to make that support public. I’ll leave it to John to say more about all this himself, but it should be known that he was acting on principle and in what he deeply believed to be the best interests of writers.

(In a sort of parallel, those same things can and should be said about Board member Phil Alden Robinson, who, with the clock on salvaging the TV season ticking down, wrote a tough, militant piece for United Hollywood, scaring the bejeezus out of writers desperately hoping that a settlement was close at hand. Like John, Phil explained his motives to me the next day. I think that when more is known, both of these men will be widely appreciated for their contributions to this negotiation, and for their courage and willingness to brave personal vilification in the interest of bringing writers the best deal possible. Both of these men deserve to be regarded as heroes of the Guild.)

The other lightening rod for polarization was the rampant rumor that, even before the DGA announced its deal, thirty A-list feature writers and showrunners had threatened to leave the Guild unless we accepted whatever the DGA negotiated. Again, this played into the post-Eighties demonology: now our generation had its own dreaded Union Blues, selfishly determined to leave us screwed on the internet, just as we’d been screwed on VHS and DVD in the bad old days.

Only this time, it wasn’t true.

Because I’d come onto the Negotiating Committee as a rare, self-described “moderate,” and so retained some credibility with critics of leadership and of the strike, I’d fallen into a role as sort of a liason to them, someone who could make the case to them for the need to strike, and who could, when appropriate, voice their point of view internally as well. Speaking from that vantage, I can say that the “thirty A-listers” rumor above was off base in three significant ways.

First, and most important, it wasn’t anything like the Union Blues of 1985: the “dissidents” of 2008 weren’t organized, and refrained until the end not only from public criticism, but from any private petitioning of leadership, for fear that even that would leak out and undermine the negotiation.

Second, there were far, far more than thirty. If we’re counting writers who, after the DGA deal was announced, were angry at the thought that we might still blow up the TV season and wait for SAG to join up with us, then I heard personally from over one hundred.

Third, the people I heard from were not, for the most part, “A-listers.” They were mostly writers at points in their careers where they were making (and sacrificing) a lot of money, but usually without the long histories of high earnings which gave them the wherewithal to withstand a lengthy strike.

It’s been too little talked about that while in some ways the strike appealed to our democracy and egalitarianism -- we were all equal on the picket line -- in other, crucial ways, the strike was not egalitarian at all: the real costs of the strike were not borne equally. Not even close.

Some writers have been fortunate enough in their careers that three months without paychecks wouldn’t cause a material change in lifestyle.

For others -- remember, over half the active, current members of the Guild are without WGA covered work at any given moment, and that doesn’t even count post-current or caucus members -- the last three months of unemployment won’t be much different from the next three.

But for some writers in the middle, this strike threatened their homes and changed the ways their families would have to operate -- real costs, hard costs. It’s a painful irony that, even as we struck for middle class writers of the future, it was the middle class writers of the present who got clobbered hardest on their behalf.

And for all the many things we did well during this strike, it’s been a grievous failure of ours not to have acknowledged that, publicly and often. We’ve rightly celebrated the people who worked for the strike, but we haven’t done nearly the same for the people who paid for the strike.

That recognition was absent Saturday night at the Shrine, and it’s been absent all along, and it’s inexcusable.

Which brings us back to one meeting in January, and the group which came to be called the “Dirty Thirty.”

In mid-January, at my own request, fellow Neg Comm member Robert King and I went to the home of a writer to talk with about three dozen members whom I’d heard were deeply unhappy with the strike and the leadership. My primary hope was to keep them from doing anything public which would undermine the Guild’s negotiating strength. My secondary hope was that Robert and I could provide a channel for them within the system, and to make sure they were heard, and felt heard.

A bunch of those writers had been force majeured out of their deals that very afternoon. And listening to the way we had all been talking to the membership, it was not unreasonable for them to fear the possibility that what was, at that point, a ten-week strike could turn into eight months, at which time SAG would join us and the real strike would begin. These writers were hurting already, and they were afraid, and they were angry.

It wasn’t the easiest afternoon for Robert and me. But in the end, it was successful. They now had a way of communicating with the Guild, and they didn’t take their grievances public.

Which is, ultimately, the point. Because any discussion about “dissidents” in the strike of 2007-08 really ought to begin and end with this remarkable truth: when given the opportunity to be heard inside the Guild rather than outside, they chose that route, in almost all instances. They wanted to influence the process, they wanted us to reach a settlement, but they wanted to make that influence felt in a way which would not compromise the Guild’s bargaining position.

Personally, I think the reason that was true this year, unlike 1985 or 1988, is that the cause was so just, so clearly important, that the few in the most extreme opposition to leadership realized that they weren’t going to find much traction among even relatively conservative members, who might under other circumstances speak out against a strike.

And this, by the way, was the deepest meaning of Patric Verrone’s fine battle-cry, “We’re all in this together.”

When you’re dealing with a large Guild of free-thinkers like ours, “unity” can’t be a matter of raising a small tent and telling everyone to stand under it. It has to be about building a big tent, and finding room inside for all, from the writers who advocated the DGA deal before anyone had even heard it, to the writers who’ll vote no on the contract now because they feel we should have stayed out longer and demanded more.

I’ll confess that when I was asked to join the Negotiating Committee, I had doubts about our ability or even willingness to build that big tent, and to let everyone be heard, to “listen” as well as to “educate.” In the end, though, I think we did it damned well. And the happy result was the deal that we needed.

SAG played a role, and so did the DGA. Militants played a role, and so did conservatives. Strike captains played a role, and so did the middle-class, working writers who contributed perhaps more than anyone before they even came to the picket lines. We were indeed all in it together.

Now, in the aftermath, let no one create false demons, or stories which suggest divisions like those which compromised our Guild in the past.

This time, we were better than that.