A Writer's Tale Of Picket Lines Past

"30 Rock" writer Tina Fey and "SNL" writer Seth Meyers, members of the Writers Guild of America, picket NBC headquarters in New York on Monday, Nov. 5, 2007. Film and TV writers resolved to put down their pens and take up picket signs after last-ditch talks failed to avert a strike. AP

This column was written by Mark Evanier.

As the Writers Guild of America strike ends its third week, it's worth remembering that there was a time when strikes by the WGA were like Jerry Lee Lewis marriages. Don't like the current one? Just wait. There'll be another one along any minute, and it'll be even more destructive for all concerned.

Which is not to say any of them could have been avoided. (WGA strikes, that is. Who knows from Jerry Lee's troubles?) It is a sad, frustrating part of Hollywood history that now and again, financial inequities creep up or the studio heads get even greedier than usual, and the WGA is presented with what it considers an unacceptable offer by the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP).

The AMPTP, to use the labor terminology, is a "multi-employer bargaining unit," a group that in this case negotiates with all the major unions on behalf of the major studios. Once the AMPTP has its deal in place with a union, independent producers sign what are called "Me-Too" contracts, meaning that they agree to the same terms. So, in essence, the AMPTP negotiates on behalf of everyone who hires union members. Too often, the way they negotiate is to hand the union or guild a "take it or leave it" offer full of rollbacks, cuts, and other onerous terms. To leave it is to go on strike. Sometimes, if the union is willing to bargain far enough ahead, they can whittle the rollbacks down a bit and claim that as a win.

As a WGA member since '77, I'm presently on my fifth such strike - and I'm a novice compared to some. Last week, I picketed with a guy who'd walked off a job writing for Phil Silvers. One hates to think how many signs he's carried.

Why so many strikes? Some of it may be our very nature. Something about writing for a living may just make you feistier and more contentious and more demanding of respect ... but if that's it, it's probably a small part. More likely, it's luck o' the draw - the timing of when our contracts come up for renegotiation - and maybe some strategizing on the part of the AMPTP. There's a thing called pattern bargaining, a semi-inviolate concept that says that if one union makes a gain or eats a rollback, the other unions will gain or eat accordingly.

Of the three "above the line" labor organizations in town - the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Writers Guild - we're the ones who have the toughest time shutting things down. When actors walk, you tend to notice it right away. There's no one to film. If the Directors walked - which they don't, but if they did - they'd also bring things to a screeching halt. With us, there's a lag, as scripts that are already completed get filmed. If you're the guy charged with rolling back the unions and getting their services cheaper, where would you start? The Actors' and Directors' current contracts expire on June 30 and July 31, 2008, respectively. The WGA's, of course, expired October 31, 2007.

It's always been like this, right down to the producers' rhetoric and the suggestions that they can live well without us. That's what they were saying back in 1933 when ten top crafters of movie scripts agreed to organize. Immediately and predictably, the studios resisted: They would never recognize such a coalition, and anyone who joined would find themselves unemployed and unemployable. It took nine years of threats, legal wranglings, and National Labor Relations Board rulings before the Screen Writers Guild was able to negotiate its first contract.

In 1951, the Guild began to represent the writers of that newfangled thing called television, and in 1955, a number of regional and smaller groups that represented writers' interests were absorbed and reorganized. We wound up with a Writers Guild of America, West and a Writers Guild of America, East.

From then on, the WGA's history is largely a series of strikes or threatened strikes, each of which resulted in the establishment of some new right or principle. They won the right to residuals when TV shows were rerun; they won the right to screen credits, setting up a system of rules and arbitrations that stopped the guy who ran the studio from slapping his nephew's name on your script. The strike of 1960 - which lasted 151 days, making it the longest strike in Hollywood until the Writers Guild later bettered its own record - was the one that secured a pension plan as well as residual payments when a movie was run on television.

For a long time, TV residuals were capped after a certain number of runs. It wasn't until a threatened strike in '77 that we began receiving them in perpetuity. That year, we didn't have to walk - but we would have, and the other side knew it. Some would suggest the studio heads since then haven't been quite as wise.

In 1981, there was a three-month WGA strike to establish compensation in the then-new markets of "pay TV" and home video. We wound up with a deal so good that the '85 contract negotiation was all about the Producers wanting to take it back. They had a better sense by then of the cash to be made in those areas and didn't like how much of it we got. So the 1985 negotiations pretty much went as follows:

They proposed a new cable/cassette formula that was much lower - an 80 percent reduction by some estimates, greater by others. There was really no money in those markets, they said, and what meager revenues existed were necessary to offset losses in other venues. (These are "losses" as defined by people who insist their top-grossing projects are still in deficit and therefore, there's no money due to anyone with a share of profits. Are they still telling Alan Alda that the M*A*S*H TV show was a money loser?) There was some talk of studies. If - big if - it turned out that selling movies on videotape was more lucrative than the writers expected, adjustments would be made down the line. It turned out, of course, that home video was more profitable than anyone anticipated. But somehow, no adjustments ever occurred - and I doubt anyone really expected they would. "We'll conduct a study" is something you agree to so the side that got the short end in the deal can save a little face.

The reduction in cable/cassette residuals was a deal breaker for them that year: No contract until we agreed to it. It was a deal breaker for us, too - mostly. We voted "no," but it was a tepid "no." The Guild was split, our leadership didn't know how to cope with that split, and the strike collapsed after three ugly weeks. We took the rollback. No one's quite figured how much writers lost, let alone calculated the losses for all the other folks in town who had deals linked to ours, either explicitly or due to pattern bargaining. The number is in the many billions - and beyond that, we can't bear to think about it. But of course the studios can. They look at how much they made off any salary rollbacks the same way they look at how much they make off any box office blockbuster. Immediately, they start thinking, "Sequel!"

In 1988, when the rolled-back WGA contract came up for renewal, the Producers did what one does when someone stupid is on the hook: They tried the same strategy again. They came at us with a series of demands that were not quite as noxious, but still pretty bad. Again, it was "Take this or there's no contract." This time, though, we'd learned, and we had better leadership. The strike of that year lasted 22 weeks - one day longer than the strike of '60 - and while we ended up agreeing to some of the cuts, we cost the Producers a lot more than they cost us.

The strike of '88 was followed by almost two decades of labor peace. I wish I could write here that it was all because we stood up to them in '88. In truth, it's probably half that and half because we swallowed a few rollbacks and didn't demand much that was new and/or costly. This year, though, the burgeoning import of Internet delivery and other new technologies meant that we had to take a stand. There are too many dollars at stake for us not to establish our place at the table. There's also too much history. Blood was spilled to establish residuals, credit determination, health and pension, and other benefits. The Producers' current negotiating stance tips their true agenda: To build the online phase of the industry without all the gains that the Hollywood unions have amassed over the years.

To date, the AMPTP has not offered a contract. Their position is that they'll discuss those matters after we drop all this silly talk about a better share of home video (the extremely profitable DVD market didn't even exist when our current residual rate was negotiated) and any real share when the product we write is delivered online. It's not so much that they've refused to meet our demands - they've refused to listen to them until we accede to their main demands.

Which is why we have this strike. If it seems destructive, remember that Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild negotiations are up next. They're as militant in key areas as we are, which is why the Producers are so determined to make the writers yield. We're just the first ones into the fray and if the AMPTP can hold us down, they'll have a stronger position when they face off on other battlefields. Remember those two words: pattern bargaining. Hollywood's going to be hearing them a lot, one way or the other.
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