FIFTY-ONE

Thoughts on Writers, Power, and What’s at Stake.

Of Note: These are my thoughts and opinions on the upcoming strike authorization vote as a member of WGA. I do not represent the union.

Back in 2007, I was still an assistant. I lost my job when the WGA went out, but got myself a red t-shirt to wear as I walked in circles in front of Fox with my boss. I believed writers not only deserved what they were demanding, but that the fight was existential. I was clear on the stakes. I am the daughter of a musician and record producer. I had a front row seat to the death of the middle class in the music business. My father had the good sense to diversify into film and television as soon as he saw a desktop CD burner and realized how screwed they were, so he’s done just fine. But the music business has cratered for all but the most successful.

That is the future we face if we do not demand fair compensation as our industry evolves.

Due to technological realities beyond their control, musicians and songwriters were the canary in the digital coal mine. The collective power they’ve built is paltry. They never stood a chance. But thanks to the hard work of generations of agitators, we film and television writers have long had the power to defend the health of our profession, not just for ourselves but for those who follow.

In 1960, writers went on strike over residuals. At that point, there were none. Eventually, they agreed to forgo coverage for anything created before 1960, their entire body of work, in order to ensure residuals moving forward. I can only assume in the immediate years that followed, plenty of folks claimed they saw no benefit from that sacrifice. Maybe they felt they were worse off. Yet now, how many of us depend on those green envelopes?

When writers decided to strike in 2007, the offer on the table for new media (aka the internet) was zero. No dollars. No jurisdiction. But the future was clear: Eventually, everything would be streaming. So we walked. And while many of the formulas agreed upon were way too low, and we had to give up increases on basic cable (hence, some of our current demands), we won jurisdiction over the internet. Hulu launched a month later.

Netflix. Amazon. Hulu.

Imagine a world in which shows on those platforms and others like them were not covered by the Guild. That means no residuals. No health and pension. No minimums. Streaming is now 15% of our business. In which direction does all good sense tell you that number is going to move for the foreseeable future? If streaming wasn’t covered by the Guild, do you think our health and pension plans would survive?

Strikes are sacrifice. Not just for writers and our families, but for our community at large, none of whom have a voice in this decision. No one takes this lightly. But a strike threat is our only leverage. The one card we hold. The AMPTP holds the other fifty-one, so when they refuse to move and what’s at stake is existential, we play our card or perish. And what’s at stake in the deal before us? Once again, the future of the middle class writer.

In 2016, the six corporations that make up the AMPTP earned 51 billion dollars of profits from film and television, more than double the profits of ten years before. And what’s driving that growth? Television.

How have writers fared? Over the last three years, while AMPTP profits grew by over 6%, writers’ compensation fell by 23%. And where was the brunt of that loss felt? Television.

Our business is booming while our compensation falls.

Three years ago, when the corporations made 48 billion, 3% of producer-level television writers worked for scale. Last year, when the corporations made 51 billion, 51% of producer-level television writers worked for scale.

I’m gonna respectfully request you read that one more time:

Three years ago, when the corporations made 48 billion, 3% of producer-level television writers worked for scale. Last year, when the corporations made 51 billion, 51% of producer-level television writers worked for scale.

Fifty-one.

How did that happen? Orders got shorter, from 22 episodes to 13, or 10, or 8. And because the metric by which we get paid is per episode, studios have been able to spread our episodic fee over a greater number of weeks. Voila, producer level writers working for the same weekly rate as staff writers.

I’m sure for writers in other media, the plight of those of us in television seems irrelevant to your well-being. But we rise and fall together. As compensation drops, so too do contributions to our health and pension funds. If nothing changes, in three years, they will be insolvent and the AMPTP will have us over a barrel. No one wants to walk. But if we don’t wield our power now, we will lose it.

I choose to favor the future and the collective over the immediate and the personal. Reasonable, well-intentioned people can choose to weigh their decision differently. But in order to engage on this subject productively, it helps to be honest about our calculus. To be clear, the vote before us is not a choice between strike, and no strike. It is a choice between empowering our leadership with the threat, and rendering them inert. The hope is that the threat is enough to inspire movement from the AMPTP. Will it? I don’t know. But the more members who vote to authorize, the more powerful the threat. A “No” vote tells the AMPTP you’ll take what ever they’re willing to give. And the reason we’ve been asked to authorize is because thus far, they’ve been willing to give nothing to address our fundamental issue: industry profits are soaring, while writers’ compensation is falling.

I’ve heard from a few corners the refrain that this is the wrong time, that with everything going on in the country, we should be focused on resisting Trump. I understand that impulse.

Back in 2007, after a few weeks of spending most days walking in a circle, I joined the Obama campaign as a full time volunteer. It changed my life — that’s the hackneyed tale anyway. But the rarely spun one is the deep genius of the organizer training we all received early on in the primary. Designed by a man named Marshall Ganz, the training came out of his experience working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. It was rooted in storytelling and the belief that if you can make someone feel, you can move them to act. Before we learned the nuts and bolts of electoral organizing, we worked to craft stories specifically for that purpose. And over the course of the campaign, we learned what a powerful tool those stories were. On doorsteps across from strangers, forging connections through values, not issues. Moving folks from an undecided to a supporter, not because you pushed, but because you made space for them to take a step toward you. Like I said, it changed my life. But, that’s not actually my point…

After the campaign, I started studying movements and how they grow and create change… The work of SNCC and the UFW. The Clamshell Alliance. The Dreamers. Otpor in Yugoslavia. The US labor movement in the thirties. One primary lesson I drew was this — successful movements grow best from the ground up when momentum is generated by local, often disparate groups, winning victories on issues both specific to their community and resonant with the larger struggle.

A national Right to Work bill is on the Republican congressional agenda. If you’re unaware, such a bill becoming law would mean the end of organized labor in the United States of America.

Our fight is part of the larger struggle for progress in this country, and our victory contributes to the growing movement. Our insecurities and fears about how we’re perceived diminish our immense power. We are creators of culture. And yet time and again I hear writers quip, “well, we’re not curing cancer,” as if our work is some frothy confection of little consequence, as if the stories we tell ourselves and each other don’t bend reality around us.

As if our president isn’t a reality show host.

To quote one of my favorite 30 Rock lines, “Stop eating old french fries, pigeon. Don’t you know you can fly?”

If you’re worried a bunch of white collar writers aren’t a sympathetic face for the cause? Then don’t be the face. What if the creative energy that powers an endless stream of culture was redirected towards supporting the activists and organizers hard at work all over the country? Imagine what we could accomplish together.

And if you’re still worried folks are gonna think we’re greedy, just tell ’em: Industry profits are soaring while writers’ compensation is falling. The middle class is getting squeezed and our health insurance is in perilous shape. Sound familiar? Surely that’s a story we can tell.

One last thing: Any public communication from the Guild for the time being will be crafted to hide the specifics of our agenda from the AMPTP, and to pressure them to move. For those who feel the email last Friday was short on details and a bit confusing, that was by design. If you have questions, show up to the next meeting.

If you’re wondering how I know everything I’ve outlined above? Meetings. I showed up. This economic reality has been clearly communicated by leadership since 2015 to anyone who made the time to listen.

If you’re wondering why I trust our leadership? Meetings and conversations. I showed up. I voted for most of them.

Did you vote for none of them? Did you vote at all? To (mis)quote Mos Def, people talk about the WGA like it’s some giant living up in the hillside, coming down to visit the townspeople. But we are the WGA. The WGA is us. And the agenda is set by those who show up.

See you at the next meeting.