They’re not permanently over, but let’s steal a page from William Goldman and call them “mostly dead.” That’s what our “here” is right now.
Our here is nowhere. We’re on strike, there are no talks scheduled, the companies have presented an unacceptable, regressive proposal that they know is unacceptable and regressive, and we have precious few cards left to play.
Ah, and then there’s the issue of the DGA.
So, what’s “there?” There is where we have an acceptable, signed contract.
Patric Verrone believes the answer to getting there from here is to stay the course. Whatever got us to this point is what we ought to keep doing. Unity, faith in leadership, picketing, rallies, a steadfast resolve to maintain our current proposals…oh, and no dissent, please.
This issue of dissent is a tricky one, and I have to give Patric credit for managing to find a new way to discredit anyone who disagrees with him. The meme is simple. Disagreeing with Patric is what the companies want you to do, and the companies are greedy jerks. Ergo, agree with Patric or you’re a company-loving jerk.
Or as he puts it:
We will not fall for their “divide and conquer” tricks designed to separate Guild leadership from membership, members from one another, writers from our supporters, and truth from innuendo.Hmmm. But, and I know, it’s crazy…what if you think the companies are wrong and greedy and selfish and unfair AND you think Patric is wrong too? What if you’ve honestly considered his strategy, rejected all “tricks” and PR and spin…and still come to the conclusion that his strategy is flawed?
Keep your mouth shut?
Discuss it with him? Write him an email?
Done that a few times. Not much effect.
Look, these things have to be talked about, and they must be discussed in the open. I’m doing my own version of back-room muttering (there are many, many things I do not write about in here…I’m not a journalist looking to publish scoops…I’m a writer looking to influence policy in my union, as is my right), but there are some things that need to be spoken out loud in order to influence and persuade. Yes, I’m trying to influence and persuade. Yes, I think my perspective and the perspective of those that think like me is one that’s more likely to get us a deal we can accept. You may agree or disagree. Nonetheless, neither you nor I nor any dues-paying member of the WGA has a responsibility to silence and complicity if we think there’s a better way of approaching things.
Patric is a smart guy and a nice guy, but he’s not the Oracle at Delphi. There may be a better way. And if we share a common goal, which is to elicit as much money as possible from the companies, then we owe it to ourselves to talk about how to get there. If we can’t share in a community of open, sunshine-through-the-windows debate, then bad stuff is going to fester. I know that some of my fellow writers think I’m a bad guy. That I want to foment rebellion.
I sure as hell don’t. I want the opposite (and the thought of any Union Blues style fissure in the membership deeply concerns me…I’m the loyal opposition, not the “screw you, I’m holding a gun to your head so I can get back to work” opposition). I want exactly what Patric wants, in a way. I want unity, I want progress, I want a good deal…I just think that his way ain’t working. In fact, I think his way is hurting us now, and hurting us in a fashion that could leave permanent scars.
Will that statement give comfort and aid to the AMPTP?
The greedy, rapacious, vindictive, disrespectful, deceitful, amoral-when-they’re-not-immoral, conniving and imperious AMPTP?
Gee, I hope not. If they feel like linking back to my remarks, 50,000 people are gonna get a faceful of what I think about them, and as you can see, it’s not particularly warm and fuzzy.
Still, we have to make a deal with them, warts and all. That’s something Patric and I agree on.
Let’s talk about how we might be able to get there.
But First, Why Are We Here?
An important question.
When you talk to members of the Negotiating Committee, they will tell you, regardless of their relative militancy or moderation, that the AMPTP was generally unrepentent. They pulled fast ones, lied, stonewalled, and ultimately stood their ground with an offer that is, essentially, contemptuous.
Here are the possibilities.
This offer is their actual bottom line, and they would rather watch the town go up in flames than budge from it.
This offer is merely the opener, and a better, smarter group of negotiators on our side would have been able to get them off of it and closer to something acceptable.
This offer is a red herring designed to distract us from their real position, which is that they don’t want to make a deal with our union at this time.
I think possibility #2 isn’t likely. Regardless of David Young’s inexperience in these matters, there are too many smart and temperate people in that room. Tony Segall, John Bowman and quite a few others are well-versed in the fine art of negotiation and diplomatic derring-do. Believe me, if I thought our NegCom was just a bunch of dummies, I’d say so (I know, big shock). They’re not. They’re smart men and women. So…
Possibility #1? Nah. I think we can reject that one out of hand, not only because their last proposal was the first of its general format, but also because they didn’t even bother to call it their “last, best and final” offer, which is one requirement to attempt to get the NLRB to declare an impasse and allow management to unilaterally impose that deal on our union whether we agree to it or not (Did you know that could happen? Well, just another thing to keep you up at night.).
So let’s consider #3. They didn’t want to make a deal. And why not?
Few reasons why. From 2005 to the start of our negotiations, the companies watched in growing anger as we attacked their advertisers and executives with a corporate campaign, interfered with their product integration plans by traveling to Europe to lobby against laws that would allow it in content, filed overtime lawsuits against the companies that provided them with reality programming, sponsored groups of reality employees who barged in on their conferences in protest and fomented a strike at America’s Next Top Model, all in an effort to organized reality employees…in an effort to improve our strike threat.
We failed miserably in that goal, but not before really pissing them off.
After two years of this, I suspect the companies arrived at one or all of the following conclusions.
Patric and David Young are crazy, and we can’t make an acceptable deal with crazy people.
Patric and David Young must be punished for what they’ve done, because if we don’t punish them, they’re going to keep acting like this, and maybe SAG will get some kooky ideas in their heads too.
Patric and David Young will never accept our actual bottom line, which is the deal we will never offer better than.
Mind you, I’m talking about how they think. Patric and David aren’t crazy. And using negotiations to punish a union for strident activity is, well, probably cutting off one’s corporate nose to spite one’s face.
However, if they came to believe that we would never take their bottom line, well…the AMPTP does have options. They don’t have to bargain with us. They may have decided to smack us around like a red-headed stepchild as a warning to the DGA and SAG (“Don’t let this be you!”). The obvious strategic implications are one reason why I hope the DGA and SAG don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by the way our negotiations have fallen apart.
Or maybe they just figure that the DGA will accept their bottom line, so why bother with us?
Regardless, it’s not too late. Using the aforementioned as basic assumptions about the nature of the now, let’s think about how to reclaim a little self-determination here.
A New Goal
Prior to the collapse, our goal was simply to get a good contract.
Now, post-collapse, it should be to negotiate our own contract before the DGA does it for us.
Once the DGA sets a rate, pattern bargaining and common strategic sense tells me that this will be the rate, come hell, high water, brimstone, nuclear explosions or anything else we or SAG might throw their way. I know our side has announced loudly that they won’t take any old deal the DGA makes, but I’m here to tell you that if the deal locks in a formula…
So, let’s talk about what it might take to get us back to the table, and get the AMPTP off their bullshit proposal.
For starters, we need to stop obsessing over this nonsense phrase “we can’t negotiate with ourselves!” It’s meaningless. If you create a set of demands, and the other side refuses those demands, what are you going to do? Hold your breath for a year? Of course not. You have to evaluate your demands, and remove some while maintaining your leveraged threat against the other side.
In this case, our strongest leveraged threat is gone. The WGA is never as strong as it is right before a strike. Once we struck, we fired the big but sole bullet in our gun. It hit them, they flinched a bit, but they’re definitely still on their feet. So now what?
Time to get dramatic.
First, let me say that I’m operating under an assumption that we cannot “outlast” the companies. There are a few writers out there who think that if we strike long enough…perhaps a year or two years or twenty years…we will destroy the companies, or bring them to their knees.
This will not happen. Ever.
These companies do not have knees.
We’re dealing with nearly a trillion dollars in market capitalization. Unlike 1988, when we struck for 5 months, they have more options to bolster their schedules. The very libraries we want to get more of a piece of are the things that keep them afloat even when the pipelines run dry. As one studio chairman told me a few years ago, “The only way to reliably make money in this business is to have a library, and to not produce new material.”
Some writers think the shareholders will rise in revolt.
They will not.
The shareholders that matter are the large institutional investors with major positions in the big congloms. If you think they weren’t told about the AMPTP strategy, positions and bottom lines long before we ever got the news, I’d suggest you’re wrong. I think those investors know exactly what the companies are doing, and I think they love it.
Investors, as a rule, HATE labor unions and tend to revolt against companies who are too soft on unions. Not too hard.
We waited until late in the game to negotiate. They didn’t move. We threatened a strike. They didn’t move. We threatened Teamster support. They didn’t move. We got the showrunners to walk out entirely. They didn’t move. We staged huge rallies and had well-organized pickets at every studio in town. They didn’t move.
Now it’s time to dramatically reduce all of our demands down to the only one that matters, in an attempt to wrest this negotiation back to our union and away from the DGA.
What We Shouldn’t Be Asking For Any More
Let’s start with an easy one. We’re asking that we have the right to sympathy strike when other unions go on strike.
Look, let’s put aside that no Hollywood union has had that right in the last fifty years. Why in God’s green earth would the companies agree to this? They already think we’re strike-happy as it is. Will they willingly make it worse?
The reason this is still on the table is because Patric believes, I think, that we need to remake ourselves in the image of more aggressive trade unions like SEIU.
Ain’t gonna happen, and if dumping that is a prerequisite for discussions, we should dump it.
Next, we’re asking for jurisdiction over animation.
Most of what they companies say is calculated horseshit, but they’ve kinda got us on this one. IATSE has jurisdiction over theatrical animation…and that’s when it’s union at all. Like Patric, I’m a member of IATSE Animation Guild Local 839. Like Patric, I find their contract to be inferior to ours. Unlike Patric, I’m not willing to throw a few more strikers on the fire in a bizarre attempt to undo everything that labor law compels. IATSE owns that space, we don’t, game over, move on.
And then there’s the question of reality television.
I admit it.
I thought he was faking.
Let me rephrase.
I thought Patric was willing to organize reality inasmuch as reality workers could serve as a strike wedge against us, but I didn’t think he’d be willing to pull the pin on that particular grenade and drop it down our collective pants.
On Friday, Patric apparently said that we (that’s all of us in the WGAw and WGAE) won’t accept any contract that doesn’t grant us jurisdiction over reality writers. I say “apparently” because I wasn’t at the Fremantle Rally, but I got this one from about seven different writers (at least one of whom is a Patric supporter), and it was reported in the media as well.
So let’s stipulate that he said it, and he believes it.
That’s just nuts.
First, by the rules governing labor-management negotiations, the AMPTP doesn’t have to address issues of jurisdiction at all. They can simply say “not talking about it,” and if we insist that it be addressed, then we’re the ones negotiating in bad faith (and there are consequences). Second, we’ve been whomping on this one for over two years now, and the horse isn’t just dead…it’s a finely-misted goo by now. Third…
…and this is the one that kills me…
…the very reality writers Patric wishes to strike for are the same people who are currently and actively undermining our strike.
I’m editing my movie in an office building that hosts a good number of reality productions.
Place is a frickin’ beehive.
So the deal is that we spend millions to organize reality employees, we expend any goodwill we had with the companies to do it, we get nothing out of it, the reality employees steadfastly refuse to walk out of their jobs en masse, they continue to work merrily away while we go on strike, thus reducing the efficacy of said strike…and we’re supposed to keep striking for them?
Hell to the no.
We need to drop the reality demand now. It’s a loser.
Residual rates for reuse in New Media, and jurisdiction over original work for New Media.
Those are the biggies. Everything else should go.
Let’s focus on the stuff that matters.
How We Can Rescue This
First, let’s embrace a fact.
Fact: everything that we thought would have a positive impact on the companies has, in fact, not helped us in any important way.
Not unity, not picketing, not rallies, not positive PR, nothing.
That’s not to say that unity and picketing aren’t important. I don’t discount the positive feelings writers have taken away from the last month. That feeling of community and action is surely real.
But it’s a feeling. And you can’t fill those green residuals envelopes with feelings.
Somewhere along the line, we got suckered into a strange rhetoric, by which the means of the strike actions became the end. Our communications marked our “victories” in measures of rally attendance, picket attendance, positive PR, support from actors…
…but none of that is goal material. It’s “try and get you your goal” material. The truth is that we can’t claim any real victory yet, because we haven’t had any real victory yet.
But we can.
First, I think we should probably stop picketing. It didn’t work. I don’t think that’s going to change, and there’s that old saw about repeating the same thing and expecting different results. That’s not to say that we should stop acting as a community. There are other ways we can support each other through a difficult strike. Picketing is one of them, but it’s not a particularly efficient use of our time or our energy. Will the companies view this as “weakness?” Who cares? What, they’re going to make an even worse offer? No. Far better to continue to promote our best and brightest and most successful as consistently backing the strike.
I’ve always said, our union’s strength isn’t in its quantity, but its quality. Our best show of strength is not a turnout of 4,000 members of our union, but a turnout of 400 of our most coveted members. Those are the writers the companies fear losing, and those are the writers the companies hope will turn coat.
Second, we need to get some influence peddlers to help us.
Much has been made of the companies’ decision to hire some of the brightest and most effective influence peddlers in the business (some people call them “PR” people, but that’s too simplistic when you’re talking about individuals who can get Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush on the phone). I happen to know that our leadership was approached weeks ago about hiring a similarly powerful influence peddler to help them bring real political pressure to bear on the companies (YouTube videos are great and popular, but something tells me you need to sit in Henry Waxman’s office and scare him a little before he decides to bring some real pain).
Our leadership said, “No, not interested.”
They should get reinterested immediately. There’s no shame in getting help. We’re writers. We all have agents. Our Guild needs an agent right now, and badly.
Third, we need some new people on our side. Specifically, we need dissenters. Loyal opposition. Our room seems to be a bit too bubbly. My experience with leadership was that they were disinterested in bad news, overvalued good news, and hated to “think like the companies.”
That was a big one with them. “Why should we have to think like the companies? That’s our problem! We think too much like the companies! We should think like a union!”
Yes. This is true. But the purpose of thinking like the companies isn’t to be them, but to anticipate their responses and exploit their weaknesses. We need more writers in that room who disagree with the strategy-to-date, if for no other reason than it hasn’t worked.
By the way, this isn’t me asking for the gig. I don’t belong in that room for a lot of reasons. But others do, and I think recomposing the NegCom at this juncture is a smart idea. We need fresh horses who aren’t saddled with the emotional baggage of the last year.
Finally, we need a real dialogue with the DGA. Yes, I know…easier said than done. And sure, maybe they’re the enemy of a good deal. If so, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Finding a power-broker who can bridge the gap between the unions might be part of the equation. Perhaps a lawyer, or a universally-respected hyphenate (Steve Zaillian, I’m thinking of you…).
Now, maybe none of this will happen, and we’ll continue to paddle into the wind. But I’m an optimist. There’s still a chance to get things back on track. Our leadership may have to swallow a little pride, but pride’s easier to swallow than failure.
And failure is what I’m desperately hoping we can avoid.