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Union Roundup – July 2007

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And so, Godot-like, we still wait. The week that ending February 8 was almost the week that was. Exactly one week earlier, on the 1st, Below the Line received a reasonably hot tip that there were enough dotted i’s/crossed t’s – or would be over the weekend – that a tentative settlement of the writer’s strike would be announced the following Monday. Others were hearing the same thing: Nikki Finke that same afternoon, and when another 24 hours had passed, outlets ranging from the two Timeses (NY & LA), to CBS, the BBC, AP, and others were calling it a done deal.
Then, by late Sunday, the 2nd, WGA coastal heads Patric Verrone and Michael Winship released a tartly worded missive advising everyone to pay no attention to the rumors. The strike was still on, and there was still an ostensible media blackout on negotiations, which might be going well, but never mind, get back on that picket line!
Yet the rumors have persisted all week and indeed, as this very issue is at the printer, WGA’s east and west branches will be meeting separately to inform their membership of what the true and actual lowdown is.
Everyone expects it will be to reveal the broad strokes of a settlement.
So these words will either be somewhat prescient, or hopelessly obviated, depending on what happens.
Of course, one scribe pal of UR’s acquaintance, himself a staffer on one of those Really Big Shows, revealed that some of the writers began to worry that maybe the whole thing was a producer psych-out, to dangle the idea of Getting Back to Work in front of Hollywood’s face, only to dash those hopes at the last minute, so everyone will be royally pissed at the word-slingers.
Yet, as the strike has unfolded, most folks outside Hollywood – who, we must remember, have no “going back to work” stake in any of this, but are simply wondering if there will ever again be new episodes of TV shows they’ve assented to watch – seem generally supportive of the walkout.
For example, North Carolina-based advert firm Boone Oakley created a Bring Back the Dialogue website, featuring links to purchase “supportive ribbons” — shaped in the manner of the famous red AIDS ribbon – that one could wear to the grocery store, the motif being a twisted pencil.
And true enough, no one is rushing out to make similar ribbons for the ownership side. Indeed, what would they be? A twisted dollar bill? A scrunched up stock certificate?
Not that most showrunners or staff writers qualify as “poor folk” (yes, I know all about the WGA median salaries, and especially the utility of residuals toward the end of career, which comes faster and faster in a youth-obsessed, age-denying town like Hollywood). But hey, even the socialists were putting aside some of the inherent class contradictions to sign off on the WGA’s efforts:
“Any agreement now will likely be a step forward for writers and the result of the inspirational solidarity and dedication of the strikers. Unfortunately, though, WGA negotiators had made some concessions even before the most recent announcement–for example, dropping the demand for an increase in the DVD residual formula and for jurisdiction over unorganized reality TV and animation writers.
“Most crucially, the strike has changed the writers themselves. As one striker on the picket line at CBS Studios last week, a WGA member for over 20 years, put it, ‘I am really heartened by this experience. Our unity, the support of the other unions–I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re fighting for what we deserve, but not just for ourselves. We’re showing others that you can stand up and fight.’”
Those paragraphs were written by Cindy Kaffen at the Socialist Workers’ site, and her observation about the “solidarity” aspects hark to a point made in an earlier UR column: That it takes someone who is already in an economic elite, and simultaneously unionized, to prosecute a successful fight in post-free-trade, recession-bound America. Hence writers, occasionally actors, and sometimes athletes can all provide a certain inspiration that most textile workers, say, are deprived of, a generation after GOP saint Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ union.
And yes, we were being naïve, writing as if there were still actual textile or manufacturing jobs left in America.
On which note, U.K.’s Economist ran an interesting article on “The Geography of Recession,” showing which states were being hit hardest in what Bush straight-facedly describes as a “strong economy.”
California’s “color code” was the same as ransacked Michigan’s: “California’s mighty economy is visibly wobbling. In some cities, house prices are falling at double-digit rates and the unemployment rate has jumped from 4.8% to 6.1% in the past year, an increase twice as steep as the national trend. In Los Angeles, the weak dollar and slower consumer spending have sharply cut import traffic through the port. This downturn is not as gut-wrenching as those in the early 1990s or 2001, when core industries such as defence and technology suffered badly.”
You gotta love that British spelling of “defence.”
But the entire piece hints at larger questions that will still remain after the writer’s strike is settled: In an outsource-riven global economy, what will “back to work” really mean in Tinsel Town? Many of those scripts – certainly on the feature side – penned by WGA members are shot in Toronto, or Sydney, or Ireland. Those crew folk want to work, too. And the entertainment combines won’t be any more inclined to pay “expensive” American labor costs after this is settled.
Another interesting note, though, touched on by Ms. Kaffen’s piece: If the writers are viewed as “successful” in their strike (as they may well be north of Santa Barbara and east of Santa Clarita), will they in fact inspire other American workers – those who have to no residuals for their work – to stage walkouts of their own?
And what will the presence of the WGA be in those other, brewing labor disputes?
What will it be here in L.A., if the actors – or any below-the-liners – stage a walkout?
None of these questions will be as readily answered as the “settlement” one, but first things first.
Write Union Roundup: [email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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