Striking screenwriters refuse to surrender

Those who think it is only a matter of time before striking screenwriters cave in to the Hollywood producers are not getting what this strike, now supported by two-thirds of the public, is all about. This point was made clear Dec. 7 when talks between the writers and producers broke down.

The strike was expected to be a fight over pay formulas. But the writers have turned it into an epic struggle to force the media conglomerates who control the entertainment industry into ceding some of that control to the workers.

It started when 12,000 television and movie writers, represented by the Writers Guild of America, walked out in November, shutting down a dozen sitcoms and almost all late-night entertainment shows.

At a time when corporations like to portray unions as out for the count, the writers, drawing widespread public support, have struck a blow for solidarity reminiscent of the militant unity that built industrial unions decades ago.

Recent polls by Survey USA and Variety indicate that the 66 percent support for the strike cuts across all sections of the public, and that the majority blame the corporate media for the deteriorating quality of television and movie writing.

“Writers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the TV and movie industries. They get no respect,” columnist Clarence Page wrote recently. “The rest of us walk out of theaters … wondering why some more of the big money that we see up on the screen wasn’t spent on developing better scripts.”

Many issues are on the table in this strike, the guild’s first since its five-month walkout in 1988.

The writers are demanding a tiny 2.5 percent of the money that media conglomerates are making from reusing the writers’ work on the Internet, smart phones, iTunes, movie downloads and other media. The writers also want a bigger share of DVD profits than the 0.36 percent they settled for in 1988, when home video was something new.

The writers are using the new media as a powerful weapon in their battle. They have written and produced clever videos posted on web sites such as strikeswag.com and slashfilm.com. They have titles like “Voices of Uncertainty” and “Why We Fight.” Striking writers from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” have one titled “Not the Daily Show, with Some Writer.”

In “Voices of Uncertainty” on the slashfilm.com site, Sumner Redstone of Viacom brags to investors about “golden opportunities” to make billions from digital technology. A message flashes across the screen: “Golden opportunities not available to writers, strikers or residents of Guam.”

Patrick Vernon, president of the Writers Guild of America West, has said from the beginning that writers must restore leverage lost as corporations took control of the entertainment business. He has described Hollywood as teetering on the brink of a dark age for creativity. Recently he told the press: “I think if they could do business without us, they would, and so they are making our task as mechanical and simple and low paying and unartistic as possible.”

The union is lobbying the corporate studio owners to agree to union representation for the thousands of writers on reality and animated shows who are not yet organized. This would create a major shift in favor of workers in the entertainment industry.

Five weeks into the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has issued a sharp attack against the union, accusing leaders of “pushing an ideological mission far removed from the interests of their members.” The bosses know that what the writers seek is a radical shift in industry power. What really worries them is the apparent willingness of the public to back such a shift.

This is what is behind the breakdown of talks on Dec. 7. The companies were unable to restrict the negotiations to the narrow issue of wages. The writers, with the public behind them, are telling the bosses that this time they want a real piece of the pie.

jwojcik @pww.org