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Residual Anger | The Nation

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Residual Anger

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This time around, he says, more attention needs to be paid to member training, strategic planning and the building of alliances. "This year SAG and AFTRA are attempting to take a much more pro-active and conscious approach to building leverage and power," says Connolly.

Marc Cooper is an emeritus member of WGA and a member of the Los Angeles local of AFTRA.

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

With an inverse pyramid of so much lucrative international product now balanced on the relatively small fulcrum of professional writers and actors,"the unions are potentially more powerful than ever before," says a WGA staffer. "But only if we seize the massive opportunity now before us. And, frankly, that's pretty iffy."

Among the myriad Hollywood myths is the notion that the creative guilds are powerful organizations with a long and storied history of striking and bringing the industry to heel.

Reality is considerably less dramatic. The negotiating cycles of the past fifteen years have been essentially concessionary, and the guilds have fallen into the habit of closed-door, "fast track" contract approvals with virtually no member mobilization. "What came of the last WGA strike in 1988 was twelve years of labor peace with early deals," says WGA vice president Dan Petrie Jr. "All that has come at a certain price to our membership."

In the meantime, what we know as "Hollywood" has transformed itself from being something like Lew Wasserman's LA-centric private fiefdom, which he ruled paternally for decades as chairman of MCA, into a global behemoth whose economic survival is considerably less tied to movie production. The challenge for the entertainment unions, say its most strategic visionaries, is catching up with their employers--that is, making the transition from being rather parochial company town guilds to becoming more global, strategic-thinking labor unions. That transition, say veteran unionists, would require the guilds to rely much more on hard economic research into the restructuring carried out by their employers and, more important, to forge ever closer relationships with organized labor at home and abroad. "The performers' unions have to take off their Hollywood-obsessive, rose-colored glasses," says Connolly. "We have to move away from the narrow narcissism that has prevented us from taking our rightful place in organized labor, which has allowed the rest of the movement to dismiss us as pampered poodles."

'Mickey and Judy' Unionism

Unfortunately, both sets of guilds--the writers and actors--enter into this decisive phase of their history quite distant from that paradigm. WGA president John Wells is that exotic Hollywood species known as a "hyphenate"--a writer-producer. One of the town's top "show-runners," Wells is therefore a major employer, presiding over and owning a big piece of the hit series The West Wing and ER‚ as well as Third Rock From the Sun. This puts him in the odd, conflictive position of negotiating down his sizable profits as producer as he tries to raise the rates of writers.

WGA executive director John McLean, likewise, has spent most of his career on the other side of the table, serving for twenty years as a labor relations manager for the networks. And top WGA consultant Robert Hadl also comes from management, having served as general counsel to the entertainment giant MCA. To its credit, the current WGA leadership came to office pledging less obeisance to the producers. But its entire top tier comes from the most elite positions, distant from the rank and file--a fact not lost on a significant portion of the WGA membership. When WGA leaders call themselves mere "employees" of the studios, this ignores the fact that the top cut of the guild "are often their own corporate 'bosses' as well, earning gargantuan sums," as WGA member William Richert put it in a Variety guest column titled "Just Who Are the WGA Firebrands Fighting For?" In the last writers' strike, in 1988, he argued, "Almost 30 independent producing companies got shuttered...while the 'employers' of the WGA salaried writers stayed in business, being producers as well as writers."

The main actors' union, SAG, comes into this fight even less prepared. At a moment when unity and clarity of purpose are paramount, SAG is bloodied by a factional guerrilla war that is being fought out daily on the front pages of the trade papers. Things have gotten so bad that in early February SAG president William Daniels (Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere) had to make an embarrassing--and unsuccessful--public appeal for peace. And while SAG has historically been prone to such turmoil--remember the great Ed Asner/Charlton Heston duels of the early 1980s?--the Daniels regime has mostly itself to blame for its predicament.

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