Throughout my nearly forty years in (and out of) the TV and motion picture business, I have regularly heard writers complain about their labor union, the WGA. I, too, have complained at various times. I’ve complained about the health insurance, the issues argued at contract renewal time, the clumsy way that the union sometimes deals with members, the embarrassing magazine, Written By, that we all throw away without reading.
I’m also a member of the Directors Guild. As a member of both unions, I can tell you that DGA membership feels like belonging to The Jonathan Club. WGA membership feels like belonging to the YMCA. The DGA has a magnificent headquarters on Sunset Boulevard with lovely screening rooms, a beautiful lobby for receptions and events, and a crack staff upstairs. DGA health insurance is the Rolls Royce of the industry. I’ve never even been to WGA headquarters. It’s too far away from where I live, and few Hollywood luminaries show up there to screen their movies. The WGA events I have attended, infrequently over the years, always felt like amateur night. DGA and SAG are made up of the beautiful people of Hollywood. Both unions are powerful because they can shut the town down tomorrow. The WGA is the red-headed step-child.
The complaint I have heard most often from other writers about the WGA is that our strikes accomplish nothing. We end up worse off than we were before we went on strike. Our feckless union leaders do a poor job of negotiating with the giant media conglomerates that own the town. I’ve also heard writers complain that the arbitration process is unfair. The health insurance isn’t what it ought to be. The WGA doesn’t do a good enough job of making our case to the town.
Every writers room I have ever worked in has rung with hollow threats about “going financial core.” Most writers don’t even know what that phrase means, but somehow “financial core” suggests that a writer could still belong to WGA and enjoy all the benefits of membership but not have to go out of strike.
“Who are these writers who want to strike, anyway?” I hear working writers ask in rhetorical dismay. “It’s the loser writers who can’t find work! They’re to blame!” “It’s the retired writers who are crazy old socialists!” “It’s fools and dreamers.”
Most of the complaints that I hear about the WGA come from writers who, like myself, have barely lifted a finger to help the WGA. I’ve never served on a WGA committee. I’ve never run for the board. I have never gotten involved with the union for two reasons: One, I live in Pasadena. The WGA headquarters is a million miles away at the Farmer’s Market. It would take me forever to drive there and drive back in terrible traffic. Two, I have no patience for committees. I get in a bad mood very quickly when I feel my time is being wasted. I do not have the temperament to sit in a room for hours while other people drone on and on.
But here’s the thing: Without the WGA, who am I?
If there were no WGA, I would not have enjoyed reliable health insurance over the past four decades. I try not to forget that WGA members before me went on strike and lost huge amounts of money in order to win health insurance for me. I try not to forget that my health insurance has saved me tens of thousands of dollars.
If not for the WGA, I wouldn’t be paid residuals. I try not to forget that WGA members before me went out on long strikes to win my right to residuals. Without those writers of the past, and without the union of today, I would be paid nothing when a series episode with my name on it is rerun on TV. I still get checks for MASH. Writers in the 1950’s and 60’s went out on strike and risked their homes and their futures to get me those residual checks. I am grateful to them.
If not for the WGA, there would be no minimum pay scales for work in movies and TV. I currently work for guild minimum in my pay class. It’s a generous number, and a fee that I am pleased to accept at my age. Writers before me, and I, went out on long strikes to win those minimums. It was worth it, and I am grateful to my fellow members for their sacrifice and courage.
When you make it in this business, it’s very easy to start believing that you did it all yourself. Some writers have achieved enormous success, and that success is due largely to their own talent and effort. I applaud my highly successful colleagues. I understand the frustration that some of them feel when the guild goes out on strike and their income temporarily stops. At the same time, when I look back at my own career, I have also been pretty successful. I have never won any awards, and I won’t be in anyone’s hall of fame, but I have had a pretty good run. I’ve been more successful than I ever dreamed. I’m more grateful than I can ever say to be working again. I would hate to have to go out on strike right now, and I’m very grateful that the WGA was able to negotiate a new MBA.
After nearly forty years, I feel strongly that without my union, I’m nobody. I would be alone against a cartel of gigantic multinational corporations who couldn’t care less whether I live or die. Those corporations don’t value my talent or my effort. Those corporations would be delighted to replace me tomorrow with someone who would work for less money and demand no benefits. Those corporations know that they could easily find people who would work for less money and no benefits. The only reason I have any rights at all as a writer, the only reason there are any rules of fairness in my workplace, any minimum compensation, any protection for my intellectual rights or my health, is because of my union.
The WGA has many flaws and shortcomings. But without the WGA, I’m nobody. I’m probably not even working in Hollywood.
We stand together or we fall apart. I stand with all the writers who came before me, those who were blacklisted and those who went out on strike to win the rights and benefits that I enjoy. I will never go financial core. I will never turn on my brethren. And if I can’t lend a hand to make things better for writers, then I’ll shut the fuck up.