What labor can learn from the writers

January 18, 2008

Lee Sustar explains that the Writers Guild walkout has shown the importance of picket lines and union solidarity.

DOES THE Hollywood writers' strike hold lessons for reviving the labor movement as a whole?

"Sun-drenched boulevards lined with designer boutiques and coffee shops are an improbable setting for an old-fashioned labor dispute, but that is what is happening," noted Britain's Observer newspaper.

"Four or five days a week, up to 2,000 writers brandish placards outside the studios, earning supportive honks from passing traffic and nervous glances from executives driving into work. Recently one had a physical altercation with an employee at Fox, where writers of The Simpsons were making a stand. Some writers have picketed production of their own shows."

The writers' scrappy picket lines over the past three months contrast with the token one- and two-day strikes called by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at General Motors and Chrysler last fall.

Those walkouts were nothing more than the UAW leadership's attempt to give a militant cover for contracts that cut wages for many new workers nearly in half. So much for the UAW's vaunted tradition of pattern bargaining, where winning a good contract at one company chosen as a "strike target" would improve pay, benefits and working conditions that the other companies would have to accept.

By contrast, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is fighting to maintain and strengthen its own version of industry-wide pattern bargaining and raise the pay and conditions of nonunion writers on "reality" TV shows.

Central to the dispute is residual payments for writers for material distributed through the Internet and other new media. The employers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), are taking a hard line, and walked out of negotiations December 7.

The WGA's struggle has also highlighted the importance of union solidarity, with the Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) refusing to cross picket lines.

Now the WGA is trying to sow divisions among the employers. The union has signed separate agreements with production companies owned by talk show host David Letterman and some others.

This is a risky tactic, since it could split the union between those working and those still on the line. And with billions of dollars at its disposal, the AMPTP seems prepared to try and starve out the writers, the vast majority of whom are far from wealthy.

Meanwhile, studios have used their own divide-and-conquer tactics, invoking contractual agreements to force talk show hosts and strike sympathizers Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert back on the air without their writing staffs.

As inspiring as SAG's and the Teamsters' solidarity has been for the WGA, labor's unity in Hollywood is far from complete.

Some unions representing "below the line" pre- and post-production workers have put pressure on the writers to settle. That effort is being led by International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) President Thomas Short, who called the WGA-West a "house of hate" and accused the union of being "strike happy."

Another potential problem for the striking writers is the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which opened early negotiations with the AMPTP in mid-January and claims to be within "shouting distance" of a deal.

The DGA has been cool toward the WGA during the strike. If it agrees to an early contract with a sub-par formula for new media revenue, it could greatly strengthen the employers' hand. SAG, which has its own contract talks coming up, could also find itself burdened by a bad DGA deal.

With the production pipeline dried up and layoffs mounting, the pressure is on. "It would be more effective if we all went on strike together," said one IATSE member at a post-production sound studio. But that would mean defying no-strike clauses in union contracts and risking big lawsuits--something feared by almost all union officials.

In short, the WGA strike faces many of the challenges that labor must overcome order to reverse its decline: huge corporations out to crush unions, sabotage by conservative union bureaucrats and countless legal obstacles. But where bigger unions have retreated, the writers have stepped up to the fight.

The outcome of their struggle will have an impact on the entire union movement. They deserve our full support.

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