Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Failure of Democracy, Continued

Last month I wrote a post called “Failure of Democracy” which began:

“In the WGAw today, every single officer, every single member of the Board of Directors -- that’s 19 elected leaders in all -- either ran on a slate under the current president or under his endorsement.”

I went on to talk about how the Board had thus become a political tool rather than the philosophically heterogeneous deliberative body most of us naturally assume it to be.

Not surprisingly, this made current Board members unhappy. I know, because I’ve heard from a number of them. Some are friends, too, which doesn’t make this easy. I suppose I owe it to them, and to the rest of you reading, to back up my assertions a bit and to show that that first post wasn’t just political demagoguery.

See, it all actually started with a little cold analysis.

When I heard that most of the Writers United members were going to join together in a collective endorsement of eight candidates in this year’s election (a bit of an escalation from the off-year election of 2006), I got to wondering: how has Writers United’s heightened politicization of the Guild affected the way our Guild actually works?

Before diving in here, I want to point to the Guild Constitution, which says that the Board “shall have the exclusive power and authority to direct the affairs of the Guild,” and that the president “shall act as a spokesperson for the Guild.” Now, I don’t regard the WGA Constitution with the quasi-religious awe I save for the United States Constitution, but this seems like a good idea to me: a representative democracy selects sixteen of our best and brightest, and issue by issue they’ll deliberate until they find what they believe to be the best course.

You’re probably ahead of me right now, aren’t you? Well, here goes anyway. (Bear with me; it gets a little geeky.)

The minutes of all Board meetings are available on the WGA website. So I sat down for an hour one night with a legal pad, and buzzed through, counting votes at each meeting: how many were unanimous, how many were near-unanimous (one or two “no” votes on a resolution), and how many were contested (defined very liberally as three or more “no” votes). I did this for the first 25 meetings after which it was true that every single member had been elected with the current president’s endorsement (9/25/06-5/19/08).

Then, for comparison’s sake, I went back and did the same thing for the last 25 meetings of the pre-Writers United Board (1/26/04- 8/29/05).

Remember, these 20 months of the Writers United Board encompassed the lead-up to a strike, the strike itself, and its aftermath –- a time in which wrenching policy questions arose continually. Will we accept early negotiations if the studios offer them? Do we tack closer to SAG or to the DGA? What will our strike rules look like? How will we discipline writers who break them? Will we ask showrunners not to complete non-writing services on shows already produced, and risk lawsuits for breach? What legal services will we provide those who do? Will we support location pickets, trying to shut down productions? Will we first consult the member-writers whose work we’d be shutting down? What about interim deals –- should we offer them? And to whom -- to Letterman, but not Leno? And on and on: once the fit hits the shan, there are scores and scores and scores of tough ones like these.

So you’d think that the wartime Board, the Writers United Board, would be voting twice as often, three times as often as the peacetime Board, maybe even more. Wouldn’t you?

Guess what.

The current Board voted a total of 97 times in that period.

The pre-Writers United Board, in peacetime, voted 189 times.

The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.

That’s astonishing. So astonishing, in fact, that I’ll say it again:

The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.

(By the way, I excluded “approval of the minutes of the last meeting” votes, which literally are a rubber stamp. Also, if anyone does repeat this experiment and finds I’m off by a hair, I’ll happily publish a correction.)

Now let’s look at the breakdown of votes:

Pre-Writers United (189 votes): 125 unanimous, 34 near-unanimous, 30 contested.

Writers United (97 votes): 74 unanimous, 19 near-unanimous, 4 contested.

That’s right: defining “disagreement” so loosely as to require only three “no” votes on a motion, this Board took us all the way through a strike and disagreed a total of four times in almost two years.

The pre-Writers United Board disagreed thirty times, in peacetime.

The current monochromatic Board simply doesn’t disagree. 96% of the votes they did take were unanimous or near-unanimous. 96%.

And because the Board already knows it won’t disagree, it doesn’t even insist on its deliberative role. It’s apparently content to let the president set policy (consulting, presumably, with paid staff more than with the Board itself).

Completing the turn of the Constitution onto its head, the Board instead has taken on much of the president’s role as spokesman, tirelessly and enthusiastically, outreach after outreach.

So in that sense, it was perhaps unfair of me to describe the Board as “nothing more than a rubber stamp.”

But in the pure sense of the Board’s neglect in exercising its constitutional responsibility “to direct the affairs of the Guild,” well, I’m going to stand by that characterization, strong though it is.

Of course, a non-insider reading this may be asking, “Does this really matter? Who cares who sets policy?”

Well, I guess the heart of my campaign is the idea that it does matter, and that you ought to care.

Look at any of the issues I’ve talked about on this blog over the last two months, and, whether you agree with me or not, ask yourself whether you want these questions decided for the Guild by one leader with a strong and specific ideological bent, or by a heterogeneous, philosophically diverse sixteen member committee, deliberating its way toward the best course for us all.

Think about questions like:

- ought we reverse course and try to mend fences with the DGA?

- do we actively try to get better at enforcement, and if so, where do we find the resources?

- should we offer to put reality writers under a separate MBA?

- how should we be talking in the press about the SIT DOWN, SHUT UP writers?

- looking to 2011, do we repeat the brinksmanship of 2005-08 even if that might well mean steering us toward another strike, or do we try to get better at talking to people even when what they have to say isn’t what we want to hear?

Think about those questions, and think about who you want answering them for you.

The ballots are going out this week.

What kind of Board do you want?


You can find the original post to which I refer here: