This is What Solidarity Looks Like
This week’s Nation has a great piece by TV writer and WGA member Luvh Rakhe about the way the experience of the picket line has transformed his and his colleagues’ consciousness. It’s stuck behind the magazine’s subscription wall, but it’s too good not to share, so I’m just going to go ahead and steal my employer’s intellectual property and post the whole thing below. Enjoy.
Writers of the World Unite
by LUVH RAKHE
[from the January 7, 2008 issue]
When one is on strike, sign in hand and chant in voicebox, thoughts can
turn quickly to the grandiose. Fully aware, then, that the weeks I have
spent on the picket line may have gone to my head, I still say this:
somehow the Writers Guild of America has become a legitimate vanguard
for the labor movement in America, and this is odd, considering that a
week before the strike I wasn’t even sure we were a “real” union.
I got my first job writing for TV in 2004 and had to join the
WGA, but I had very little idea with whom I was entering into union. The
marriage had been arranged by the elders, and I was not allowed to see
the bride. I was on staff for a show, so I at least knew what some other
writers looked like. Was the rest of the Guild like my co-workers,
smartasses of assorted but universally unimposing body types? This was a
far cry from the knit caps, tin lunchboxes and brass knuckles of my
ironically/appropriately Hollywoodized conception of a labor union.
Of course (sadly?), no modern unions look like that throwback
stereotype. But we didn’t look like those modern unions either. We
didn’t organize like the SEIU. We didn’t lobby like the teachers. It was
a union in name only—we had banded together for collective
bargaining that happened every three years, clinically and distantly
from the membership. Basically we were like a professional athletes’
union but on a greater variety of drugs.
Over the next couple of years, the WGA pretty much remained in
apathetic stasis. Sure, there were grumbles about how bad the DVD deal
was, a walkout on a reality show in 2006 and, in fact, a successful
Comedy Central organizing campaign. But because of the limited scope of
the campaign and because, frankly, it was kind of easy, even that fairly
satisfying victory left the overall membership ungalvanized.
A month before this year’s contract deadline, I still assumed
there would be no strike, because we were too businesslike. And when at
a strike captains’ meeting an organizer referred to us as “brothers and
sisters,” I found it quaint, and I tittered. Then the talks took a turn
for the worse. Most of the membership by that point understood that a
new-media deal was do or die, and when we lurched toward “die,” wagon
circling commenced. The strike authorization vote came in at 90 percent,
and the ensuing general meeting of the WGA was the largest in its
history. Numerically, unquestionably, this was unity. But was it
solidarity? If it wasn’t then, it became solidarity out on the line.
Normally a group with this many retro nerd glasses can’t do anything
with conviction, but when we started chanting old union slogans, it soon
became unironic. When Teamsters honor our picket line, we say, “Thanks,
brother” without tittering. And when the SEIU asks us to join their
march, we do. A cynic would call this self-interest, but the people who
do it would say they’re motivated by trade unionism, and they wouldn’t
have said that before.
If authentic solidarity weren’t enough, the WGA now finds itself
in the position of a vanguard. Locally, we’re setting the pace—the WGA
is the first of Hollywood’s unions to tackle new media, and the
contracts of our sister unions (how far I’ve come!) will be based
directly on ours.
But this may be bigger than Hollywood. Nationally, the WGA is
bringing the labor movement something it’s good at bringing: an
audience. This is the highest-profile strike in a long time, in a
country not used to strikes. Moreover, this isn’t about a local contract
or a contract with just one company; the 12,000 members of the WGA write
nearly 100 percent of the country’s scripted screen entertainment. And
there have been celebs!
It matches the newsworthiness of the sports strikes of the 1990s
but better fits the strike archetype. First, those guys really were
rich, whereas the median annual salary for WGA members is $62,000.
Second, we’re actually picketing. And picketers are more sympathetic
than corporations. That’s where coincidence comes in again—frustration
with corporatism has never been higher in our lifetime. A national poll
conducted at Pepperdine University’s business school found that a
shocking 63 percent of Americans support the writers. It’s possible that
that 63 percent have an informed position on Internet residuals, but
more likely the WGA has been handed the mantle of American
anticorporatism—at least temporarily.
Part of me doubts we deserve it, the same way teenagers shouldn’t
have nice cars. On the one hand, we’ve become a real union, but on the
other, it still feels so new. My true hope is that the question of
desert is irrelevant and too writerly, and all we really have to do with
this attention and status is one little thing: win.