O Brave New World, That Hath Such Re-Runs in It
And so it's over. One hundred days later. The Writers Guild strike. We ended it Tuesday night when our members voted by 92.5% to lift the restraining order that first put us out on the streets with our picket signs on November 5.
I got home to New York Saturday morning around 1 a.m., after several days in Los Angeles where final contract language arduously was hammered out with the representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This, after a series of small, informal meetings between three of our negotiators and two of the studio heads, Fox's Peter Chernin and Bob Iger of Disney. Leslie Moonves of CBS was a frequent participant, too.
We had reached a moment of highest leverage, with the rest of this year's TV season in jeopardy and the fall season in peril, too -- soon there'd be no time for the scripting and production of pilots for potential new dramas and sitcoms. Add to that the potential iconic loss of the Oscars on February 24th and it seemed clear to all that the time had come to deal.
Over the course of our 14-week strike, we held together, surprising many -- especially the studios and networks -- with our solidarity and the strength of our belief that what we were striking for was just and fair. Public and political support was enormous and the visibility and power of our action was an invigorating shot in the arm to organized labor.
Saturday afternoon we met with our members and got their feedback, with a number of concerns expressed and disquietude over some things not achieved, but overall a positive sense of support and approval. That night, as previously scheduled, we held a mini-version of our usual annual awards for excellence in the writing of radio, TV and movies. News of the strike's imminent end was coincidental and serendipitous. The evening became an impromptu, liquid-enhanced release of pent-up emotion similar, I suspect, to the night Prohibition ended.
Professionally, as president of the Writers Guild of America, East, I believe we've made a very good deal. Not perfect, but one with important ramifications not only for the writers of television and motion pictures in the United States, but the creative community -- and organized labor -- all over the country.
Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild, West, and I wrote in a letter to our members Tuesday night that, "The decision to begin this strike was not taken lightly and was only made after no other reasonable alternative was possible. We are profoundly aware of the economic loss these fourteen weeks have created not only for our members but so many other colleagues who work in the television and motion picture industries. Nonetheless... we are confident that the results are a significant achievement."
We believe that the Internet and new media are the future of the entertainment industry. We all went on strike to get writers jurisdiction in those areas and to ensure them a piece of distributor's gross revenue -- in other words, the money an exhibitor in new media pays for the use of our stories. That's real money -- not the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't cash that often eludes the creative accounting books of Hollywood -- "congealed snow," as Dorothy Parker once described it.
Patric and I wrote in another letter going out later this week that ours was the most powerful strike this Guild has waged in a generation and the most successful strike in the American labor movement in more than a decade -- "the product of a long and difficult struggle against seven enormous, multi-national conglomerates who drive a hard bargain and put up a hell of a fight. But as big and unified as they seemed, we were more so by a thousand fold. This contract would not have happened without the strength, unity, and perseverance of the most intelligent, resourceful, willful, and opinionated union members on the planet."
For me personally, it has been a roller coaster ride, the proverbial baptism under fire. I feel like one of those cicadas that happily, quietly live underground, unnoticed until every 17 years or so, when circumstance forces them to the surface, making a lot of unexpected noise. The strike was the second time it has happened to me.
Back in 1988, I had a book and PBS series out about the history of television. I was, for the tiniest bit of time, somewhat in the public eye, doing interviews, giving lectures and attending a series of dinners around the country at which various chefs came up with various ways of creating miniature chocolate TV sets as dessert.
Then it was over, which was fine. Fun while it lasted. Back to normal.
This time around, the exposure was far greater, more intense. I had just become president of the East guild last September when there was a sudden change in strategy. We had considered working beyond the expiration of our contract on October 31, perhaps for as long as eight months, when the Screen Actors and Directors Guilds contracts expired, too.
But it rapidly became apparent that the studios and networks were stockpiling shows and movies in anticipation of just that move. So it was decided that if we could not get anywhere in the negotiations, if it became necessary, we would strike as early as the beginning of November. It was a surprise to the studios and networks. And me.
Suddenly, it was interviews and meetings seven days a week. Talking with our members, other unions, the media, local politicians and members of Congress. Writing letters and articles. Speeches, impromptu and prepared. Watching our members coalesce as never before, marching and picketing in the snow, rain and gloom of night.
The whole experience is analogous to a major political campaign -- not just the signs and chants, the late nights and meals on the run, the charges and countercharges, the factions within and without, but even the slight post-partum wistfulness when it's over, win or lose.
If all goes well, we'll have a contract ratified by the end of the month. My fifteen minutes of semi-notoriety will be up, and about time, too.
Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
copyright 2008 Michael Winship