The Writers Guild of America strike has won an important victory with the cancellation of the Golden Globe awards show due to their pressure and solidarity from the actors’ union. The huge publicity produced by the Oscar awards campaign is worth many more millions of dollars to the Hollywood studios than the millions it costs.The WGA have also made progress in negotiating a deal with United Artists, now owned by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, which includes, in the WGA’s words, “appropriate minimums and residuals for new media (whether streamed or downloaded, as well as original made-for content), along with basic cable and pay-TV increases, feature animation and reality TV coverage, union solidarity language, and important enforcement, auditing, and arbitration considerations”.
But this two month old strike is proving a tough battle. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) which basically represents the Hollywood studios scuppered talks in early December by presenting an ultimatum that the WGA drop key proposals from the talks. The WGA rejected this.
The central issue at the start of the dispute was the demand for a bigger share of DVD and Internet revenues. The unions and also sometimes the 'talent agents' who represent the workers individually, negotiate a small share of what the projects earn from specified revenue streams as part of their remuneration, called 'residuals'.
The WGA seem to have agreed to take the DVD deal off the table at the request of the AMPTP in order to concentrate on the entirely new Internet issue. But then the Producers’ negotiators blocked any serious progress.
Another element of the dispute is the WGA’s attempt to bring new sections of writers under their agreement. It currently represents people who write scripts for sitcoms, dramas, talk shows and movies but is proposing to include writers who work on animated series, reality shows and material for web sites.
The studios are all owned by conglomerates: Sony (Columbia, SPC, Screen Gems), Time Warner (New Line, Warner Bros.), Viacom (Paramount, Dreamworks), NBC (Universal, Focus) and Murdoch’s News Corporation (20th Century Fox). They all have TV and New Media interests and fear that if the WGA organizes these currently non-guild workers they will be much much stronger in future negotiations.
Despite the long running attacks against unions in America they remain strong in the film industry - concentrated in Los Angeles and historically called ‘Hollywood’. As well as the WGA, actors and directors are also well organized in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Crafts people and technicians are also well organized in IATSE and the Teamsters have a pretty firm grip on everything that moves.
The most immediate effect of the strike is on television. A lot of topical shows have either been replaced with repeats or are struggling along without writers. Drama will suffer next. The effect on movies will take longer; the studios have stockpiled projects and have huge backlogs of scripts. But they won’t be able to get any re-writes done and no new scripts will be commissioned.
The next big pressure point on the employers is ‘Pilot season’ when potential new series are tested out as limited pilots. The production line must be fed with new ideas and new projects or there will be a serious hiccup in the money making. It’s a bit like any factory, except every product is unique (or slightly unique!) and its profitability is uncertain, so something new has to be coming along to make up for the last flop. Huge amounts of money are at stake - Disney’s earnings rose from $3.4bn to $4.7bn for the 2007 financial year - though that includes other activities like theme parks, it is all based on their movie business and the brand that has been created.
It’s true that a privileged handful of actors, writers and directors get big paydays, just like successful sportspeople. But according to the guild, over a five-year period, the average Hollywood writer makes about $62,000 annually.
Beyond the economic issues there is a massive cultural impact on the minds of millions of people around the world. This is well understood as an important tool of US imperialism in defending and extending its global domination. Satellite TV and now the internet have extended it into even the poorest societies.
So it is important to spread the news that right at the heart of the richest and most powerful capitalist power in history, in the most glamorized and mythologized activity, workers are organized into strong trade unions. And they fight to defend their interests as workers selling their labour power.
The importance of solidarity and the role their struggle plays in the broader fight for labour is recognized by many of the strikers, as evidenced in this message to the UnitedHollywood.com blogsite:
“The strike is important for the writers and locally for the Teamsters, the stagehands and SAG and the DGA. Nationally, it's extraordinarily important for every other union member - people in the Steelworkers, the Iron Workers, the Auto Workers, the Farm Workers, the health care workers and Service Employees International Union, the Oil, Gas and Atomic Energy Workers, the United Mine Workers of America, the Teachers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and lots more - because all have issues at stake when a national employers group ‘bargains’ like AMPTP.
“What comes out of this strike - including anything that winds up in the National Labor Relations Board or the courts - is going to have an impact on anyone else's bargaining. When AMPTP pulls this sort of stone wall bullshit, for example, it threatens the Mineworkers' stability, because while they haven't had a strike for a long time and a good run of negotiated contracts, this sort of employer behavior tells the coal companies to wake up and start demanding give backs like AMPTP is pushing.
“This industry is one of the few where the US still dominates the world - folding early and without satisfaction is going to cost workers across the country, union or not because union scale and benefits is what an employer has to think about even in a nonunion shop”.