Aaron Sorkin was a member of the "cave first" faction

by Paul William Tenny

The Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPTP -- studios + networks) spread a lot of rumors during the writers strike -- not that they were the only ones doing this -- about there existing these pockets of powerful writers who didn't want a strike and were always on the verge of "threatening" to make their dissent public to "force" or "embarrass" the leadership into accepting a "good deal". Forget for a moment that if it were a good deal then nobody would have needed to be forced or embarrassed into taking what's good for them,  to a degree there's always going to be honest and dishonest dissent in any healthy and free society.

In a post I missed earlier this month, Nikke Finke pointed to an interview that Aaron Sorkin did with GQ magazine where he revealed that he was in one of these "rich members first" groups that really ought to just be ignored.
Everyone in the union has a right to their opinion and nobody questions their right to express those opinions, but that doesn't mean every single opinion is worth listening to, especially when those opinions are used as weapons of intimidation.

Sorkin and his merry band of scribes admitted to using their status as rich and powerful writers to force Patric Verrone, the negotiating committee, and the WGA board to accept the deal that they wanted, that they thought was fair, rather than one which would benefit the union as a whole. It's entirely possible for a deal to be fair but not what you want or what you can actually get.

This raises one critical question and reveals an equally critical conclusion.

According to the GQ internview, Paul Attanasio invited Sorkin and eight or nine "screenwriters you would know" to a dinner in L.A. a day or two after the DGA accepted a somewhat rotten deal that the AMPTP could then force on the WGA and SAG, even after Verrone had asked the DGA to wait until the writers strike was settled to give their fellow union hands some leverage. This was a simple request since the DGA contract wouldn't expire for another five or six months, but the directors did what they always do and asked the AMPTP for marching orders, which they then faithfully carried out to the letter.

I imagine it's somewhat like being slapped and then being told to be thankful you were only bruised, because hey, we could have broken your arm if we felt like it.

Only these secret little groups that claimed to be large but refused to reveal their numbers of membership, always consisting of big name screenwriters and powerful showrunners but never wanting to reveal who was actually a part of them, wanted the WGA to accept the DGA deal without even knowing what was in it. I think most writers wanted time to study the deal before making any conclusions, much less decisions on how to proceed. Those who wanted the WGA to take the deal before seeing it never wanted a strike to begin with and certainly weren't concerned with seeing any substantive gains, and to them I'd ask, you do understand that the entire point of a union is to A. protect what workers already have and B. get more, right?

I'd argue that C. is where at least a sizable portion of any membership resides would read: "ask for as much possible because you never know what you can get unless you ask for everything." Those people are labeled militants and hard liners by those who are ideologically on the opposite side of the spectrum, who would take whatever they are given and beg for seconds.

Although I don't really agree with it, in a very limited way I can respect a persons right to hold such views. It seems dumb to want your union to accept a pattern deal when you don't even know what's in that deal -- hence the "limited" part -- but if it's your thing to live in blissful ignorance then I guess that's your right. It's the part where Sorkin and company held their views close to the vest and then used them collectively as a weapon against their own union that bothers me.

There were guild members that thought the DGA deal was half decent after reviewing it and others that openly campaigned for accepting it before the damn thing had even been signed. Sorkin didn't say why he didn't just come out and share his thoughts openly where the entire membership could benefit, as many people had already done in views that ran the entire spectrum. It seems inherently dishonest to use your status and views as ammunition or leverage to get your way like this was a contract negotiation between the membership and the WGA leadership rather than an internal debate about how best to achieve shared goals in a negotiation between the union as a whole, and management.

So there's your critical question, why did Sorkin believe his views should be held in secret when other people openly agreed, if not because he knew his status and those of the others could be used to get what they wanted rather than winning people over on the merrit of their arguments?

And here's your critical conclusion: you shouldn't listen to groups like this because they are inherently selfish and overwhelmingly disconnected from the union at large.

These groups always consisted of "powerful" writers for television or film and, without exception, all of them were wealthy. As Sorkin admitted in his interview, his group had "eight or nine of us", and were "all screenwriters you would know." Forgive my cynicism, but if these are screenwriters that we'd know, that pretty much limits the talent pool to the top 1-5% of all writers in the guild when it comes to earnings. Once you've had some success, Hollywood tends to reuse you over and over rather than taking risks on new talent.

I think you'll find the WGA and other talent unions in Hollywood are fairly unique in that they do not consist entirely of working-class Americans. Leaving aside the pay issues for the moment since most estimates have half the union out of work at any given time, WGA, SAG, and the DGA all have some very wealthy people in the top 1-5% of membership that haven't benefited from being in a union for a very long time and realistically don't need one now or will need one well into the future. These are all people that could quit writing tomorrow, still spend lavishly and never need another job for the rest of their lives. They don't need the health insurance or pensions that the union provide, and the residuals they make are pennies compared to what they make upfront.

This is important because we're talking about small pockets of the membership that are working on the top rung, have the most power, are best equipped to weather any strike for as long as they need to, and have the least to gain from these regular contract negotiations -- and they are telling a union to give it its only effective weapon in the world of collective bargaining so that they can go back to work.

The top five percenters lose regular, high paying work during strikes and really never gain anything after its over, so it makes sense that these people as a demographic would oppose a strike on any grounds and would be the first to want to cave once things aren't quickly setteled.

Unions were not designed with the best interests of these people in mind. They don't need negotiated minimums or health care, through their own hard fought success, they've earned a living that can already provide these things for them. It's not a knock on them and the union shouldn't treat them differently or exclude them, but I don't think their opinions ought to carry any more weight than management's does They are speaking from a tiny minority point of view that isn't even really consistent with the existence of a union at all. In that respect, management and the top five percenters have at least that much in common: they want the strike to end no matter what the cost so they can get back to making gobs of money.

All the while the people who need the union fighting hard for them are suffering the worst but have the most to gain from a union that acts like a union should.

Sorkin does pay service to the below-the-line workers that don't have a union and end up suffering the worst of anyone during a strike -- they don't gain anything and their jobs are not automatically waiting for them when the work stoppage ends. It's unfortunate collateral damage to be sure, and not something that should be taken lightly, but it shouldn't be a deciding factor in union strategy either. It's cold to say this but what happens to the below-the-line workers isn't really the guilds problem or concern. If it were, then keeping those people working would be paramount and would eliminate the possibility of a strike, and work stoppage is literally the only weapon a union has.

Without the ability to strike, there's no point to having a union.

The solution to that problem is to take the BTL workers and unionize them (not under the WGA of course) the same way you have a craft workers union. Does Hollywood need and could it continue to function with a grip union or a PA union? I don't know, but that's really a grip or a PA's problem and not a writers problem. I love that people take more than just a moment to consider how their actions effect other peoples lives, but that's all it can be, a mitigating factor is appropriate but it can never be a deciding factor. A union strike can never be lifted because of the effect it's having on non-union labor.

That's not me being an ass, it's seeing the situation for what it is and putting your priorities in order. In the Writers Guild, writers come first, not BTL workers. Therefore I don't really think it's honest to use BTL workers as a wedge inside the guild to force a strike to end. It's not an honest argument, it's entirely besides the point. The WGA didn't strike to benefit BTL workers so why should it sacrifice the needs of its own membership for the needs of another craft? Before there was a writers guild, I'm sure there were other unions in a similar position that ended up costing writers jobs and I don't begrudge them for putting their interests first.

It may be selfish, but it's also practical and quite necessary.

I sympathize, and I know a lot of people are deeply grateful for what BTL workers do and how important they are to production (they are crtiical.) Their needs and interests cannot be a priority in a union that doesn't represent them, however, with that union still being purposeful and functional.

There is also something to be said for how unhappy many writers were with the deal afterward. To that end, the actors guild has been so unhappy with the WGA deal which made only minor improvements over the DGA deal, that they took have turned it down flat. SAG's contract expired two months ago and virtually all film production has been shut down, although that is purely by the choice of management since SAG has not called a strike yet.

It's also worth noting that the WGA strike unquestionably made the DGA deal possible. From the time negotiations began right up until the day the DGA made its deal, the AMPTP categorically refused to give the WGA anything it wanted on new media. AMPTP insiders said writers were flat out insane for thinking they could get anything they were asking for, and this "wasn't a strike we were passionate about" turned out to be a strike that got the DGA deal they were all salivating for. How would the DGA have gotten this deal if the WGA had setteled early for much less?

Writers got something this year which is more than the guild could say for much of the past 20 years, but compared to what the AMPTP was offering and people like Sorkin would have been perfectly happy with -- no new media on top of a full slate of rollbacks -- it was better than nothing.

The strike was more than worth the gains and frankly I think a longer strike could have secured even more gains than writers actually got.

But that's a story for another day.
in Feature, Labor, Television


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