Who 'won' the strike?

by Paul William Tenny

Yeah, I've seen that question asked rhetorically in the titles of a number of blog posts and MSM stories since the middle of last week too. The contract hasn't even been ratified yet and fools such as myself are going out declaring winners like this was a sporting contest rather than a labor "negotiation", although it really was neither of those things most of the time. The answer is actually an easy one to find, but you've got to figure out who was in the dominant bargaining position first.

The plaintiff in a lawsuit is in the dominant position, and I'll stretch that analogy a bit here in a minute to explain what I mean. But honestly, I think the answer to this question couldn't possibly be more clear.
In any typical contract negotiation, you're going to have one side with all the power, and that side typically "wins" in that they get what they want, much more so than you do. That's how Hollywood operates -- based on what I know of it -- 99% of the time. A studio wants something you've got, offers you money for it, and you cough up the trees you slaughtered, nicely painted with the blood of your own children to remind the studios that you spent a decent chunk of your life making this thing, rather than spending it with your family.

If you've got one, that is, otherwise I'm seriously concerned about being in this close a proximity to you right now, cause that blood had to come from somewhere, right?

I'm no lawyer but I know enough about what writers get out of the deal to know that the studios win every single time, and in other industries I imagine the story isn't all that different. We live in a world where corporations have all the power, that's just the way it is.

And so to has the story gone in labor negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP for much of the past 20 years, and longer than that. Writers have wanted to revisit the home-video residual formula for that entire time, and even with this most recent strike which I think was wildly successful, they still can't get any play there. There haven't been any real substantive gains by the WGA that I can remember in all that time. A bump in the minimums here, and there. Increase contribution to health funds and all that.

Writers still give up copyright in this country, but don't across the pond. Writers in film so far as I know are still not wanted on the set in most situations, vastly underpaid compared to actors, still spend time writing scripts that won't ever make them any money, etc. It's good money, L.A. is an expensive place to live, half the guild is out of work at any one time; you get the idea.

None of that has changed.

Pretty much, the WGA has acted out the part of the weaker position flawlessly, right up until now, and boy was it a sight to see them refuse to sit down, and shut up. The AMPTP screamed until it lost its voice, held its breath until it cried, and still couldn't tell the writers what to do. And that's oddly what you'd expect from such negotiations, every single time out. And why not? The WGA has what the AMPTP needs, not wants, but needs. Those conglomerates would have never caved if they didn't have to -- their "vertically aligned" parent company structure would ensure nearly unlimited survival for most of them.

But that's not doing business. Is a television studio that doesn't make TV programs still a television studio? Is there pride in not doing whatever it is you're in business to do, so long as you can say you're in charge? In charge of doing exactly nothing?

I said this over and over during this strike: the talent guilds hold all the cards against the congloms, and always will. So long as they have what the congloms need, the congloms will cave. That's simply a matter of time, and it can be no other way. Writers can write for the Internet, live on savings for a while, or if it comes down to it, get another job for a while and make short-term sacrifices to get what is very important to them.

Can CBS start making car parts? Can NBC sit around costing GE hundreds of millions of dollars in costs while not making anything back, simply because they aren't actually doing anything? Can either of them do their thing without scripts, or actors?

You get the idea, now. It may not be feasible, but I've always said that if it comes down to a waiting game, the people can always outlast the company. It's not a matter of funding, it's a matter of bargaining and economics -- whoever needs what the other side has will cave first in a true waiting game.

Since the WGA has had the superior bargaining position all along, that makes this job a lot easier and the question obvious: did they get what they wanted?

You can usually figure out who "won" a lawsuit that was settled, even when the terms of the settlement are sealed (and they always are.) Just ask yourself if the plaintiffs (the side that sued) got what they wanted. If they did, then they won. If they didn't, then they lost.

The WGA wanted a deal on new media above all else, and we all knew they'd be willing to compromise on just about anything to get it. More than just new media was at stake here -- I truly believe that if the WGA had lost this strike, it would have crippled and probably destroyed the guild forever. The AMPTP knew that, and was pushing for exactly that outcome. You can only strike and fail so many times before you've lost what little influence you had. Sad to say, this was a win-or-die scenario for the guild, on top of fighting over a once-in-two-decades issue.

And sure enough, the WGA held firm, and got jurisdiction on new media, payment for new media, and a formula for calculating those payments that is a lot better than the one still used today -- and forever probably -- calculating DVD residuals. It's still a pathetically small number by most standards, but anything is better than the big fat zero the AMPTP had been offering.

There are ugly spots in this contract, but that's more a side effect of true bargaining than it is any specific failure. As the AMPTP just learned, you can win on 100% of the points, because that's not bargaining at all.

Between the two sides, the one with the upper hand got probably about 90% of what it really, really wanted this year. Pretty funny since the strike was approved by about 90% (of the 50% who bothered to vote) and it was called by by an equally impressive 93%. That too should give you some clue as to who came out on top. When the people are that happy -- albeit before we see the actual numbers on contract ratification -- after being kicked around so badly, for so long, I think it's obvious who the "winner" was.

And before I go, I'd like to chastise the New York Times for a moment. One of their guys asked the same question I did, and added a thought to go away with (paraphrasing): "Yeah, but who lost?"

According to the Times, the real loser in this strike were the viewers who were deprived of their fat-time on the couch.

No, I'm not kidding.

It wasn't the many writers who undoubtedly lost their careers, the shareholders who all saw the value in their investments drop across the board. It certainly wasn't the CEOs who will all get raises for this. It was the viewers, apparently.

While you think about how incredibly stupid that is, I'd like to give my personal thanks and apologies to the real losers in this strike, primarily all those people that aren't in unions, won't gain from the strike, and paid for it dearly. These below-the-line people work hard, don't have pensions, heath care funds, contractually-forced minimums that start feature script sales off at nearly $100k, don't get residuals, and still had to suffer through all of this right through christmas anyway.

You guys got screwed, and it sucks royally. I'm sorry, even though I had nothing to do with it (I'm not in the WGA), and yet I saw no other way around it. You didn't deserve it, but nobody really does in the end.
in Digital Media, Labor


Related posts:

Leave a comment

View more stories by visiting the archives.

Media Pundit categories