Editor’s Note: The writer submitting this account lives in Santa Monica, and, although a member of the WGA, the writer does not represent the WGA in any official capacity and has therefore requested anonymity.
On Monday I reported to the CBS or “Radford” studios in Culver City to participate in the first day’s picketing for the freshly born Writer’s Guild of America strike. Because I was not a WGA member during the last strike in 1988, I concede that I was a little agitated. Picketing, chanting, and discord: Maybe it wouldn’t have the dramatic tumult of the movies Hoffa or F.I.S.T., but there’d be some liveliness nonetheless. We were finally taking a stand, push had come to shove, we were marching now, and… man, I hope I find a parking space.
What I encountered at the studio gates was the tame and civilized event one should have expected in an “action” involving people who spend the better part of their working lives poised at keypads, thinking. Chants, begun in earnest by a member with a megaphone, found little traction with the crowds. There was instead a calm, orderly kind of serious PTA-meeting-in-progress mood. Adults walked around in circles. And, yes, there were doughnuts.
Of course people were talking. I quickly encountered an old friend who brought me up to date on his recent adventures in comedy writing. Later, I ran into a writer/producer I hadn’t seen in years. Old friends. United. But underneath any warm, fuzzy company- picnic vibe derived from being together there was the unease and angst of not knowing how long this strike could last.
Let me offer a few snapshots of that first morning at Radford. Supportive members of the Screen Actors Guild joined in the lines at Radford. That meant a great deal to the picketing WGA members. If I understood correctly, a Teamster unloading a truck at the studio gates slowed or stopped his actions in support of the strike. He was warmly applauded by the strikers. Studio security guards seemed to be going out of their way to be friendly. One of them offered me a pen so I could jot down a buddy’s email address. A star from a successful CBS hour drama appeared, albeit disguised in cap and sunglasses, and offered the strikers some chocolate candy to charge their batteries. Later, he marched with the writers. So while the picket signs screamed “Strike!” the mood on scene was more like a public television pledge drive. Okay, a cranky, justice-seeking, outdoor pledge drive.
I would also like to report that, in an industry where age is considered a handicap, the majority of picketing writers were middle aged or older. Where were the younger writers that dominate Hollywood writing staffs? Maybe they’d opted for other picket sites…?
Due perhaps to the level of civility found in a strike by writers, I was already sensing a kind of media blowback. One newspaper reporter approached the quartet I was walking with and asked if we were, in effect, having fun. “You guys are smiling. What are you talking about? Are you talking about show ideas?” It became clear that, while the reporter was a writer herself, she was trying to work an angle in which the strikers were dilettantes with latte cups who were killing a morning they would otherwise spend with their well-paid behinds in a chair.
Not that there isn’t plenty of sarcasm to go around, especially in a crowd of marching writers. A longtime friend and fellow writer stood back as a woman in a Jaguar pulled out of the Radford gates and gestured her support for the strikers, even as she was leaving the lot where she’d obviously had some business going. My friend noted this and improvised some dialogue for her: “Yes, I support you. Now please don’t scratch the Jaguar I bought with money I made not paying writers.”
And so it goes. Put the grievances of the WGA membership up against what our troops are enduring right this minute in Iraq, and it won’t be surprising if there’s a good deal of “viewer tune out” to the messages of this strike. For dessert, compare the pay scales of even low-level sitcom writers to those of public school teachers. But as I struggled to make clear to the newspaper reporter, just because a labor conflict doesn’t concern safety conditions in coal mines doesn’t mean that a thing isn’t wrong.
Years ago I met with the notoriously unpleasant owner of the production company I was writing for at the time and pitched a few simple ideas meant to add texture to a somewhat flat live-to-tape cable show we were making. “These things will make the show stand out, make it more interesting than similar competing shows” I argued with conviction. The big man looked at me and growled, “We don’t like writers. If we could teach monkeys to type, we’d get monkeys.” Then he explained how he would never add cost to the show with “ideas.”
The “idea” this time is that writers share in profits realized from DVD sales and downloaded Internet content in a way that is fair. What is fair? If that were clear to everyone, perhaps there wouldn’t be a strike. But then, you’d still have to get the studios to agree to “fair.” Will the strike be effective for writers? One theory is that if the strike lasts long enough, studios might actually save millions on TV pilots they won’t be under pressure to develop. American Idol, not affected by the strike, might enjoy an even larger audience when it returns against reruns. The strike may lack an immediate edge due to the current softness in TV viewer and (in some cases) film receipt numbers.
How the WGA strike will context over the coming weeks or months against an ongoing war, the ’08 elections, and global warming is anybody’s guess. But the WGA was built on creating unity where there otherwise might have been a “get what you can and get out” attitude that better characterizes the large corporations controlling content production today than it does the writers attempting to make fairness the standard rather than the occasional accident. Last Monday the weather cooperated, there was that first day of strike buzz, and the picket line felt calming. Sure it was all new, and it would feel different in two weeks… or three… or five months. But while uncertainty loomed over everyone’s future, the sky over the picket lines was clear.