Why I Walk...

This was submitted by WGA member Mark Kunerth.

Invariably, while walking the picket line, conversations to turn to one of three things: dissecting the issues we are fighting for, speculating as to the status of the negotiations, or determining how many miles we’ve walked during a particular picketing shift. Perhaps it’s grown to urban legend proportions, but recent reports put the latter at 29 miles per shift. Oddly, in thirteen weeks, I’ve lost exactly zero pounds.

We all have our own reasons for marching in circles for hours on end. It may be the hope of achieving fair compensation for new media or the desire to revamp the dreaded DVD formula or it could simply be to show solidarity and resolve.

However, the reality that often gets lost in the mix is how the outcome of these negotiations – the fair compensation for all of our work – will affect contributions to our pensions and health fund. Any concessions or rollbacks, regardless of how the companies may try to decorate them, will directly and significantly affect the stability and viability of two funds we largely take for granted.

I know I certainly used to take them for granted. That was until six years ago when my wife was stricken with a life-threatening illness. It was a time filled with grief, confusion and uncertainty, yet the Guild was there. That is why I walk the strike line. To support a union that supported my family during a very dark time. During that time, a faceless organization became a collection of caring, compassionate friends. For that, I will always be grateful.

When my wife was just over seven months pregnant, I found her on the floor in our home office convulsing in a violent grand mal seizure. Instinct took over, paramedics were called, and an ambulance rushed my wife to the nearest hospital. There, while awaiting treatment, she suffered two more seizures, underwent a CAT scan and spent the next twenty-four hours drifting in and out of consciousness as doctors struggled to come up with a diagnosis.

Once stabilized, we were told my wife’s CAT scan was negative, and that her seizures were the result of adult-onset epilepsy; an odd diagnosis and punch to the gut, but a relief that the previous days’ drama was nothing more serious. Sent home with anti-seizure medication and an otherwise clean bill of health, my wife and I spent that day trying to wrap our heads around this diagnosis. That night, however, she had another seizure in her sleep. Again paramedics were called and back we went to the hospital.

Doctors performed another CAT scan. Afterward, they pulled me aside and said, “We found a mass. Your wife has a brain tumor.” This was impossible. The scan two days earlier showed nothing. The doctor checked my wife’s patient file. No record of a previous CAT scan. The cynic in me said, “Of course.”

Over the next thirty-six hours, my wife was held in intensive care where she suffered five more seizures, each more violent than the last. Finally stabilized with heavy doses of anti-seizure medication, she was moved to a private room in the High Risk Pregnancy ward where we would remain for the next six weeks, allowing our baby to grow as close to term as possible. The plan was to wait for our baby to be born; then schedule my wife for brain surgery. The entire time, she was exhaustively monitored by state-of-the-art equipment, impressive machines and mind-boggling technology that a writer can’t possibly begin to understand.

We spent time between blood draws and neurological tests learning all we could about brain tumors. We researched doctors, and tried, with great difficulty, to adjust to our new reality. Less than a week into our ordeal, the phone in our tiny hospital room rang. It was a representative from the Writers Guild of America. Word had gotten out about our little story, and the Guild wanted to make sure that we were receiving everything we needed, and to ask if there was anything they could do to help.
We didn’t know what we needed, just that our plate was suddenly and ridiculously full. There was even an IRS audit in the middle of this. Seriously.

We were reassured that the Guild was a phone call away, ready to provide anything: doctor referrals, recommendations, assistance with paperwork and the peace of mind that our medical insurance – still one of the best in the country – would cover everything. We were instructed to make our medical decisions based on need and what we deemed best for us, and the Guild and its insurance would do the rest.

A month and a half later, our little girl was born – three weeks early and with under-developed lungs. She spent the first several days of her life in the neonatal unit. (Because we still hadn’t had enough drama.)

With the help of referrals, we found the best brain surgeon in the country, if not the world. Dr. Keith Black, who heads up the Maxine Dunitz Neurological Clinic at Cedars Sinai Hospital, has dedicated his life to treating brain tumors and working for a cure. He agreed to perform my wife’s surgery, and a week later, she was transported to Cedars Sinai Medical Center where she underwent four-hour brain surgery to remove a racquetball-sized tumor from her left, frontal lobe. Three days later, she was home. The WGA called again to inquire about the health of my wife and daughter. In the course of eight weeks, we had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

All of it was covered by our insurance.

A week after brain surgery, we met with Dr. Black for her biopsy results. Our research had led us to a morbid hope. “We need the tumor to be either grade one or grade two.” Those, our research had told us, were the types of tumors that were eminently treatable or even curable.

Our doctor sat us down and said, “Surgery went incredibly well.” Hope.
He went on, “Unfortunately your tumor was a glioblastoma multiforme – grade four.” The words we didn’t understand turned out to mean, ‘Incurable.’ Complete devastation.

We were told that it would be treated aggressively. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Still, the prognosis wasn’t good. Most people diagnosed with these tumors live, on average, 18-24 months. We were told of the incredible likelihood that my wife would not see our daughter walk.
The next few months were filled with innumerable doctor visits, MRIs, radiation treatments and finally a steady diet of oral chemotherapy that my wife would continue indefinitely.

The whole time, the WGA supported us, helping us cut through healthcare red tape and managing an unending maze of hospital and insurance company beauracracies.

It’s now been nearly six years since my wife collapsed in our home office. Our little girl started kindergarten in the fall. My wife has valiantly fought her way back from the most vicious of diseases and the direst of prognoses. She discontinued her monthly chemotherapy nearly three years ago and now, aside from a really cool scar on her head, you’d never know she was sick. And despite no longer working as a sitcom writer, she still benefits from my WGA insurance coverage and marches side-by-side the rest of us, logging more hours than most, I’m sure.

For us, the strike is about much more than DVDs, streaming video, ESTs and any number of negotiating bullet points that involve math I don’t entirely understand. Like my fellow guild members, I want to be paid fairly for all of our work. On top of that, however, I hope to keep the very real and significant contributions to our pension and health care funds, which will continue to provide all of us with world class healthcare.

So while I walk for a fair deal, I also walk out of loyalty to my union. I walk because I will never forget their support in the face of adversity. I know my reasons are probably different than most, and oh, how it would be so very easy for me to hit the snooze button and forego that 6 a.m. strike walk. But it also would have been very easy for the Guild to have not gotten so personally involved in our lives.

And while this letter may be perceived as ‘heart-tugging,’ ‘manipulative,’ or some lame attempt at sympathy, it is really a long overdue thank you letter to the Writers Guild of America.

Thank you, WGA.

Mark Kunerth


stuiec said...

I think Mark's letter speaks directly to the heart of the issues at stake.

WGA members can't rely on paternalistic employers to take care of them over a lifetime career. Only the association of the Guild gives them that kind of career-long continuity.

The best thing that members can do for their Guild right now is empower its Negotiating Committee to win the best contract it can. You do that by staying united and strong on the picket line until you have a contract that you can collectively ratify.

Kristine said...

You and your family deserve all the credit in the world. I was sincerly touched by your story. I am an attorney in Chicago keeping an eye on the strike out in LA. I too am counfused with the various calculations of revenue, DVD sales, etc... After reading your blog, I now understand the dire importance of a fair and equitable resolution to these negotiations. I applaud you and your fellow members continued support of the strike. Best of luck! You guys deserve all the credit, on screen as well as in the contract.

josh said...

"heart-tugging"? "manipulative"?

No. sorry. I guess that's why you don't work much and are one of the "poor " writers. You don't know how to write.

The DGA deal was very smart. They made sure that Health and Pension was very well taken cared of.

And so should you.

I hope you'll post this, or I would have to complain on divided hollywood.

Jorge Reyes said...

Great. Now I can't breathe with the lump in my throat. :)

Thank you for sharing this, Mark. May the good news that is reflected at the end of your testimonial continue for you and your famuly.

--Jorge Reyes

Not An said...

Mr. Kunerth -

More than all the Speechless vids and the Why I Write articles, your piece gave reason to be on the line every day standing behind the WGA.

Thank you and continued health to your wife; aren't five year olds great?

IATSE Prop Master said...

Dear Mark, god bless you and your family. Please accept my sincere hope for continuing good health for your wife. Regarding health insurance, please refer to the Daily Variety article from January 30 2008.


My hope is that you will still have your coverage. I hope that all of us affected by this bitter strike will continue to have health insurance also.


alexandra cunningham said...

Amen and God bless.

And Josh, whoever you are, I have no idea what point you were trying to make.

debra said...

Hey Mark wonderful story and writing. So what are the families to do, you know the "BELOW THE LINE WORKERS" who are now going to lose their Health Benefits? You know the same type that took care of your wife and baby! Alot of us stand to lose this BENIFIT now. So lucky you and your wife, oh baby too. See there are some below the line families who now can no longer continue their Cancer Treatments or Dialysis, may have to resort to STATE ASSISTANCE, and boy isn't that wonderful. Your negotiator and the AMPTP need to Settle this strike. It has gone on long enough. Have some heart! Give others a chance for the same Blessings and Hope, oh and support from our Health Benefits. We want to work so we at least have it too.

Four Cent said...

"I guess that's why you don't work much and are one of the "poor " writers. You don't know how to write."

Wow, Josh. What kind of nasty, small-minded person are you to make such a comment about Mark's letter? My guess is you're nothing to do with any side of this dispute. Go back to whatever else gets through your sad, empty day and leave this site to interested people who want to discuss - and disagree - free of your poison.

M said...

While I think Mark's letter does NOT speak directly to the heart of the issues -at the end of the day, we're striking for more money in our pocket and not for better health care - he is entitled to feel about the WGA any way he wants. If this is his reason for striking, so be it.

But Josh is an unmitigated asshole. Mark's letter was quite well written as opposed to Josh's grammatically incorrect snipe. He's one of those guys who goes out of his way to make others feel as bad about themselves as he does about himself. Get some therapy. Oh wait, its probably too late. You WANT to be angry.

angie said...

This piece was beautiful and beautifully written, and highlights the importance of unions. Without them, most of us (including BTL'ers) wouldn't have the health and pension funds we have. It was a selfless act to write such a personal story that exemplifies how important it is we all -- and by all I mean all unions in the entertainment industry, IATSE, DGA, SAG, WGA, Teamsters, etc. -- stick together and support each other. Residuals are what fund all of these unions' health & pension funds, so when residuals are diminished, the health & pension funds are diminished. The DGA let us down on fighting for a good on-line residual formula, and I hope the WGA can do better.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Mark.

pat said...

Good Story glad to hear your wife is ok!,

but, it will never be IATSE showing solidarity with WGA, or SAG for that matter at this point those hopes are out the window!

Ashley Gable said...

Mark, that is an incredibly moving story. God bless you and your family.

Josh, you are hopelessly a dick. Shut up. Also, pray that karma isn't real, otherwise you're getting a big-ass tumor in your tiny brain.

Luzid said...

Mark, that was an amazing story. I got chills thinking about the compassion the Guild showed, and continues to show, its members.

I'm pre-WGA, and I walk the line because it's vital - even though the Guild's contract doesn't directly affect me (yet). When it does, it will also affect my 9-year-old son. If I had to face trading my current job's health benefits for broken residuals (and thus worse benefits), I don't know that in good conscience I could follow my dream. With a fair deal, he'll get *better* coverage than he has now when I do break in.

I also walk - anonymously, signing in under my real name so no one confuses my online support with real-world networking to serve my own interests - because I want to help send a message to those who profit off others' creativity: when you try to rob the wealth-creators of their duly earned paychecks, you will be opposed.

This fight isn't just about a fair deal on residuals, or even h&p - it's about the future. Do we continue the long grim slide down into McHollywood? Do we allow those at the top to destroy the hard-fought victories gained by writers who came before us?

Even if no one ever knows my name, or shows interest in my work after meeting me on the line and online, I will continue my support, for your reasons and so many more.

Stephen said...


I'm sure you will write off the responses to your comment as the ranting of strike-crazed Trotskyites. I'll just ask this: if you have children, would you want them read your comment, and know that it was daddy who wrote it?

stuiec said...

I think that josh was attempting to use meiosis to praise Mark -- by unseriously saying "you don't know how to write" in order to mean the opposite -- but it came off as snarky.

I think his last comment about "divided Hollywood" was a dig at the people who complain that their posts are censored.

I based this assessment on josh's posts on other threads. I hope I am right about both of these things.

Carol Starr Schneider said...

Dear Mark,

I was so happy to walk with you and your beautiful wife the other day on the line. As one of your former neighbors, it touched my heart to see you both and know you're all doing well.

Bless you and your daughter. Bless the Guild for taking care of you.

As for Josh, you're an AMPTP plant spewing negativity. Shame on you, man. Shame on you.

paint the town red said...


We all want the strike to end. No writer wants to see a single person lose their health isnurance. Keep something in mind, however: MANY shows/Showrunners have had the choice of taking their shows to Canada and DON'T. They keep their shows here out of respect for their families, their employees, and for our country.

Hollywood is a union town -- always has been. If you work here, then you're most likely an independent contractor. If you don't like this aspect of your job, then you should consider alternative employment.

Brian Scully said...

I think that may be the nicest letter I've ever read.

To paraphrase/steal a line from "It's A Wonderful Life"... (RAISING A GLASS IN TOAST) "To Mark Kunerth, the richest man in town".

UNITED said...

Dear Debra - get out of show business and go get a job in a factory that has no union, then you'll always be assured there won't be any strikes. Be forewarned; you may not like the health benefits or lack of pay at places like that without union protection.

And Josh -- ditto!

stuiec said...

united: are you confident that your comment to Debra is the best way to build solidarity between unions? Just asking.

Fred said...

Mark, wonderful letter.

Josh, you are a massive dickhead and for you, it is incurable.

Debra - are you married to Josh?

As someone else currently facing cancer, I understand exactly what you are going through. We al;l have to make tough decisions and the Guild has providedgreat support in the down times.

I haven't been able to walk the line because I had to return to Canada for treatment, but there hasn't been a day that I haven't spent a few hours battling turds like Josh online. I guess we all do the walking we can...

just a thought said...

Look I'm an IA guy and I have what is called a bank of hours 450 hours to be exact. I'm covered till the end of 2008 that's if I don't work another day this year.
I'm not in any way throwing in with the writers but to say that we as in IA are losing our benefits right now is wrong.
I put in about 2000 to 2200 hundred hours a year into the plan and I only get the benefit of 600 hours towards my medical. It takes about 1800 hours to pay my own way, after that my hours go to some slacker that doesn't work the hours. It's always been that way.
What we btlers are complaining about is rent food and the facade of a middle class life. I was raising children during the 88 strike and that one was bitter. What came out of that strike was the show runner. The mega buck guy.
That was the trade off of the DVD deal.
So my point is lets tell the truth and not bullshit each other. The sky is falling.
Mark your letter speaks to me because I lost a wife to cancer of this business. I know it's not the same but it's a loss none the less

sagmember said...

What an inspirational letter. From someone married to a guy who lost his wife to cancer and has lost many family members to the disease, I am so happy your wife is healthy and alive to see your little girl grow up. I know the fight she has been through and without good health care or an insurance company who doesn't fight every bill tooth and nail it is even more draining. The wonderful thing about the writers insurance as opposed to SAG is I've been told if you are vested for ten years you are covered for life. In SAG, even if you have contributed a lot for 20 years and vested, if you have a bad year you have no insurance. Writers have wonderful insurance but as someone said this is a lovely by product of good leadership, and having residuals. I walk as a SAG member for the writers on their lines, and i would be so proud to meet this couple. I hope other writers will do the same for us, should it come to that, as we have more members and much less inclusive insurance, so we depend on residuals to help us pay for it when we haven't earned enough.
We have to support all unions, and realize we are in this togethe

debra said...

Hey Paint the town red:

First and foremost I am not an independent contractor or a WRITER!!! I am an IATSE member 15 yrs and I do love my job! I am also second generation and a NATIVE CALIFORNIAN. What I am saying is I am sorry for such a situation as what Mark and his family have had to go through. I can relate to it and its great that he is grateful and dedicated to his Guild, as we all should to our UNIONS or GUILDS. I am a BELOW THE LINE WORKER. I suffer as do many others I don't cry about it, I have other skills & training that allow me to not be 100% dependent on the Film Industry when that job isn't available for me, something many don't have. Trust me I work 10-11 months a year in TV & Film. What I think people need to focus on is helping those who are having difficult times, whether their a WRITER OR NOT!
We should be thankful for those who help us at bad times right? Just like Marks situation. What are people doing for the below the line workers who don't have those alternate job options? Lets stop being part of the problem and start being part of a solution. No one wants to see others suffer! or do they? It takes every craft in the industry to make what writers write and producers produce come to the screen whether its TV or Film. Either way we are all puppets for the Director!.. :)