Posted by: mutantpoodle | November 9, 2007

Unlucky Strike

It took less than 24 hours for me, a mostly unemployed non-writer, to get dinged by the writers’ strike. I was doing some consulting for a small entertainment company, and it’s on hold now, because of you-know-what.

This is the second writers’ strike since I moved to Los Angeles, and I have been unemployed through both of them. The first one came during a far more desperate time – I was fresh out of B-school and highly leveraged, as we liked to say. For this one, I have significant cushion and so I can look at it with a bit more detachment. And, I think, an unusual, if not unique, perspective. For not only did I work as a suit for nearly 20 years at three major studios, but I have been in the IBEW and I’ve been a Teamster, and I came within hours of being on strike myself, well before I moved out here.

OK, the Teamster’s bit, while true, is a bit of a stretch. In high school in Minneapolis, I worked for Bridgeman’s, which was then a restaurant/diner/ice cream shop. Because it was owned by Land O’Lakes, everyone who was hourly there was a Teamster.

To the hard-core union folks in the local, we in the Bridgeman’s world were more of an albatross than an asset – we’d ask for benefits like a quart of ice cream a week, which the local would dutifully present to the company and then come back and tell us to accept whatever they’d offered. Still, no one else I knew got paid vacations at 16, so it wasn’t all bad.

From 1980-1985 I worked as an engineer for WJAR-TV in Providence, and that’s where I was in the IBEW. And in late 1984, our contract was up, and that’s when I almost went on strike.

The issues then were depressingly familiar to anyone who followed the Grocery workers’ strike a few years ago – wages, management’s desire for a two-tier pay structure, jurisdiction – all of it was there, and it was a tough pill to swallow. Progress was slow, and the union wanted leverage, so we extended the contract from September 30 to November 5th – the night before the 1984 Presidential election.

I remember all of us meeting at this tiny union hall around 11 Monday night, waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for our reps to return from negotiations, which they did around 2AM. Reading off of scribbled notes, they went through the good and the bad, and told us that, realistically, this was the best we could do. At 3:30 AM we ratified the deal, and before we trudged home for sleep, Bud Brown – one of the directors who worked at the station – reminded us that the people on the air were our brothers and sisters too, and that they had stood with us during this negotiation, and it was up to us to make them look good the following night.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more tired than I was at 24 hours later on the 7th, when I finally got home after about 2 hours sleep. But I was exhilarated, too – though exhausted, we had beaten our rivals to stories throughout the night, we beat them badly in the ratings, we had made our brethren look good, and we weren’t going to have to walk a picket line during a New England winter.

But we would have if we’d needed to.

And the writers need to.

I don’t want to get into the gory details – this YouTube from the WGA covers it well, and this blog has lots of up to the minute strike info. However, I’ve been around studio finance long enough to know that the AMPTP’s stand is about protecting margins, not about protecting profitability. And that writer’s need to get a piece of the internet money which, in a decade or two, will be a large slice of the pie.

Beyond that, I want to say this: It’s been 22 years since I was a card-carrying union member, but even though I am not one now, the folks on the line are my brothers and sisters. In a country which has tilted the balance of economic power to capital instead of labor, the WGA is making a stand for labor. And for those of you who read a Marxist tilt in these words, well, think what you like. But the engine that drove post-WWII American economic growth was the rise of the blue-collar middle class, which was able to pump a lot more into the U.S. economy than a few thousand millionaires ever could.

Digby notes, in her excellent take on all this, the following:

I was listening to the radio the other day and Paul Krugman was on taking calls. A woman on the show was bemoaning the fact that so many jobs were being outsourced and wondering how we could possibly compete in a global economy. Krugman relied, “One word. Unions.” He pointed out that all the other first world economies in Europe and Canada have a much higher rate of unionization that we do. The breaking of the unions in this country was obviously not essential for economic growth — it was done for political reasons to benefit the right wing and its corporate owners. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Unions and the solidarity it promotes are an important key to a progressive America, whether it’s the Writers Guild or the UAW or the janitors or the health care workers. They promote a strong and stable middle class — and help us see ourselves as one people with common interests.

They are our brothers and sisters. Or, as they say at UnitedHollywood, we’re all on the same page.

[Thanks to Greg Rossen & friends for putting together the YouTube above before the strike.]

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