As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, November 05, 2007

I Support The Strike, Not The Strategy

The Writers Guild of America took to the streets today, beginning what promises to be a long strike. I couldn't be more in support of the people who are the lifeblood of Hollywood, the creative personnel that are the engine of the last vibrant manufacturing industry in America. Unfortunately, I'm getting the sense that their leadership is falling back on an old union strategy of securing benefits for their existing membership rather than allowing their membership to grow, and this will have disastrous consequences for the future of the labor movement.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a post, It's the Unions, Stupid, which documented my experience at a Writers Guild meeting dedicated to organizing reality and nonfiction television storytellers.

Yes, a lot of reality television is slipshod, exploitative and dumbed-down. But people don't understand that the rank-and-file who work in it are often being as exploited as the contestants. Reality is big because of its low costs, mainly because, unlike scripted shows, it is not unionized. This has become a bargaining chip for the networks in their dealings with the Writer's Guild, Director's Guild, and others: take our crappy contract, or we'll just make more reality shows.

Reality show workers make less than their counterparts in scripted TV. They work largely on weekly salaries, usually for no overtime, yet during stressful parts of production 16-hour days and weekend work are all too typical. Their credits are so amorphous that they bear no relation to the actual job worked. If a reality show is sold to another network for use in reruns, none of the workers see any residual fees. They have no employer-paid health care or pensions, and as freelancers on short-term assignments, they have little or no job security. 1 out of every 3 TV and film industry professionals are out of work on any given day in Hollywood (just go to a coffee shop at 2:30 on a Wednesday for proof).

This probably sounds whiny to many, and actually, it should. Most of these people are well-paid for the work that they do. Of course, that's mainly because of the power of collective bargaining. The sundry labor unions have forced Hollywood to share its profits with its employees, with very few exceptions. But while reality television workers do benefit from that to a degree, they are the crack in the dike that allows the networks to cash in.

Along with hundreds of others, I signed a card at that time, in May 2005, allowing the WGA to negotiate on my behalf. These negotiations ran up against a brick wall. There were a couple high-profile meetings and protests. Nothing. There were lawsuits against production companies who were making their employees work 18-hour days, falsifying time cards, changing start dates and delaying productions that cost the employees thousands of dollars. They resulted in brief reconciliations that were eventually rolled back. There was a high-profile strike last year by the writer-producers of America's Next Top Model. The editors, who were unionized through IATSE, didn't honor the picket line, the season of shows were finished, and those writers were not brought back the following season. There was talk of a "wage-and-hour" campaign, to sue the production companies for overtime pay. It never materialized.

The light at the end of the tunnel was the coming negotiations on a new contract. Many thought that organizing reality and nonfiction storytellers would be a key bargaining chip. After all, in the event of a strike, the studios could simply ramp their nonunion shows into production and move forward with business as usual. So to avert the same thing happening far into the future, it made sense for the WGA to take a stand now, expand their membership, and leave the studios with less wiggle room to make a schedule during subsequent threats to walk out. Indeed, this is exactly what the studios are saying is their alternative now.

Prime-time schedules would appear relatively unchanged for a couple of months, since a handful of episodes have already been prepared. But if the strike drags on the 2008 schedule will be heavy on reality shows (not covered by the current contracts) and reruns [...]

Though CW Entertainment Chief Dawn Ostroff says they're prepared, with new reality series like Farmer Wants a Wife and Crowned waiting in the wings, she, too, sees no advantage to striking: "It's just better for everyone if habits aren't broken and if people that are getting into characters and shows are able to continue to do so."

I'm not at the bargaining table, so I can only go by the many reports I've seen, but it appears to me that the WGA is holding the line on DVD and Internet residuals. Now, those are important issues that must be part of an overall agreement. But the difference between those benefits discussions and expanding membership to other programming mirrors the central debate within the labor community; should they get as much for the dwindling numbers of union members they have, or should the focus be on expanding membership? This is the schism that caused the SEIU and other unions to leave the AFL-CIO and form the Change To Win coalition. Andy Stern and the other new-labor leaders firmly believe that the old paradigm is failing America, where union membership has declined to a great degree over the past 50 years. If you give management a lifeline, a way to get their work done without having to deal with a union, they're going to take it. There are significantly less situation comedies in production than there were ten years ago. There are less dramas, too, at least at the network level.

I hear the criticism that reality shows are cheap and tawdry and a major factor in the decline of Western civilization. To a large extent I agree with it. But if you hate reality shows, the number one thing you should hope for is that they become organized. Ratings are only a small part of the story of reality's success; with the exception of American Idol, that growth has leveled off. It's the enormous difference in production costs that has led to the burgeoning of the genre, and that's entirely attributable to the fact that they're nonunion. The chain of TV and entertainment can only be as strong as its weakest link. And I believe that, by foregrounding the monetary issues and not fighting to expand the membership, the WGA is undergoing the wrong strategy for the future, one that will ensure that their members have less opportunities to practice their craft.

United Hollywood is giving constant updates, as well as the LA Times' Hollywood Writers blog. I will support the strike in any way possible. But I wish that the leadership would understand the need for a new-labor strategy, to increase the fortunes of the middle class and ensure that nobody is left behind.

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