A Brief History of Strike Gains

Writer Richard Maxwell sent us this essay, a bit of history demonstrating that not only are we all in this together, we've always been in it together. -JA

As a member of the Guild, I’ve often heard two pieces of conventional wisdom:

1) The WGA is the tip of the spear. When there are important issues being negotiated, we end up having to go on strike first so the other guilds and unions don’t have to.
2) Nothing has ever been won in this town without a strike or threat of a strike.

The first statement, like most conventional wisdom, is only partially right.

Let’s take residuals, which, in one incarnation or another, have been at the center of every strike since the 50s. The right to get paid for the reuse of material was actually first won by the AFRA, the American Federation of Radio Artists, in 1941. That’s the group now called AFTRA. Then as now the situation involved new technologies. Prior to 1941, radio performers did the same show twice each night – once on New York time, then again for the West Coast. When new recording technology became available, management was able to record and rebroadcast the show. Performers demanded and got compensation.

The American Federation of Musicians won the first residuals paid for the reuse of films on television in 1951. Having just gone through a long and costly ASCAP strike, management wisely didn’t want to risk another musician’s strike and settled.

In 1952, it was SAG’s turn to step up. Under the leadership of Walter Pidgeon, the Screen Actors Guild called their first-ever strike against Monogram Pictures to get residuals for films shown on television. In 1953, the WGA struck and received residuals as well. But the amount agreed upon was very small.

It was dual strikes by the WGA and SAG in 1960 – separate but coordinated – that built the Hollywood in which we have all been working. The WGA stayed out for 22 weeks. It won substantial residuals for the reuse of a film on television, establishing the principle that when an artist’s creative content is reused in a different medium it requires new compensation. (Sound familiar?) By showing tremendous solidarity, staying behind the negotiating committee and staying strong on the picket lines, the Guild also won the current health and pension plans, which no one at the time thought was possible.

During the strikes of the 1980s, the WGA was the first creative union to see the potential of home video. Ironically, that worked against us. A-list players like Lucas and Spielberg started using “as defined by the Writer’s Guild” language in their contracts concerning home video sales, and the influence of the Guild agreements mushroomed. When management unilaterally (and possibly illegally – we’ll never know because we withdrew our legal challenges as part of 1988 settlement) decided to redefine what “profit” meant and got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, the total amount owed by the studios to talent was truly enormous. For the good of the industry, the WGA backed down. That is how the current DVD formula came to be. We helped management out of a difficult bind, but you’ll notice they never returned the favor.

So is the WGA always the tip of the spear? Sometimes it has been. Sometimes the lead has been taken by SAG. Someday it might be the DGA’s turn. But whichever union takes the lead on an issue, we all benefit because we are all in this together.

And that second piece of conventional wisdom? That nothing has ever been won in this town without a strike? Well, that is TOTALLY true. You can take that to the bank.

-Richard Maxwell

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