Hollywood on Strike: Union Leaders Talk

With 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) about to complete a second week on strike, Patric Verrone, president of WGA West (the West Coast branch of the Guild) and Alan Rosenberg, president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), whose contract will be up June 30, took a one-day trip Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to brief key members of the House and Senate on the strike and to tell the Federal Communications Commission of their opposition to new regulations that would allow further media consolidation.

While in town, they met with Prospect executive editor Harold Meyerson and writer Kate Sheppard to talk about the strike, new media, and strengthening the bargaining power of Hollywood's working class. The two painted a picture of a newly militant union movement in Hollywood, at least among writers and actors.

At stake for the writers is residual pay for their work as it gets repackaged and rebroadcast through new digital technologies, making its way onto DVDs, the internet, cell phones, and other digital devices that didn't exist when their last major contract negotiation went through. As it stands, studios aren't bound to pay writers anything for their material when it goes out on the Internet, a policy the studios would like to preserve as digital media becomes the main venue through which the world consumes their products.

But the strike is just as much about the prospects of collective bargaining in the age of modern media as it is about residuals. In the two decades since the last writers' strike, the major studios have morphed into seven major conglomerates that own nearly all of the major (non-print) media in the country. The media, the studio heads and the union leaders may all be new in this year’s battle, but the unions’ fundamental demand remains what it has always been: If the studios get paid, we get paid.

TAP: There seem to be some pretty serious differences here between the unions and the studio executives.

Patric Verrone: What we're talking about is incremental compared to what our members have gotten historically. We're talking about new media, applications of residual formulas that existed in old media and simply getting the work in non-traditional platforms covered in the same way it's been covered in television and feature films for 50 and 75 years, respectively. At one point, television was new media.

[In more recent decades, however, the studios won contracts that took a harder line with new media.] They did it with cable, arguing that it was a nascent business model and that they needed to see it grow. They did it again in the mid-'80s with the home video market, and each time the offer was "Give us a break now and we'll make it up to you later." That never happened. This time we're dealing with huge advances in technology that stands to expand their ability to make money on a planetary basis, and they want to do it without sharing with the content providers.

Alan Rosenberg: Our failure to achieve improvement to residuals has caused a real crisis for the middle class in all the entertainment guilds. We really believe we can't afford to believe [the studios] again. They'll never come back and revisit those formulas. So waiting for 20 or 30 years to start reforming on new media is something we can't entertain. The press has been portraying this as a strike about wealthy writers getting richer. The average salary in the Writers Guild is $60,000 a year, and that's factoring in all the people who are making millions of dollars for screenplays. So the real average is even lower than that, and it's even lower for actors. We keep saying we won't be fooled again.

TAP: Characterize the other side on this. Are they a united front? What are you guys facing?

PV: We're facing seven multi-national conglomerates that portray themselves as an alliance of motion picture and television producers and that alliance is led by a negotiator who's been in place for about 25 years, Nicholas Counter, who has been very successful in that time using the pattern bargaining system, and at keeping those companies in line and collaborating.

Strategically, this alliance [between the WGA and SAG] has already paid off big dividends, because they saw us jointly visiting sets of shows, meeting together, putting down bargaining proposals that were mutually advantageous and mutually determined. I think they thought [the writers] were going to work without a contract after the expiration on Nov. 1, to line up with [the actors], because historically writers can't shut down the business. The writing staff might go out, but producers will continue to finish the shows with just the scripts. So it became clear to them that they could stockpile feature films and television pilots and potentially even television series, starting in November, getting the scripts ready to go through January and February, and then producing up to 150 feature films that would be in the can on June 30 when [the actors] went out.

If we did go out [in June], their strategy dictated, big deal. They've got their TV shows, they've got the pilots, they've got the movies. Of course, they couldn't do that without telling our members to write those scripts and paying them to do it. All of a sudden we saw [the writers] were all being overworked and being told we need these scripts. That's when we said Nov. 1 is a real date for us. So now we've shut down the accelerated portion of that production, and we've absolutely shut down television. The alliance has dictated a strategy to [the studios] that really kind of cut them off at the pass. Now if they think they can go to another union [for a contract more to their liking], or if they think they can make a deal just by starving us out, they still don't have the product, and they still don't have us.

TAP: So what do you think is their plan then?

PV: The strategy of the other side was to respond to our proposals by putting 30-plus pages of rollbacks on the table, including a recruitment proposal, profit-based residuals, a proposal saying that everything on the internet would be considered promotional and [therefore they] wouldn't pay any form of residual even if they made revenue off it. The list went on and on. They sat there and camped at that point, waiting for us to bargain against ourselves and come back with "Please, sir, may I have another?" which is the way our bargaining had gone on for 20 years, when both our unions had chief negotiators that were much more simpatico with the other side and were willing to make a behind-the-scenes deal and make the process a lot less contentious. This time we have a union organizer in charge of our union [David Young, formerly of the Garment Workers, the Carpenters and other unions], they (SAG) have a linebacker [Doug Allen, a onetime member of the Buffalo Bills]. We've got a militancy that we didn't have previously, and that has made for a refusal to play by rules that don't help us win and don't help us get what we think is fair.

We took a strike authorization vote [in mid-October] to show the seriousness of the issues we had on the table. We got a 90 percent positive vote based on two-thirds of our members, the biggest turnout in the history of the union. We hoped to convey [to the employers] that these were real proposals, so they should start talking about them. Eleven hours before we scheduled the strike to begin, they did start talking about them. In the off-the-record discussion we had that Sunday, we thought we were going to make progress. And we had more progress in those last few hours than we did in the past three and a half months, but it certainly wasn't enough. We made it clear to them that beginning to bargain then when they should have been bargaining in July was not going to be enough to stop the clock on the actual strike.

TAP: A lot of the organizing around this is going on through new media, through blogs, Facebook – the very new media that you're working to get a piece of.

PV: [Writers and actors] can get together and actually do media without these guys and get it delivered. It goes back to this quote from Frances Coppola about 12 years ago, where he said that he wasn't going to make the next Godfather, it was going to be some 7-year-old girl with a digital camera. But how was she going to distribute it? Well, now we have the answer. We now have this distribution model that really seriously impacts the ability of the conglomerates to control production and distribution. What can help them survive in that brave new world is collaboration with the content providers, and yet it seems as though a routine has developed where they would rather try to find the cheaper way or the non-union way, or an approach that cuts us out.

TAP: These guys are rolling in bucks. Why do you think they're playing hardball on this?

PV: The process they use to bargain that has been successful for them for a quarter of century has been to stand back and let the union bargain against itself, and wait until the weaker union comes out and make a deal with them. That having failed this time, they're now in a position where they have to figure out how to deal with a strike, and I think the advisers who negotiate these contracts are not used to this kind of action. These generals haven't fought this kind of war in a long time. So they must be at a bit of a loss.

TAP: Do you foresee this dragging on until the SAG contract is up in June?

AR: That's where we could be headed. I sure hope not. I am optimistic. This is America. What we're asking for is so pathetically small in terms of dollars compared to what they're pulling in. I know it's all about leverage, but I hope at some point reason will prevail.

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