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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Writers' Strike Finally Ends By DAVID MACARAY

Now that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has voted to settle its 100-day strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), and, hopefully, will be returning to work as early as Wednesday, we can expect to be bombarded with post-strike analysis. There will be competing explanations for what happened, what didn't happen, why it happened, what should have happened, and what's going to happen next.

In fact, analysis began even before there was anything concrete to analyze. On Thursday, with details still sketchy and a settlement still in the "rumor" stage, one Hollywood insider summed up the final agreement with this sage comment: "They [the Guild] gained some ground, but the deal wasn't as good as they wanted." Not as good as they wanted? Gee, really?

First, congratulations to the WGA. The writers did what needed to be done, and did it with grace and dignity. The membership stuck together, the negotiators brought to the table a clear agenda, and the union managed, after a lengthy strike, to gain some important concessions, with no rollbacks.

Guild leadership described the deal as one that ". . . protects a future in which the Internet becomes the primary means of both content creation and delivery." The issue of how the writers should be compensated for digital material ("New Media") was a primary concern of the WGA, and the main reason-or at least one of the main reasons-for the strike.

Based on summaries of the AMPTP's offer posted on the Internet, the writers' deal is similar to the one signed a couple weeks ago by the DGA (Directors Guild of America). Indeed, for having the courage to walk out of negotiations last November the writers should be thanked for setting the table for the DGA. Without the WGA strike (which raised the sperm count dramatically when the Golden Globes were cancelled), it's unlikely that the directors would have gotten the contract they got.

The 3-year contract gives the WGA jurisdiction (with clear stipulations) over projects created specifically for the Web; it provides payment for "ad-supported streaming" over the Internet (though compensation doesn't begin until after a 17-24 day "promotional" period, as defined by the producers); it increases payment for residuals on downloaded movies and television shows; and, in the third year, it includes a percentage (2 per cent) of the distributor's Web stream revenue-an improvement over the directors' settlement, which pays a flat fee for all three years.
Unless you're the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which brings extraordinary leverage to the bargaining table, no union ever gets everything it wants as a result of a strike. As to that observation about this deal not being "as good as they wanted," in truth, most of the time you don't even come close. Think about it. If strikes resulted in wholesale improvements to management's "final" offer, there would be a lot more of them.

It can even be said that unions always "lose" in a strike, particularly a long one. It's simple arithmetic. When you sacrifice weeks or months of income, it can take, literally, years to make up that loss, whether you're a striking writer, steelworker, airline pilot or nurse. You work 52 weeks a year to earn 100per cent of your income, which computes to approximately 2per cent per week. So if you're out 10 weeks, you've lost about 20per cent of your wages. Do the math. It would take an extravagantly generous contract to wipe out 20per cent in lost wages.

People who don't belong to a union don't understand that the prospect of losing money can't prevent you from going on strike. You strike over larger, long-term issues, not short-term money. You lose money in order to gain money. Moreover, if management truly believes there's no chance of the membership going on strike, no matter what's involved or how ugly negotiations become, they have little incentive to sweeten their offer. Without the threat of pain, why should they?

By showing the AMPTP that it was willing to pull the plug -- willing to sacrifice three months wages for issues it believed In -- the WGA not only won some key New Media provisions, but established a solid foundation for future bargains. While the union failed to get some items it wanted, including jurisdiction for reality shows and animation, genuine progress was made. They came away with a much improved contract.

However, that earlier reference to the Longshoremen does raise one interesting, if wildly speculative point. In no way is this meant to second-guess the WGA. They fought a valiant fight, and did what they felt had to be done.

But just for fun, consider what might have happened had the writers stayed out for three more months. Yes, it would have put tremendous pressure on the membership, and yes, it would have invited a potentially toxic public relations backlash. But it also would have torpedoed the Academy Awards, sent the upcoming television season into chaos, and put the fear of God into the producers' Alliance. Not a bad trifecta.

The reason the Longshoremen do so well at the bargaining table is because they "own" the docks. Ships can't drop off cargo anywhere on the west coast except at a union port. And, unlike factories, which are "portable" and can be relocated to other states and other countries, the docks can't be moved. This translates into guaranteed job security, something that factory workers can only dream about.

As for hiring replacements to fill in for striking ILWU members, that isn't an option. The shipping companies know it, and prospective employees sniffing around for work know it. Unless they want to be harassed or, worse, have their heads bashed in, no one crosses a Longshoremen picket line. No way, no how.

But don't the writers have this same sort of leverage? After all, the executives can't write their own TV shows or movies. And because the WGA is a tightly knit union, the studios can't expect scabs to jump in and take over. They don't have the option of going off-shore. And they certainly can't expect dumb reality shows and stale reruns to hold audiences forever.

All of which makes you wonder, hypothetically, what kind of contract the union would have gotten had they stayed out three months longer. Again, this is not to second-guess the WGA's members or leadership. They performed admirably. But it's something to think about . . . for next time.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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