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Writers Told, You Must Name Names:

Here's an e-mail that was just forwarded to me by someone I know; I have no reason to doubt its authenticity, though if there is any mistake, please let me know. Rule #9 appears to be quoted accurately.

November 9, 2007

Dear fellow WGAW members,

I'm ..., Chair of the newly-formed WGA West Strike Rules Compliance Committee ("SRCC") and a member of the WGA West's Board of Directors as well as an alternate member of the 2007 MBA Negotiating Committee.

The other members of the SRCC are: ....

The mission of the SRCC is to ensure that the Strike Rules are strictly enforced. The SRCC will primarily concentrate its efforts on unearthing and discouraging scab writing.

There is no more fundamental working rule than the prohibition against a WGA member performing struck work. Strike Rule #9 states: "You must inform the Guild of the name of any writer you have reason to believe is engaged in strike breaking activity or other scab writing." If you have suspicions about a particular writer or project, the best way to report them will be to call our hotline or click on the red icon on the WGA.org homepage and simply fill out the on-line form. We'll handle your call discreetly.

Our purpose is not to punish people; it is to head off scab work before it can undermine the strike.

The STRIKE TIP HOTLINE number is: ...

When you call, it will help if you flesh out your information as much as possible.

For general inquiries regarding strike rules please call: ...

Please know that the leadership of your Guild is just as eager as you to keep this strike short. Unfettered scab writing will only lengthen it. The simplest and most effective thing you can do to speed things up is to share information with the SRCC.

I've never been prouder of this union than out on this week's picket lines. I believe a good contract is within reach. We just have to hold together.

Thank you all very much.

Sincerely,

...

On behalf of the Strike Rules Compliance Committee

Note also that "Article X gives the Guild the authority to impose discipline for violations of the Strike Rules by Guild members. Discipline may include, but is not limited to, any or all of the following: expulsion or suspension from Guild membership, imposition of monetary fines, or censure. Discipline imposed is enforceable through the courts."

Note, of course, that union rules, like many blacklisting mechanisms, are the actions of private entities -- albeit ones whose actions are supported (or sometimes hindered) by various labor laws -- and not of the government acting as sovereign.

Gregory Conen (mail):
Of course, some labor laws allow unions to act as blatant monopolies, and enforce their monopoly position by government action.
11.9.2007 8:20pm
GMUSL '07 Alum (mail):
Gregory, I actually posted to say that very same thing, but you beat me to the punch. Moreover, we allow the unions to punish defectors (both through allowing expulsion from the union, which often dominates employment in a unionized industry and through informal social sanctions by other union members both on and off the job), whereas there is no such enforcement mechanism in the context of the already illegal context of private companies' collusion.
11.9.2007 8:35pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
So, the difference between this being done by a public entity and a private entity which has the ability to force all those within a certain field to join it is... what, exactly? I mean, there are 22 right to work states, but you don't tend to see much of the writer's guild working in most of them, excluding Texas and Florida.

I could care less on the matter, personally : I haven't bought an American-made movie in over a decade, and don't watch TV, so neither a doubled payment to the writers nor a sudden lack of such quality writing as we've seen in Saturday Night Live over the last decade is going to matter much.

Wait, the latter was what drove me to leave the TV in a different state.

I still find it ironic that stuff like this gets noted as a totally private action, given the sort of government control that goes in place for anyone trying to work on the TV scriptwriting.

That the union rules permanently ban anyone, including non-union workers, from ever joining the union later after breaking this strike (as would be common if that person worked in a RtW state today but might ever have to move to California) including acts not covered by the typical rules covering animation and new media subjects, makes it even more objectionable.
11.9.2007 8:41pm
alkali (mail):
Start your own studio in Alabama if you want. No one's stopping you.
11.9.2007 9:09pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I actually don't know who I support more in this dispute: the pus or the scabs.
11.9.2007 10:04pm
Houston Lawyer:
This from the group that is still pissed off about the blacklisting that took place back 50 years ago. Without exemptions from antitrust laws, union activity would be illegal. Of course, much union activity (although probably not this one) is already illegal, just not prosecuted.
11.10.2007 2:09am
Laura S.:

still find it ironic that stuff like this gets noted as a totally private action, given the sort of government control that goes in place for anyone trying to work on the TV scriptwriting.

Hold up there. All private contracts are ultimately backed by state action. This is the very reason that the state exists. The difference is whether we 'vote' or use a distributed decision making system ('the market').

Voting, for all its advantages, is a rather crude and hegemonic device. So yes, there is a difference between state action initiated via 'voting' and that which results from many discrete actions by individuals.

That said, unions deserve the same scrutiny we apply to any monopoly--which is to say adequate supervision, discouraging monopolization, discouraging price-fixing, etc.
11.10.2007 2:28am
Cornellian (mail):
So, the difference between this being done by a public entity and a private entity which has the ability to force all those within a certain field to join it is... what, exactly?

How, exactly does this union (a private entity) have "the ability to force all those within a certain field to join it?"
11.10.2007 2:42am
CDU (mail):
How, exactly does this union (a private entity) have "the ability to force all those within a certain field to join it?"


Their contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents all the major studios, and TV networks) requires the AMPTP to hire only WGA members to write for their productions. Unless you're George Lucas, it's almost impossible to make a living writing in TV or movies without being a WGA member.
11.10.2007 2:58am
BruceM (mail) (www):
There's nothing inherently evil about a requirement to "name names" despite its McCarthyist aura. The rules of professional conduct for lawyers in every state I know of, including the model ABA rules, require lawyers to "name names" of any lawyer they know has violated the rules, or else they've themselves violated the rules.

Having to "name names" based solely on the ideological grounds, personal beliefs, or group memberships of the "namee" is certainly wrong, whether the duty is imposed by the government or by a private party. But just requiring people (per the terms of a contract, no less) to report others is perfectly legitimate, even if conjures up images of McCarthy.
11.10.2007 6:52am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Of course you can simply resign from the Guild and go back to work and not only can't they fine you but you'll still be represented and have all the financial benefits and still be able to work after the strike (not counting marketing problems).

Even if you have to be represented by a union and pay the "core dues" (the ones that don't go straight to the Demon-Cat party) you don't have to be a member and you can spend 10 years suing the union for an accounting to determine what actually constitutes "representation expenses".
11.10.2007 8:13am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
It's lawful, Bruce, but that doesn't mean it's good. Americans by and large hate tattle-tales. And we really don't like the people teachers and others who encourage tattle-tales, who guilt or pressure kids into tattle-telling.
11.10.2007 9:10am
Randy R. (mail):
CDU: :"Unless you're George Lucas, it's almost impossible to make a living writing in TV or movies without being a WGA member."

Baloney. I do a lot of volunteer work for a local film festival. Almost all the films we show are written, directed and produced by independents. As Alkali notes, If you don't like the rules, then form your own studio, write your own movie, or start your own tv show. Others have.
11.10.2007 10:00am
JosephSlater (mail):
A number of the assumptions above about how unions and labor law work are incorrect. Notably, the law is clear that, whether you are in a right to work state or not, even if you are represented by a union, you don't have to actually be a union member. Unions can only impose discipline on union members -- folks who have voluntarily joined the union.

The confusion comes from the fact that if you are in a group of workers the majority of whom have chosen to be represented by a union, that union is your exclusive representative for bargaining. BUT that doesn't mean you have to JOIN the union, and thus be subject to its discipline. See, e.g., CWA v. Beck.

Beyond that, the union's actions here seem unremarkable. They are trying to avoid scab work that undermines their position in the strike. This is how labor-management relations work -- the two sides try to exert economic pressure on each other as a part of private negotiations. One would think libertarians would prefer this to, say, a system of mandatory arbitration or government-imposed settlements. I look forward, however, to critiques of management-side economic pressure that involve prying into the behavior of individual employees or similar forms of coercion.
11.10.2007 10:05am
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Which films are those? Have I heard of them?
11.10.2007 10:09am
Bottomfish (mail):
Why can't a striking writer just write a novel instead of a screenplay and submit it to a publisher? The union has no control over publishers.
11.10.2007 10:58am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Why can't a striking writer just write a novel

We're talking *screewriters* here.
11.10.2007 11:04am
Automatic Caution Door:
This is how labor-management relations work -- the two sides try to exert economic pressure on each other as a part of private negotiations. One would think libertarians would prefer this to, say, a system of mandatory arbitration or government-imposed settlements.

(Emp. added)

Except they're not private negotiations, and that's why libertarians don't like it. The employer is mandated by the government to "bargain in good faith" with the union. The bargaining itself might take place behind closed doors, but the context in which it takes place is far from some free-market ideal of private, voluntary exchange.

The union's "exert(ion of) economic pressure" takes place with a big, fat stick provided by federal labor law. Thus pretty much everything the union does while wielding that stick is ripe for questioning by libertarians.
11.10.2007 11:19am
jim:
So, question. CDU seems to say that these writers cannot work in their present positions (or a comparable position) without being in the union, and thus being subject to union discipline. Duncan seems to say that is not the case.

Which is it? If this union is a monopoly with government sanction, it seems like there is a big difference between the two.
11.10.2007 11:30am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
You'd think dissident joke writers would instantly defeat it all with a quip or two.
11.10.2007 12:01pm
Mr L (mail):
I look forward, however, to critiques of management-side economic pressure that involve prying into the behavior of individual employees or similar forms of coercion.

Oh, if only such actions could be punished! Perhaps in the form of a lawsuit or something.
11.10.2007 12:23pm
David Warner:
"Our purpose is not to punish people"

"Article X gives the Guild the authority to impose discipline for violations of the Strike Rules by Guild members. Discipline may include, but is not limited to, any or all of the following: expulsion or suspension from Guild membership, imposition of monetary fines, or censure. Discipline imposed is enforceable through the courts."

Hmmmm
11.10.2007 1:12pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):
My impression was that the threat of denying non-WGA members who write for members of the AMPTP during a strike future guild membership is in part a stick to wave at foreign screenwriters, especially those in the UK. While UK screenwriters can write for UK-based companies which are not themselves members of AMPTP without repercussion, a lot of those companies, like Working Title, are partly owned by or are partners with AMPTP studios in America. This makes UK screenwriters worried about what the WGA might consider scabbing.

More pointedly, there are rumors circulating of a TV producer on the West Coast who has been trying to hire UK screenwriters to write for his hour-long drama, an act which definitely lead to any UK screenwriter who accepts the offer being blacklisted by the WGA. So far, no takers.
11.10.2007 1:20pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Under the NRLA, it's quite legal to create a contract where all members of a shop must pay a basic level of dues to the local union. They are not necessarily subject to union rules and regulations -- the idea is to deal with the 'free rider' problem, since of course there's no change that someone unwilling to join a union could be worth more than the average union member -- but they do have to pay union dues and may be given fewer protections and in some cases strongly discriminated against in hiring procedures compared to union members.

The entertainment industry, though, is particularly buggered up, in unique and interesting ways. The first and foremost are the limitations on what a company can purchase. A scriptwriter can sell two and only two scripts to any WGA signatory (one to Paramount and one to another studio), after which the writer must either start paying the WGA, move out of the country, or only work for non-WGA signatories.

As you might guess from how many major shows and movies are being slowed down or put into reruns by this, there aren't many non-WGA signatories doing anything major.

There are ways to be a "financial core" member (97% of the normal dues, if I remember correctly), and thus be able to work for both WGA and non-WGA folk, but most WGA signatories have explicit and fairly complex requirements that force them to discriminate in favor of voting members of the WGA. With 50% of the WGA's voting membership unemployed at any one time... well, you've got a slightly better chance than a snowball in hell, but not much.

It's not impossible to get other work in a similar position without being fully in the union by the letter of the rules, but in practice, it's very close to a never.
11.10.2007 1:42pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Grr... that should have been "(one to Paramount and one to another studio for example)".
11.10.2007 1:44pm
Bottomfish (mail):
Duncan Frissell,

Why can't a striking screenwriter (not screewriter, although some of them are that anyway) write a novel? The skills aren't all that different. Dramatize, dramatize says Henry James.
11.10.2007 1:45pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
I'd say writing a good novel is a great deal different than writing a good script. Providing emotion and feel in a novel relies on the author and only the author; scriptwriting tends to focus on actions and plot and wording, while the actor and director fills the emotion and pacing.

Anyway, even a scriptwriter who began today on a decent series of short stories might not see the money come in for five or six months. A full novel, written fast and with a well-known name behind it, would still take the better part of a year. Some big-screen names might justify an advance, but most screenwriters just aren't well-known enough to get that sorta stuff.

There are some that can do it -- Neil Gaiman, for example -- but most script writers are going to just keep writing scripts to turn in after the strike ends.
11.10.2007 2:07pm
Bottomfish (mail):
In a typical popular novel, very little time is spent on mood-setting prose. The characters, their dialogue, and their actions do most of the work. I think it's actually easier for a screenwriter to become a novelist than vice versa because a screenwriter has to work within a more restrictive form.

Anyway, my point was that a screenwriter can work at home easily while most people in other lines of work are forced into idleness or into purely time-filling side jobs when they are not working.
11.10.2007 4:15pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Americans by and large hate tattle-tales.

We may hate "tattle-tales", but we admire "one person brave enough to take a stand against injustice". I suspect this is one of those "I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed" things.
11.10.2007 4:55pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
PatHMV you must be living in a different world than I am, because in my world Americans absolutely LOVE tattle-tells and tattle-telling. Or maybe it's just a difference in semantics. Maybe they don't like "tattle-tells" (i.e. other people who do it) but they all love to tattle-tell themselves. We have TV shows (America's Most Wanted) based solely on tattle-telling. The popularity of Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" is all about vicarious tattle-telling.

People love to rat out others, even for no benefit other than to have done the ratting. We're getting to the point where laws are being passed requiring mandatory "reporting" of "suspicious activity" of our neighbors. And most Americans will get a huge thrill out of doing so.

And as DonBoy points out, one person's tattle-tell is another person's brave hero.
11.10.2007 5:19pm
none (mail):
Someone above referred to "a big, fat stick provided by federal labor law." Ha! Employers violate the NLRA all the time exactly because there is no such stick. By the time a court finally enforces a Board order finding a violation, ten years down the road, guess what the employer has to do? Post a notice saying it violated the Act. That's it. If they fired someone, they have to rehire them with back pay, but of course, the employee has to mitigate, and they usually don't want to go back. Not that the current Board thinks anything violates the Act anyway.
11.10.2007 6:30pm
Automatic Caution Door:
Someone above referred to "a big, fat stick provided by federal labor law." Ha!

The "stick" is the fact that is guaranteed, by law, a new round of bargaining every time a contract is up.

That's a mighty powerful stick.
11.10.2007 7:11pm
Automatic Caution Door:
Ugh, let's try again.

The "stick" is the fact that a union is guaranteed, by law, a new round of bargaining every time a contract is up.

That's a mighty powerful stick.
11.10.2007 7:12pm
none (mail):
Continued bargaining is only required so long as the union represents a majority of the employees. And so what? The employer doesn't have to give up anything. Good faith bargaining means only meeting and listening. The employer does not legally have to agree to anything the union wants.
11.10.2007 8:00pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
I dunno if it's a matter of word choice, Mr. None, but last I checked, a union for any given place of employment must represent all of the employees that work there.

This is a moot point in most non-right-to-work states, since in order to work in many entirely unionized sectors you must pay the equivalent of union dues to simply keep your job past the first sixty days, but even open shops require the union to represent all employees rather than simply the ones that pay the union and follow the union's rules.
11.10.2007 8:34pm
Cornellian (mail):
Their contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents all the major studios, and TV networks) requires the AMPTP to hire only WGA members to write for their productions. Unless you're George Lucas, it's almost impossible to make a living writing in TV or movies without being a WGA member.

In other words, one private organization signed an exclusive supply contract with another private organization. Unless they forced the AoMPTP to sign the contract at gun point, I'm still not seeing the forcing.
11.10.2007 10:05pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Okay. Folks on a legal blog whining about the power of unions?

The day screenwriters, or any other union or guild, can get someone thrown in jail for "unauthorized practice of..." is the day a lawyer can talk about the unfairness of unions.
11.11.2007 12:27am
JosephSlater (mail):
Automatic Caution Door:

"None" has made the point that the "stick" isn't big. "Bargaining in good faith" does not mean "have to come to an agreement" -- that's well-established law. And what's the penalty for not "bargaining in good faith"? Down the road, years maybe, an order to . . . bargain in good faith. Which again doesn't mean any obligation to agree to anything.

My use of private was to distinguish from other labor law systems that involve government agencies or appointed arbitrators actually setting the terms of a labor agreement -- see, e.g., a number of state public sector labor laws.

More broadly, one might distinguish private sector labor relations, in which two private parties actually negotiate, from the proliferation of laws and regulations that set certain employment terms or minimums. We've seen a rise in federal and state laws in the past couple of decades; I strongly believe this is linked to the decline of unions in the private sector. The clear majority of our population (and those of similar countries) have long perceived that there are power imbalances that should be corrected in the workplace. If one assumes that the two ways to do this are (i) union-management negotiations, and (ii) increasing regulation through laws setting terms, libertarians should prefer traditional labor relations.

Finally, as to the "naming names," I still fail to see the problem. Again, unions and employers are engaged in an economic struggle in a strike or lockout situation; employers are allowed to do things to pressure employees to break the strike like, say, threaten to permanently replace them and actually permanently replace them. And that happens all the time. Unions are allowed to, um, fine those members of the bargaining unit that decided to join the union.

When a majority of workers in a bargaining unit has chosen to be in a union, and then a majority has chosen to go on strike, they have an entirely legitimate interest in preventing strikers from doing work. In most cases, workers put up a picket line and try to dissuade co-workers from crossing -- and yes, unions can fine workers who are actual union members. What EV describes is just the equivalent of that.
11.11.2007 10:19am
Automatic Caution Door:
JosephSlater,

Ultimately, the point isn't the stick's size per se, but the fact that it exists at all. Your post asked why libertarians don't prefer this current system to one of mandated arbitration, etc. And while maybe they DO "prefer" it between the two, the point is that what they'd truly prefer is no government interference at all.

I was simply noting that it was an incomplete proposition: "Why are libertarians criticizing this thing X? It's so much better than this thing Y!" In libertarians' eyes, X and Y are both flawed from the outset. They want choice Z.

Still, regarding the stick's size, I disagree. A law mandating with whom a company must hold contract talks is pretty significant, to my mind. For starters, it means the end of a contract isn't actually, ya know, the end of a contract. An employer can't just stop doing dealing with those employees upon its conclusion. And so at that point, when employees "exert economic pressure" on the employer, they're doing it in a market environment distorted BY THE LAW. The employer is legally bound to continue associating with those who can exert that pressure on him.

So I'd say that, yes -- that makes for a pretty big stick. And it's easy to see why libertarians wouldn't be fond of it.
11.11.2007 3:32pm
Hoosier:
www.roadkilltshirts.com/images/products/SNITCHES-SMALL_1.jpg
11.11.2007 10:01pm
Randy R. (mail):
Union bashing is always fashionable with conservatives (with the notable exception of George Will, who, at least in the past, has supported the notion of unions). Few people recall that the reason unions were formed in the first place was the shoddy treatment of workers, whatever their field.

True, many unions have since abused their positions of power, made unsustainable demands and some are corrupt. Those are problems that should be addressed.

But perhaps if management treated employees with just a fraction of the care they treat their upper level managers, then there wouldn't be a need for unions at all. It never fails to surprise me how such a simple concept escapes the reasoning of supposedly smart MBAs.
11.12.2007 12:26am
Gary McGath (www):
There's an assumption in a number of comments that if the action demanded by the letter isn't coercive and doesn't make use of government power, it's perfectly fine. This comes from a mistaken form of libertarianism that holds non-initiation of force as the _only_ moral principle.

Requiring writers, even if only by moral intimidation, to keep tabs on every competitor (which is what "scab" means minus the sneer) creates an "us vs. them" mindset, in which competitors of the union are considered enemies. If you know that your colleague, who is a union member, is expected to tell the union about the jobs that you get, for the purpose of "heading off" your employment, you can't be friends with a union member.
11.12.2007 9:35am
JosephSlater (mail):
A.C.D.:

We could probably debate this endlessly. I could ask, why is a union -- which is a group of individuals that the law allows to combine for certain economic purposes -- different than a corporation -- which is a group of individuals that the law allows to combine for a certain economic purpose. After all, employees, whether individual or collectively, still have to negotiate with the corporation, right? I could again question how big a "stick" it is to be required to "bargain in good faith" given that doesn't mean "come to an agreement," or even "agree to any particular terms." I could point out different versions of "rights" -- including any number of current statements of fundamental human rights that include the right to form unions (with basic minimum legal rights as institutions).

But I wouldn't expect to convince you, and you shouldn't expect to convince me. For whatever reason, the position of some libertarians is that unions per se are fundamentally illegitimate. I'll only say that, in terms of what the laws are and are likely to be in the U.S. and every other industrialized democracy, you've lost that debate. Thus, I would respectfully suggest that you might consider which options, among the realistic ones for regulating the workplace, you prefer. Or not, it's up to you.

Gary:

The fundamental conflict in a labor dispute is between the union and management. Dissenting workers are always allowed to cross picket lines. In the economic battle that is a strike or lockout, management can threaten workers who don't cross picket lines with, among other things, being permanently replaced (often effectively the same thing as being fired). Unions -- who, remember, don't strike unless and until a majority of their members vote to do so -- can, um, let's see, fine members of the bargaining unit who decided to actually join the union (and remember, they don't have to), and apply moral suasion. But on a libertarian view (or otherwise), do scabs have the right to be "friends" with the majority of their colleagues, when the scab is undermining the strike the majority voted for?
11.12.2007 10:11am
AnonLawStudent:
JosephSlater,

A union is very easily distinguishable from a corporation. The state provides no power, and no stick, to a corporation other than affirming its status as a legal entity which is able to enter contracts, pay taxes, and be held criminally or civilly liable. Furthermore, the regulations on a corporate entity vary by state. The powers granted to a union by federal labor law extend far beyond mere recognition as a legal entity.

Your second paragraph shows a lack of knowledge, both of the law and the facts. In non right-to-work states, e.g. California, dissenting workers are effectively forbidden from crossing a picket line. The union demands a sole source contract for labor, and requires every writer who produces more than [2?] screenplays to join the union, or forever be barred from joining. Said union then reserves the right to "discipline" those who cross the picket line; with discipline extending well beyond not being "friends." In any other business context, demands by a market-dominator or market-mover for sole source contracts would be quickly struck down, pragmatically to prevent market failure, and legally as an antitrust violation. Not so the union.

As to your assertion re: unions being a settled question, the issue is currently settled only because of century-old federal dictat. Try organizing in the South. Ever wonder why Mobile, Alabama is a major center for commercial aircraft repair, and auto manufacturers are abandoning the rust belt for the Bible belt?
11.12.2007 10:56am
JosephSlater (mail):
AnnonLawStudent:

I both practiced and teach labor law, and I am well-acquainted with the law in this area. The only difference between a "right to work" state and a "non right to work" state is that in the latter, unions and employers may not legally agree to a union security clause in which members of a union bargaining unit are obligated to pay at least a portion of union dues.

There is no difference, for the purposes of the point this thread is discussing, between right to work and non right to work states. Before being so snippy, make sure you know what you are talking about.

I don't see much point in responding to the rest of your assertions, given that you choose to refer to "rights that every industrialized country has long granted" as "century old federal dictat." You don't like unions? Fine, don't join one. The point of this thread, however, seemed to be that this particular union was doing something peculiarly inappropriate or unethical. That's not true, unless one views all union activity as essentially illegitimate. That appears to be your view, and I won't try to talk you out of it, but don't imagine you're convincing anybody on the other side either.
11.12.2007 12:23pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
No one in his right mind would consider a career in the theater without joining Actors Equity. Abuses are simply too common to want to avoid the minimal protections afforded by AEA. Members are encouraged to report violations by management and other members alike. There's little power in the collective bargaining position unless some semblance of unity is maintained. That said, actors generally avoid "snitching" unless the violations are egregious. Actors are friends with other actors--rarely does the "snitching" agreement interfere with this. But whether you join a union, a country club, a health club or some other membership organization, it's incumbent upon the membership to preserve the standards of the organization by ostracizing those who refuse to play by the rules of that organization.

Because the work of an artist is generally more difficult to quantify than that of a truck driver or factory worker, because the line between dilettante and professional is harder to draw, and because the general public (in America, at any rate) has little respect or appreciation for what artists actually do or how they do it, performers' and artists' unions are particularly important to those who pursue professions in the arts. Performing arts unions encourage members to treat their work as a profession and to behave professionally, which can be a boon for performers and those who hire them alike. Naturally there are exceptions, as any one who deals with a musicians' local can tell you--union membership doesn't always guarantee quality or professionalism. But the goal of most performers' unions is to define the work as clearly as is possible, given the somewhat "indefinable" nature of artistic endeavor, thereby protecting both membership and management from dilettantism (in the pejorative sense) and abuses.

The relationship between performers' unions and the producers of films, television and theater is a symbiotic and self-imposed one. There are literally thousands on non-union theaters in this country, all of whom are free to take advantage of the market for entertainment without any union involvement whatsoever. But the stakes are quite small. Once you reach the level of money generated by the film and television industry, its only natural that artists are going to demand a fair share of the enormous profits involved.
11.12.2007 12:24pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Along the lines of what Grover G. said in the last sentence of his very good comment, if we're going to go beyond the specific point EV made in his original post, instead of discussing whether Unions Are Fundamentally Legitimate Organizations or not, it might be interesting to discuss the actual issues in dispute in the strike.
11.12.2007 1:26pm
AnonLawStudent:
Joseph Slater,

My appologies for misconstruing Taft-Hartley. I would, however, suggest that you temper your own snippiness. While your background certainly qualifies you to meaningfully contribute to the discussion, a few years practicing as an "associate" in 3 to 5 man shops, followed by teaching at a 3rd tier law school, hardly qualifies one to assert ipse dixit.

As far as the point of this thread, the conduct of the WGA would indeed be viewed as "peculiarly inappropriate or unethical" in large parts of the country. Besides a general political opposition, it's conduct like the subject of this post that leaves such a bad taste, and contributes to hostility toward unions. Indeed, many states, either by law or by popular custom, would likely have even more stringent restrictions on union "persuausion" if not for that "century old federal dictat."
11.12.2007 2:42pm
JosephSlater (mail):
AnonLawStudent:

You accused me of not knowing the law, and you misstated the law. By the standards of this or other blogs, I think I was fairly restrained in correcting you.

While I probably shouldn't respond to ad hominem attacks by annoynmous posters, for the record I practiced labor and employment law for over a decade, and for the record, the school at which I teach is in the second tier, not the third. In any case, my initial post wasn't an appeal to my authority because of who I am -- I simply correctly stated the law. You then told me I didn't know the law, and you were wrong.

As to the merits of this case, I disagree as to what would be viewed as peculiarly inappropriate or unethical, but I doubt we'll convince each other.
11.12.2007 3:15pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"As far as the point of this thread, the conduct of the WGA would indeed be viewed as 'peculiarly inappropriate or unethical' in large parts of the country. Besides a general political opposition, it's conduct like the subject of this post that leaves such a bad taste, and contributes to hostility toward unions."

No one gives a rat's behind about screenwriters or actors until they go on strike. Then suddenly their behavior is "inappropriate." Really, it's all in how the media chooses to portray the conflict. There's nothing remotely inappropriate about writers wanting a cut of internet profits, especially when EVERY single media company in this country is gearing up to switch over to downloadable content, from music to movies to audiobooks. And there's nothing inappropriate about their behavior. Honestly, I don't think you have a very good sense of this. About a decade or more ago, the AFTRA/SAG strike played out with very little public comment or concern, even though the strike had a devastating effect on the unions. If you need an example of how little power the performance unions really have, you could start here. Employment of AFTRA/SAG members took a huge hit as producers turned to Canada and other non-union venues, including what is a now a large non-union voice-over and commercial talent pool in the US. This switch has been facilitated by broadband internet and cheap computer-based recording equipment. Who needs to hire a studio when some guy can record your ten-second copy in his bathroom and email it you? Why pay big fees and residuals when there are thousands of wannabees out there with computers and email?

I'm not interested in defending unions in general, though I'm sure every member of every profession could make a case for injustices in his or her field. But of all the unions to pick on, the WGA arguably has the least significant impact on your day-to-day life of any union in this country.
11.12.2007 3:21pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
...unless, of course, you're completely addicted to television, in which case you have my condolences.
11.12.2007 3:24pm
AnonLawStudent:
Grover,

I wasn't referring just to the conduct of this particular union, just that this type of conduct [broadly] results in negative attitudes generally. I do think you are correct that (i) nobody cares about these folks until they strike, and (ii) the result has been a shift to non-union areas.

Taking a different view, I don't fully understand why the studios ever agreed to give writers a cut of the take. In the technical fields, scientists and engineers are usually required to assign to their employer any intellectual property that they produce. The employer provides the resources and pays for their time in producing the property. I don't understand the rationale for continuing to pay for it.
11.12.2007 3:33pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
I can't really speak for the sciences, except to posit that assignment of intellectual property is a tradeoff for some form of continuing employment and security in one's field.

That is how the old studio system worked, in essence. You got paid, and paid pretty well, just for showing up every day, hitting your mark and saying your lines. As movies became more profitable and the public began responding to certain star performers, those performers gradually broke the studio system and began demanding consideration as individuals. When the studio system broke down, actors were no longer assured of long-term employment, so you had to bargain for as much money as you could while your time was ripe.

What really changed everything, though, was television. Movies that were history once they disappeared from the theaters could now earn money again. Hit TV shows were shown again and again and again in reruns. The shelf life of any given performer's contribution expanded from weeks or months to years or even decades. And lessons were learned in the process. The former stars of Gilligan's Island, for instance, receive *nothing* today, despite the show's iconic status and cult appeal--which is sad when you consider that the quirky genius of the performers is the only thing that makes it worth watching at all.

For a voice-over artist, residuals are important because someone can make a thirty-second commercial and use it over and over again for years on end. And remember that residuals help keep up-front demands lower, since some of the risk of profit or loss is shared.
11.12.2007 4:08pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
The point is, of course, that recordable media means you, as a performer or writer, work less because your work can be reproduced at will. Therefore you need to charge more money if you're going to survive between gigs. Musicians took this hit early on as records began to replace live studio bands in the 1940's, resulting in two AFM recording bans within the decade. Thereafter musicians grew much more savvy about royalties.

There is a huge amount of downward pressure in the entertainment industry to produce more content at lower cost with fewer people. Writers and performers who consider themselves professionals are just trying to adapt to these trends and continue to work.
11.12.2007 4:28pm
Cornellian (mail):
The union demands a sole source contract for labor, and requires every writer who produces more than [2?] screenplays to join the union, or forever be barred from joining. . . In any other business context, demands by a market-dominator or market-mover for sole source contracts would be quickly struck down, pragmatically to prevent market failure, and legally as an antitrust violation. Not so the union.

If it were a business seeking a sole supplier contract, rather than a union, I suspect plenty of people around here would be vigorously defending its right to seek and agree to such contracts. Freedom of contract tends to get viewed in a different light where unions are involved.
11.12.2007 5:51pm
Smokey:
Grover Gardner:
I can't really speak for the sciences...
Couldn't agree more. I also have a hard time understanding why
a screenwriters' strike is a problem. With 300 million+ people in this country, it seems likely that more than a few of them are plenty talented enough to write for TV. Nothing breaks a strike quicker than picketers watching other people walking past them to take their jobs.
11.12.2007 6:34pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"I also have a hard time understanding why a screenwriters' strike is a problem."

It's not, except for the industry itself. Most of us will survive without a few episodes of Conan O'Brien. But the slowdown means huge revenue losses for the parties involved. It's pretty much and internal struggle. It's unlikely that anyone wants to break the WGA, but I could be wrong. Most people in Hollywood have, at some point, done a little bit of everything--writing, producing, acting, etc.--so it's not the black-and-white adversarial relationship that one might imagine.

"With 300 million+ people in this country, it seems likely that more than a few of them are plenty talented enough to write for TV."

You'd think so, but it's really not in Hollywood's interest to start from scratch in this area. Top-notch screenwriting is both a talent and an acquired skill, and it takes no small amount of experience to churn out decent screenplays and rewrites in the context of a tight shooting schedule. The one thing that costs more money than *anything* else in Hollywood is TIME, and people will go to great lengths to save it. Particularly valuable are series writers, who develop the characters in believable ways and throw in twists and turns as the episodes progress. You really don't want to jettison those people.
11.12.2007 7:49pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"Nothing breaks a strike quicker than picketers watching other people walking past them to take their jobs."

I'm sure. At any rate, this one will likely be resolved soon, and we can go back to more accurately portraying Hollywood producers as a bunch of leftist commie bastards who control the media and grind out anti-American propaganda. But I'm sure they'll enjoy their status as libertarian heroes while they can.
11.12.2007 8:24pm
JosephSlater (mail):
At any rate, this one will likely be resolved soon, and we can go back to more accurately portraying Hollywood producers as a bunch of leftist commie bastards who control the media and grind out anti-American propaganda. But I'm sure they'll enjoy their status as libertarian heroes while they can.

Grover Gardner wins the thread.
11.13.2007 9:18am