Friday, February 20, 2009

Ezra and the Strike

Many years ago I lived in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a village north of Philadelphia. While there, I discovered quite by accident the fact that the most famous resident of Jenkintown was Ezra Pound, who had lived there as a boy. I did some research on Pound's early years as a prelude to asking the town council to put a memorial marker on his family's old home. In the process, I learned that Pound had published his first known work while living nearby, an unripe dialect verse about a labor dispute which was taking place at the holidays, called 'Ezra on the strike.' Town council never did put up the plaque, since one resident pointed out heatedly that Pound, in addition to being an important poet, essayist and translator and the discoverer of Eliot, Hemingway and other great talents of twentieth century literature, was also a fascist collaborator during World War II, who ended his days, nearly, in an insane asylum.

Now, to this point, I have forborne saying anything about the current Writers Guild strike, but recent events have moved me to break my silence. The first of these occurred when the strike was called, and the WGA sent all of its members an order to turn into the Guild any work which we then had in progress. The rationale was that this would enable the Guild to adjudicate more effectively any eventual claims of scabbing, that is, any charges which might be brought against members of having worked on scripts during the strike. I suspected this solicitous explanation immediately, and assumed the order represented, in fact, a desire on the part of the Guild leadership to know exactly how much leverage it had over the industry - what and how many scripts were then outstanding - and, in general, an effort to strengthen the Guild’s hold on strike discipline by having in its possession copies of everything the members had in process. I may be wrong about this, but about one thing I am sure: turning in the scripts I then had in development would represent a breach of the confidentiality clauses in the contracts I had signed with those producers for whom I had been working, a fact which some of them pointed out to me in letters to my agents. Further, in at least one case, I had given my word to an important producer/director that I would not discuss our script with, nor divulge its subject matter to, anyone. The Guild, therefore, was not only asking me to put myself in breach of contracts, it was ordering me to violate my word of honor. And in the film industry, I have learned, your word is your most important asset; indeed, your entire career may depend upon it.

I attended the pre-strike general meeting in early November with some dread. The mood of the Guild for the previous months had been becoming more and more militant, and I, for one, considered a strike to be inevitable. Nonetheless, I went to the meeting in the hope that cooler heads would prevail. I was mistaken. What I found was a sort of Bolshevik pep rally, with people rising in unison to applaud the leadership, cheering its every pronouncement, and trooping to the microphones to urge it on to the strike. “What are we waiting for?” members demanded. “Why aren’t we on strike now?” To me they seemed to be dashing for the cliff, scarcely suspecting what the consequences might be. There was no reasoned debate, no dispassionate discussion, no careful examination of the stakes; in short, no behavior that I associate with writers. No one questioned the idea of a strike, except for one young woman who said that she was just starting out in the television business, had little money and few resources, and could not survive if she was out of work for any length of time. The leaders assured her that the strike, if there was one, would be brief.

The night after the meeting, the talks broke down at the very point that it appeared that progress was being made. A strike had been called for midnight, and New York being three hours ahead of LA, the WGA East went out while it was still only 9:00 PM here. As I understand it, the producers asked that the strike action be postponed for a few hours so that the negotiations could continue, and the Guild refused. WGA East walked, and so did the producers.

Then, shortly after the strike began, I received an email from the Guild informing me that I had an obligation to report any instances of scabbing of which I became aware. The email was worded in no uncertain terms: I was, in effect, being ordered to become an informant against my fellow writers. I responded with a letter to the president of the WGA West letting him know that I resented both of the demands that I turn in my work and that I turn in other writers. ‘I would no more consider becoming a scab,’ I wrote him, ‘than I would becoming an informant.’

In the weeks that followed I received two more Guild emails that gave me great concern. The first was an open letter by a prominent Guild member which purported to contain the results of a conversation the member had had some time previously with someone who claimed to be an intimate of the chief negotiator for the producers association, AMPTP. This man, the writer reported, had characterized the negotiator’s philosophy as being one of ‘divide and conquer,’ couched in the most cynical and manipulative terms. This gossip was reported as fact, and circulated via the Guild’s official website. I protested the publication of such hearsay, pointing out not only that was it mischievous and counterproductive, but also that if the Guild leadership believed it, it was downright stupid, since such inside information ought to be used to inform our negotiations, not be bruited abroad for everyone to read, and as a provocation to the other side.

The gossipy email was circulated on the eve of the resumption of talks. Again I hoped for a positive outcome, but the negotiations soon broke down for a second time. It was at this point that the Guild forwarded to the members an email which, at first, I could not understand. It appeared to be a link to a producers association website, but the introduction to the link was phrased in such an odd, ironic manner that I had to read it several times before deciding to open it. What I found, to my consternation, was a parody of an AMPTP newsletter, in which the producers association was mocked and insulted in a juvenile fashion, very much like something that would be seen in a high-school broadsheet concocted by clever but mischievous sophomores.

I was shocked; I was furious. I dashed off an email of protest to the Guild’s president, and the next morning I called the public relations office to ask who had produced this malicious drivel. I will admit that I could scarcely contain myself. ‘We’ve been on strike for six weeks,' I nearly shouted, 'people’s futures are at stake, and this is what the Guild publishes?! Do you people think this situation is funny?!’ After a moment, the woman on the other end responded: ‘Is that a rhetorical question?’ I hit the roof, demanded if she had actually said such a thing to me, insisted to know who was responsible for the joke newsletter. She put me on hold for quite some time, then returned and told me I would have to talk to someone else later.

The strike has now gone on for seven weeks. Talks have broken down twice, and there are none foreseen before the new year. It is almost Christmas, over 40,000 people in the industry remain out of work, thousands of others are more or less directly affected, and no end is in sight. I am reminded of the assurances given at the start of every great war in history that it would ‘be over by Christmas,’ only to have the bloody strife go on and on, doing more and more damage, claiming more and more victims. Nonetheless the rhetoric of the Guild and the tone of the failed negotiations have grown only more strident and confrontational, reaching a kind of futile fever pitch at the most recent general meeting a week ago. I attended that one too, in the hope that heads now chilled from weeks of winter picketing might prevail. Again, I was mistaken.

The second rally was, if anything, more febrile than the first. The strike was described in classic labor terms as a war – us against them; good against evil; noble, selfless workers versus greedy, impersonal conglomerates – class warfare in clich├ęd Thirties fashion. Strike leaders queued at the on-stage microphone to report on their activities, demanding solidarity and calling us ‘brothers and sisters.’ At any moment, I expected one of them to call us ‘comrades.’ Then the leaders invited us to come forward and express any questions or concerns we might have, urging, ‘Don’t let your reservations fester.’ The microphones in the hall were opened and I waited my turn, intending to suggest that perhaps we ought to tone down the rhetoric and make it less confrontational and more conciliatory. I was going to say that perhaps what was needed now was what writers always search for: a creative and dramatic gesture to break the status quo. I never made it.

The first member who spoke was a man who described himself as having been a lawyer before he became a writer. He pointed out that one thing you learn in law school is that you never represent yourself; you hire the most qualified professionals you can find to speak for you in any proceeding. Having said this, he wondered, respectfully (he was careful to say this twice) why the Guild had not hired professional negotiators with years of experience in making multi-million dollar deals in the entertainment industry to represent us. It was a thought that had also crossed my mind.

This man was immediately booed, jeered at and shouted down. I even heard voices calling for him to ‘shut up!’ While this ugly outburst went on, the Guild leaders up on the stage said nothing, did nothing to come to the man’s defense, to defend a fellow writer’s right to raise a concern about the leadership's behavior even though it was they who had urged us to do so. The next person who spoke was an elderly member who said, 'Let’s agree that if you have nothing positive or helpful to say, just shut the fuck up.' The hall erupted in cheering. And once again, the Guild leaders said nothing, and, indeed, on the video monitor, I could see some of them smiling. I thought it a despicable display of cowardice and lack of leadership, and I left, since it was clear that, in the fever of conformity, no dissent, nor even any doubts, would be tolerated.

Now let me say that I support the strike in theory. I do believe that our demands are reasonable. What I do not support is the confrontational approach, the militant class-warfare rhetoric, the us-against-them mentality which may have been useful in generations of labor action past and in industries other than our own, but are inappropriate and counterproductive at this time and in the name of this unique membership. We are not a rank-and-file engaged in a war, we are writers in a labor dispute, and the producers are not our enemies, they are our professional colleagues. They make the films and TV shows, they pay our salaries, contribute to our pension and health funds, and, in my case at least, many are personal friends. And no matter how we feel about the issues now, when the strike is over, we will go back to work with them. If they are our enemies, then, by the Guild’s rhetoric, we are working for the enemy, and this idea I reject not only in principle, but because it is simply not true. As a screenwriter, I do not consider that I work for employers; I collaborate with colleagues.

Recently, I read an open letter to the membership by a highly esteemed screenwriter who urged us to trust the leadership utterly, to ‘walk in circles’ for as long as they order it without asking why, to keep up the solidarity and not question our leaders’ tactics, judgment or motivations. But as a writer, it is in my nature to ask questions, to dissent, to search for truth and, in the process, to denounce conformity, foolishness, bullying and deceit. That is what writers do; it is our duty and our destiny. This may not be true of other unions’ members, but it must be true of us. We are a union of writers; we are not a herd of livestock. I, for one, never aspired to be a sheep – that is one of the reasons I became a writer. And as a writer, I am used to being in the minority, indeed, I am rarely comfortable otherwise. I am accustomed to voicing an unpopular point of view because that is the vocation of writers, it is how we express who we are, it is how we affect the reality around us.

This strike, and the Guild itself, are, I fear, in the grip of a political agenda as much as an economic one. It is an agenda driven by a radical desire to alter not just the way of doing business, our relationship with the producers, but to change our way of seeing things, of understanding who we are. Now, that may at some points in history be a challenging, even an exciting prospect, but in this case, the vision that the leadership appears to have embraced is far from new – it is archaic, the artifact of an extinct era and of other kinds of struggles by other kinds of workers. And so, even as we are demanding our share of the electronic markets of the future, we are evincing the mentality of the past, with its rhetoric of class warfare, solidarity at all costs, unquestioning discipline, and the stifling of dissent in the name of unity. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the current strike by writers: our words do not fit our reality.

This strike may, I am beginning to suspect, be revealing a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a union of writers as it is currently understood, for in these recent events, I have witnessed the members increasingly being treated by the Guild not essentially as writers, but as employees. But we are not employees, we are artists, and as artists, the idea of cheering loyally for leaders, following their dictates without demur, and shouting down those who dare to disagree ought to be repugnant to us. Since it evidently is not, my greatest fear now is not that the strike will fail economically, but that it may succeed politically in so transforming us from what we are and (for our culture's sake and our own) what we need to be, into something else, something common, something compliant. And if that happens, this strike, together with our identities as writers, will have lost all meaning.