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HomeBlog the LineUnion Roundup: L.A.'s own "Katrina?"

Union Roundup: L.A.'s own "Katrina?"


the latest UR column from the current print edition of Below the Line:

Mark London Williams

The original Katrina unfolded over a period of a few days, and while most people (except, oddly, the Federal government) could see it coming, and knew it would be bad, no one knew how bad. The devastation remains to this day.

In the New Year, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Los Angeles – the entertainment sector – is facing its own economic Katrina. Most saw it coming months ago, and those charged with bringing this strike to an end seem determinedly oblivious to the storm conditions around them.

Of course, sinister motives have been ascribed to that obliviousness: In the case of Katrina, it was popularly theorized, it may have been in a conservative government’s interest to disperse New Orleans’ African-American population, thus turning a relatively blue Southern State most definitely red.

And based on the results of the last gubernatorial election in Louisiana, the state is definitely more crimson than it was before.

Similarly malign motives are being ascribed to the AMPTP about the collapse of talks with the writers. Over Christmas, Nikki Finke posted an “Outlook Very Grim” item about the strike, talking, in particular, about yet another failure to restart the “talks” between the WGA the owners. You’ll have to read the item, but it concerns Jeffery Katzenberg working out some conditions with prominent show runners, most of them originally dubious the WGA had done all it could in dealing with the producers.

The producers, in the person of Warner Bros. Barry Meyer said, “eh, no thanks.”

But the reason, according to Finke, is that “the CEOs are deeply entrenched in their desire to punish the WGA for daring to defy them by striking and to bully the writers into submission on every issue, and that the writers are sadly misguided to believe they have any leverage left. I’m told the CEOs are determined to write off not just the rest of this TV season (including the Back 9 of scripted series), but also pilot season and the 2008/2009 schedule as well. Indeed, network orders for reality TV shows are pouring into the agencies right now. The studios and networks also are intent on changing the way they do TV development so they can stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars in order to see just a few new shows succeed.”

That may be one of the most critical paragraphs she’s written since this fiasco began – and she’s written some good ones – because it signals, then, that we are in Katrina territory here in L.A. (Since we went to press, however, there are other rumors of other back-channel actions, that she’s been reporting)

The unfolding storm we’ve seen develop over the past year has broken, and now –according to this theory – there is a deliberate sitting-on-of-hands, by the owners, in letting the damage “play out,” because some ostensible desirable result (the amassing, in other words, of more power by the powerful) awaits on the other side.

And it could be that just as the Federal Fema fubar response to Katrina was the result of an arrogant government held accountable by, well no one, it could be that the response of the owners to the WGA’s demands are the result of an overly-concentrated cabal of conglomerates that are ultimately answerable, to, well no one.

I mean there’s the bottom line, and there are the shareholders. But if you harbor any illusion any of this is any longer about “art,” well, you are hereby invited to leave them at the door marked “Hollywood Strike 2007.”

Which, of course, is stretching into 2008.

And, as with Katrina, the damage becomes increasingly incalculable, in the near term. Much of the pain is being felt already, as evinced by this Yule-week comment left on BTL’s strike blog:

“I’m not siding with the AMPTP here but neither am I fully sided with the WGA. For all of the crew that are Below the Line (of which I used to be one), this is a lose/lose situation for them. The WGA keeps claiming that residuals go into the pension/healthcare and therefore it effects the IATSE, but what is that going to matter when everyone has to go look for new careers and jobs just to support themselves. They aren’t going to see any of that. What does it matter for those few who can afford to stick through the strike if they can’t make their hours to qualify for health care. Stop claiming support from the little guy.

“I’d like to sympathize with the WGA because they are suppose to be the little guy in the fight for everyone. But in reality, it’s just two big egos fighting for a piece of the playground while leaving a giant wake of destruction behind them. They could have handled this better.

“Let’s see how many writers can even name a fraction of the people on their shows who are now out of work because of them.”

A lot of the tensions that will be erupting more clearly around town – as people’s lives are smashed in what is now a game of take-no-prisoners – are in that blogpost, and we are getting more and more like it all the time.

Last column, I said I’d be writing about how, nearly a quarter century after Ronald Reagan succeeded in destroying the air traffic controllers union when they went on strike, only athletes and writers (or actors, or directors, if they ever chose to) can “afford” to walk out for the kind of protracted period that might produce results.

Most American workers correctly perceive that baseball players or TV staff writers are not like them – they earn, on average, a hell of a lot more (when they’re working), and their health plans are generally far superior to the average citizen’s – and hence the mix of resentment and admiration that tend to greet walkouts in those industries (we can call professional sports an “industry” by now, yes?).

For you need to be either vastly overpaid, like athletes (whether this applies to the recent NHL season-long shutdown, I’m not sure), or have residuals – a way for money to come in during the stoppage – in order to sustain a strike in the first place.

But the corporate entities that can wait out such strikes are larger, too.

The fascination with the outcome has spread to most corners of the country, too, even above and beyond the question when new scripted episodes of television might start appearing on small screens. Again, this is because this strike becomes a stand-in for all those other deferred struggles between an elite ownership class, and the rest of us.

In the Bay Area, where I’m holidaying with the my boys, and filing this column, an AP story by Sandy Cohen, picked up by the S.F. Chronicle, sparked some local discussion. Among its excerpts:

“‘We’re swept up by the romantic notion of being on strike and doing the right thing,” said Luvh Rakhe, a writer and strike captain for the ABC show ‘Cavemen.’ ‘By strengthening the union movement in Hollywood, everyone who’s in a union benefits.’

“But not everyone sees it that way.

“The strike against the studios has also forced nearly 40,000 ‘below-the-line’ workers — including electricians, carpenters, welders and prop masters — out of work, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Unlike the writers, who are buoyed by feelings of righteousness and will presumably benefit from the strike’s outcome, these workers are simply jobless at what should be a festive time of year.”

It should be. But then Katrina’s damage stretched through the holidays, and the subsequent Mardi Gras season, too. And this struggle, which has now become about much more than just residuals or streaming media formulas, will likewise have consequences far into the horizon.

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