Hollywood is popularly perceived as a realm of romance and glamor. But over the decades the entertainment industry has also been the site of intense labor organizing and struggles between craft and trade employees against management and owners, in the form of studio executives, producers and movie moguls. In this article we take a look back at a teachable moment for organized labor: The 2007-2008 strike that rocked Tinseltown and how the workers organized to win one of the rare union triumphs during the Bush era.
The Writers Guild of America grew out of workers’ struggles during the Great Depression, and today’s Writers Guild of America West, which is affiliated with the Writers Guild of America, East, perpetuates the union’s activist legacy. WGA’s recent strike may turn out to be a milestone in the 21st century American labor movement: It was one of America’s most reported on walkouts during the anti-labor Bush regime; it garnered overwhelming public support; and WGA pioneered an Internet-based communications offensive created by its own members that unions are now looking to as a model for future battles. Most importantly, at a time of setbacks for organized labor, WGA won its 100-day strike that captured hearts and minds around the world.
Victory, of course, would have been impossible without a dedicated, determined, informed rank and file. As 60% of WGA’s current membership had joined the Guild after the last strike, the leadership and staff methodically prepared members for negotiations of their contract, which expired October 31, 2007. A system of “captains” was established to organize and inform members; an extensive series of informational meetings attended by leaders and rank and filers was held at captains’ homes and workplaces. In addition, print and electronic communications explained the Guild’s positions on a regular basis.
In keeping with the union’s tradition of participatory democracy, when it came time to identify the key issues for the negotiations, to authorize leadership to call a strike when it deemed it necessary, and finally, to end the strike and ratify a new contract, Guild members voted in record numbers. In each case more than 90% voted in favor of the leadership’s recommendations. This high degree of participation united a union whose membership ran the gamut of the entertainment business. The majority of the members are middle class writers who earn on average $62,500 per year, there are also the highly compensated Television and screen writers, and in any given year due to the nature of the employment cycle in Hollywood almost 50% of the membership isn’t working.
With the groundwork of internally uniting the membership already primed, negotiations between WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers began July 16, 2007. Just as technological innovations have affected other industries the main bone of contention concerned emerging and established New Media technology, such as the Internet. How would writers be paid for original work distributed on digital platforms or the reuse of material initially created for one venue – theatrical release or broadcast TV for instance, but then streamed and/or downloaded on computers, cell phones, watches, etc.? In 1988, AMPTP dodged similar issues regarding then-emerging home video and DVD markets, claiming uncertainty regarding their viability, and writers ended up with a paltry residual – payments for reuse of material after its initial showing – that was never adjusted despite the huge revenues generated as the technology took hold. WGA was determined to not be fooled again.
Throughout negotiations the producers demanded rollbacks to the existing Minimum Basic Agreement and expected the Guild to fold. But the AMPTP strategy was defeated by the overwhelming support for WGA’s new leadership, by the active roles Oscar and Emmy-award winners played in the negotiations that the companies had scuttled twice by walking away from the table, and by the support of members of the Screen Actors Guild who joined writers on picket lines after writers went on strike on November 5. The producers were forced to take notice when a total of 3,000 people picketed at 14 different locations the day the strike began, followed by a November 9 demonstration at Fox studios attended by 4,000 strikers and supporters.
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Key to maintaining strikers’ unity, discipline and morale, as well as countering producer and/or media disinformation, was the leadership role assumed by the more than 300 strike captains. Strike captains worked tirelessly on a daily basis to ensure that the picket lines were manned and that the Guild’s strategic goals and objectives were met.
Showrunners – writer/producers who oversee TV programs – also played an important role in supporting the job action; there was no widespread scabbing to dissipate striker unity and resolve.
The WGA also reached out and built solidarity with entertainment industry and other unions as well. High profile actors publicly backed the writers, as did a broad spectrum of the Screen Actors Guild membership. Actors’ refusal to cross picket lines caused cancellation of the annually televised Golden Globes ceremony. Teamsters supported the strike. Unions throughout organized labor lent their support — SEIU, UNITE-HERE, United Federation of Teachers, national and New York State AFL-CIOs, the New York City Labor Council and the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, to mention a few.
Ultimately, the most decisive role was played by WGA’s 10,500 rank and filers, who proved to be a membership of leaders. Whether they were staff writers for TV, or individual screenwriters, they actively participated in writing their own history, walking the picket lines 16 hours per week and attending mass meetings in the thousands. Significantly, in a strike largely about the Internet, this union of skilled mass communicators artfully used the Net to get the word out.
In addition to the Guild’s official press operation, writers took the initiative, creating Websites such as www.UnitedHollywood.com, and using YouTube to communicate WGA’s viewpoints by blogging, posting videos, keeping members updated via mass emails, etc. The “Why We Fight” mini-doc succinctly explained what the strike was all about. Another especially effective video showed producers ballyhooing the Internet’s profitable promise to Wall Street investors, counterpointed with their poormouthing to writers about Web uncertainty. Members also used the Net’s e-biz function to raise funds – www.StrikeSwag.com sold Guild T-shirts and picket signs online, donating $20,000-plus to non-WGA entertainment industry workers who suffered during the walkout.
Writers won the battle for public opinion -- ordinary working people sympathized with the basic principle that if revenue is generated by their labor, workers should receive compensation. Combined with union solidarity and looming cancellation of the Oscars ceremony, the TV season and many movies, the producers returned to the table for informal talks on January 19 after refusing to bargain for six weeks. This time, however, it was the CEOs who were doing the negotiating for the AMPTP, not the labor relations executives, and things began to move. On February 26 a 92.6% majority of writers voting ratified the 2008 Minimum Basic Agreement, giving WGA jurisdiction over New Media writing and residual payments to members for use and reuse of their material via the Internet and other digital platforms.
The WGA’s victory was built on time honored union principles and blazed a new trail for labor activism, especially in gaining public support by using the Internet to communicate the issues of struggle. The door to the digital age that had been shut by the media conglomerates on the first day of negotiations had been finally forced open and writers could feel proud of what they accomplished for themselves and the generations of writers to come.