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.