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What is this strike about?
Date 07/12/11/01:46

By Nasser Gamal Faris

HOLLYWOOD. SOME WOULD say it's nothing more than a propaganda tool. A town that oftentimes pumps out lies and fantasies about the daily lives of men and women living here and abroad. There was a time in the early 1970s when maverick writers, directors, and producers developed and created films such as Norma Rae, Three Days of the Condor, Silkwood, Coming Home, and The Candidate. Films that examined the struggle against an oppressive and corrupt government, an imperial presidency, and a corrupt and abusive social system. The majority of movies and television shows since then however have for the most part painted the "don't worry, be happy" rosy picture while hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and homes. Now we have the "us" versus "them" argument based on misinformation, misrepresentation, and the wholesale espousal of the Bush Administration's so-called "war on terrorism." Hollywood had painted the "us" versus "them" celluloid canvas before about communism and men and women of color - beginning with the Native American Indian as the penultimate enemy of the white man.

Over the past four weeks I have spent almost every morning on the picket line outside NBC studios in Burbank, California side-by-side with writers, members of the Writers Guild of America, in support of their strike. I asked "why would a national writers strike primarily based in Hollywood and New York be of any concern to wage earners, workers, laborers, labor unions and guilds in the U.S. and across the world?" Why is this strike, this struggle, so important?

A prior question must be asked: Are writers members of the working class? One writer on the picket line believes that writers don't "manufacture" or produce a material/solid product, so how can they be considered laborers? But the writers' product is a script or related written material, primarily sold to film and television studios, and are in-turn "produced" into film and television shows for viewing consumption. Studios make billions of dollars as a a result through TV advertising and from public consumption at the box office, in addition to massive and growing foreign market sales. There's no-contention here of the "use-value" of the product produced by a writer. Dan Wilcox, who is on the board of WGA West and is an alternate member of the WGA negotiating committee, always assumed that writers are a manufacture-based labor. Statistically, however, the economic figures as part of total U.S. GDP are calculated under the services sector. And entertainment has vastly become a greater portion of the service sector over the years, with increases both domestically and overseas.

In essence, the written material by the writer is a commodity and it has value. The written materials, scripts, etc. are objects of utility in a modern sense. Strictly from an economic point of view, everyone around the world watches movies and television for entertainment. We have seen this boom in the past twenty or so years from the birth of the home video market, to the DVD, and now on the internet. The writer's property is in his script. That is his labor. The writer's product is in the studios final film and television program. It is the studio executive and media conglomerates that appropriates the writers', actors', and directors' final product.

What is this strike about?

According to Larry Wilmore, member of the WGA West Negotiating Committee, it's about "the future of how we [writers] make a living. And that future right now is on the internet, or what we call new media." "They [major studios] propose to be allowed to use any portion of a program or a movie, including the entire program or movie" says Wilmore "as 'promotion' on the internet without paying a writer...they can show the entire thing as many times as they want without paying you. That provision alone is irresponsible." "We can't take that" says Wilmore. "It doesn't even make's unprecedented to say we can use an entire movie as promotion" Wilmore continued. Wilmore laughs and says "That's like saying the entire run of 'Seinfeld' was just promotion for General Electric, you know?"

The studios and media companies currently make millions of dollars in advertising from streaming the work of writers (and actors)* but the writers don't get any pay for the use of their work on the internet. In the process of creating films and TV shows, modern studios have become more sophisticated in the creation of "surplus value."

Wilmore plainly makes the argument "in terms of philosophy, if you agree not to get paid for something that is not proper. For someone to say 'We don't want to pay you at all' that's non-negotiable. You can't negotiate based on that."

In their efforts to turn public opinion against the WGA and the striking writers, the Studio executives, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) floated rumors that the average writer in Hollywood earns $200,000 or more. Most WGA members make less than $62,000/year (less than the average LAUSD teacher with ten years experience). A good number of writers are unemployed. Of those who do work, they make between $20,000 - $40,000/year.

The studios have claimed that they don't know what the revenue from the internet would be, and need three years to study it and come up with a business model for it. However, industry experts estimated revenues for internet media at $1 billion from video downloading in the next three years. Video streaming alone is estimated at $3 billion in the next two years. CEOs have reported to their stockholders that internet and streaming content is where the future is, but turn around and tell the writers and their guild that they don't know how much revenue will be generated.

Listen to the double-speak of some of the studio majors:
Ben Silverman, NBC Entertainment Chairman, said "content is going to be more and more important...and we are one of the best companies in the world at feeding those screens."

"Perhaps CSI will be on the network and it will also be on broadband. At some point instead of 27 million people watching it 20 million will watch it and 5 million will watch it on the internet. But we will get paid for it regardless...we will get paid no matter where you get it from" said Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS.

Sumner Redstone, Chairman of Viacom (Viacom filed suit against Google in March for $1 billion over unauthorized use of copyrighted material) said "Viacom will double its revenue this year from digital."

Disney announced at its earnings conference in May that "...on iTunes, around 23.7 million of our shows and 2 million of our movies have been sold."what streaming media on the internet would be worth and that they require three years to create a business model for the internet.

The increasing masses of capital heaped onto studio executives totaled approximately $95 billion for the major studios and networks last year alone.

During my interview with him this past Monday December 3rd on the picket line, Wilmore said that "right now it's very important for the writers to take a stand and to make sure that we have a fair deal...and that our material is not just being used for free. That is the biggest issue right now. It's a big issue for them and it's a big issue for us. And we're out here to get a fair deal." Wilmore sees this as a strike that other workers and unions can support and that society at large, the average citizen can identify with. "People loose sight of why unions were created in the first place and how important it is for people to organize. Whenever you have a fight like this you realize how big these companies actually get and how hard it is to harder it is for individuals to fight these companies. People can relate to that...people understand how hard it is to do that."

Wilmore is correct. Over 34 domestic and international unions and guilds support the WGA strike. Including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Plasterers & Cement Masons (Local 755), Plumbers & Pipefitters (Local 78), Service Employees International Union (plus Local 1877), and the Teamsters (plus Local 399).

In a statement issued by Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said the following:
"If we abandon our union brothers and sisters now, we abandon the very core principles of trade unionism...Without content these proud union members provide, the television and motion picture industry would come to a grinding halt. Hundreds of people play a role in the creation of a successful product in this industry. However, the genesis of any production comes directly from the talented minds of these writers."

Wilcox, whom I also interviewed Monday December 3rd, said "You probably know this but the workingmen in the unions across the country are supporting us. I think the big reason is that this is the first high-profile strike that really looks like we can take the initiative from the right wing and the unions have a shot at winning." "It's finally the union taking a strong stand," Wilcox continued "and trying to reverse a trend that began back in the seventies."

Wilcox says he has friends who's children no longer watch television but watching everything on the internet. He along with many like believes that the future of the media is on the internet and other types of streaming media.


What is a residual and why is it so important to writers (and actors)?

A residual is a payment made to the writer (or actor) for television reruns or a re-airing of a film or television show. Currently, nothing is paid to the writer for the streaming of a film or television show on the internet or through other "new media" (see Larry Wilmore interview above).

In 1960 the WGA struck over the “one and done� system. Writers (actors and directors) were paid once for their work and never paid again. Studios would then show films on network television reaping profits from these repeat showings. After a five month strike by the WGA (the longest strike rivaled only by the 1988 strike) the studios agreed to payment of residuals. on all films made from 1960 on. Residuals a major source of income for writers (and actors) and are calculated as a percentage of a film’s gross receipts from distribution in secondary markets such as television and home video

Wilmore described residuals as "the cheapest form of research and development a company can have, is to pay people and their residuals. To have this enormously gifted you know class of people who are actors and writers and 'what-not' working on their craft and all you gotta do is pay them for work they've already's a huge source of R&D for the company, so when someone is ready to 'break out' [and create a 'hit' TV show or film] it's worth it."

In addition, I believe residuals are even more important because they maintain a hold on the writer's property. It forces the buyer of the writer's work to pay for what would ultimately be pure profit for the studio from re-airing and re-sale on DVD, once the writer's work is sold.
Of the billions that Big Media makes annually, the WGA wants a tiny slice: 2.5% of revenues. I've heard many writers on the picket line complain that WGA should have asked for more. 2.5% sounds too reasonable. Especially because it was already anticipated that AMPTP would play hardball and not give up any of that money. Why start at such a low rate when they will try to force a lower percentage?

Others have shown disappointment that the union gave up on their demand for eight cents on every DVD sale as opposed to four cents. This was point number two in the original demands of the WGA and in good faith the union negotiators were willing to remove it in order to begin negotiating "new media" residuals when AMPTP lawyers came back and suspended negotiations with the guild. Although everyone believe that the internet and streaming media is the future, I believe that the rest of the world will not join the streaming technology of the future as quickly as the U.S. market. There are many countries that are still using VHS videotape and have yet to upgrade to DVD technology. And one look at the entertainment industry's exports in recent years, those numbers are growing (in spite of the Studios' complaints about piracy overseas).


This week the WGA and the AMPTP returned to the negotiating table. There is still no agreement. The union negotiators offered to accept a $150 million over three years settlement for now. The studios returned with $130 million which no one could figure out how they arrived at that number as a counter-offer.

The union wants to negotiate an offer that includes a percentage and it should stick to its guns. Perhaps the studios are afraid of opening their books to the union and its membership and actually coming clean on how much their total revenues are if they have to give a percentage of those revenues. Maybe everyone will know how much they are really making.


The WGA strike:

# Has focused the attention of all Americans who watch film and television on a labor issue that deals with the greed of the elite profiteers in the U.S.
# Brought together a multitude of labor unions in solidarity and in support of a basic right to fair wages, fair compensation, fair exchange for a workers' product and labor.
# The support of ALL international writers guilds and unions in every country they exist all over the world.
# Proves that labor has the ability through work-stoppage to shut down business and profits. All but a few television shows have shut down and are no longer shooting because there are no more scripts.
# Without labor, profits and capital accumulation ceases and the profit and capital classes are helpless.
# Since the writers' strike, estimates of financial losses for the studios and the local economy has been estimated in the millions of dollars. Today, the L.A. Times reported that the writers strike could cost $21.3 million a day.

For a complete list of all unions and guilds supporting the WGA strike go to:

*Members of the Screen Actors Guild face the identical issue and their contract expires on June 30th 2008. The outcome of the WGA negotiations will directly affect the SAG contract renewal.

[View the list]