Sticking with the Union

By Rob Patterson

I’ve never been more proud to be a writer than during the recently concluded months-long WGA writer’s strike, even if it interfered with my entertainment. After all, we’re usually solitary types, many of us laboring alone, a lot of us independent misfits. Who knew that the grand old spirit of American union solidarity would be revived by a bunch of writers?

The issue at the center of the strike may seem minor to some — ensuring that writers get their fair share of the income generated by TV shows and films streamed on the Internet — and the timing of it could be perceived as premature when new media is so new that it isn’t yet generating significant income in this realm. But in the end that’s also what’s been most impressive about the way the WGA has dug in its heels and held out for the deal its members deserve with an eye not just on now but the future.

Anyone who knows the history of Hollywood knows that writers have largely been the low men and women on the creative totem pole, often treated as replaceable and disposable cogs in the visual entertainment making machine. But the strike has also proven how central writers are to the business of film and television.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the return even before the strike’s end of two of television’s sharpest programs: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It was very frustrating to enter the presidential primary season without those shows to poke at, skewer, lampoon and highlight the obvious silliness, hypocrisy and downright stupidity of the process and many of the current crop of candidates.

Yet with all the natural grist for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s mills, on their first nights back and in the shows that followed, it was obvious that something essential was sadly missing — “the guys with beer bongs who play guitar hero all day?” as Colbert quipped. (Ironically, it’s a stereotype probably even reinforced by the writer’s room gang on 30 Rock, one of the most smartly and wittily envisioned and written shows on network TV.)

Yep, even the sharpest blades in television were dulled without their support teams. To his credit, Bill Maher largely eschewed his monologue and skipped New Rules on Real Time but triumphed over the loss by getting out to talk with real people for quite revelatory and often funny encounters. And his addition of special correspondents to cover the election — especially “Savage Love” sex columnist Dan Savage, whose encounters as a gay man with South Carolina churchgoers revealed an interesting duality in the friendly yet still condemnatory ways of Christian fundamentalists.

But the point was still crystal clear: without writers, the business of entertainment becomes far less entertaining. Sure, the WGA writers are among the highest-paid folks in my trade. But compared with the overpaid executives of the entertainment conglomerates who make their huge salaries whether they succeed or fail, they’re still worker bees that don’t get the money they deserve for the honey they produce.

Kudos to David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company for being one of the first to come to terms with the striking writers, proving that the monoliths of today’s giant media companies aren’t quite as overriding as they may seem. And a pat on the back is also due to the many actors who respected the strike and didn’t cross the picket lines (it should be noted that they also have their own contract talks coming up soon as well).

But most impressive of all was the writers — whose job usually involves sitting in comfy chairs — out there on the picket lines, taking a stand for their future and that of those who will follow them. When they derailed the Golden Globes broadcast, it became clear that the power of collective action still had some traction in America.

Does the WGA strike indicate that perhaps there might be a sea change in our nation, and that the workers who truly create the products are at least as worthy of attention and admiration as the corporate fat cats who all too often are viewed as modern American avatars rather than the ruthless agents of capitalist greed that too many of them are in fact? It’s probably too early to tell, but I’d like to think that even if the economic messages of John Edwards aren’t gaining him the electoral traction they might and probably should, maybe the new Gilded Age is fading.

And wouldn’t it be sweet if it were writers who were among the first to storm the barricades of an out-of-whack corporate system that needs to change? Even if not, the fact that this strike hit much of the nation where it lives — sitting in front of their TVs in the living room — proves that the power of unions is still alive in our nation today.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2008

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