Jay Kogen's Primer on the Strike

This was written before the holidays; but the message is just as true now as it was then. -- LK

Dear Strike Team, friends, writers and who ever else may be reading this:

As we look out onto the bleak landscape that is the holidays without work, our friends the AMPTP have placed an ad in the trades saying they have one common goal “To reach a fair and just agreement with writers and get back to work.” And that, of course, is an outrageous lie. I’m just a comedy writer, not a labor relations expert, but I have examined our situation and come to certain conclusions that I want to share with you.

If you want to save time reading the gist of it is… we’ll be okay if we stick together and hold out for a contract that pays us a living wage no matter where they show our work.

I see you’ve continued to read which means you must have some extra time on your hands. Great. Let me walk you through it.

Where we are:

The AMPTP isn’t talking to us. They walked away from the table. They claim our negotiators are too angry to deal with. The town is worried.

The strike, which could have been avoided if the producers wanted to actually negotiate, has potential to drag on for who knows how long. Some WGA members think it’s time to cut our losses -- simply give into the AMPTP ultimatum and drop many of our demands to the absolute minimum. They want this strike to end, and they see that as a way to end it.

Well, I want the strike to end, too, but I don’t think we should listen to their provocation and here’s why we shouldn’t listen to the AMPTP right now:

They aren’t really ready to negotiate. They do everything but. They take ads. They threaten us. They accuse us. They pretend they’re ready to talk and instead present ultimatums that we give up our reasonable demands without getting anything in return. It’s a tactic. A trick, to get us to reveal our bottom line so they can negotiate down from the lowest we thought we’d take.

According to anyone on our negotiating committee and most observers, including mediators, agents, SAG and the WGA negotiators, the AMPTP hasn’t once attempted to seriously bargain with us since we asked them to sit down with us in April and they said they’d sit down with us in July or 2007.

The last time they made an ultimatum, they lied. At the end of October, a CEO of one of the big companies called the WGA and told us flatly that if we dropped the DVD increase, just took it off the table, the AMPTP would deliver us a reasonable deal on internet.

The ENTIRE NEGOTIATING COMMITTEE weighed this idea -- many of them stood to gain a lot of money with a better DVD formula but for the sake of avoiding the strike, the committee agreed to drop the DVD demand. But, as we now know, it was a trick. They walked out on negotiations and forced the strike. To this day the AMPTP hasn’t offered us anything for dropping the DVD. There has never been any bargaining.

Our demands are reasonable and important to the future health of the WGA. All the stuff we’re asking for is important and would be great for the health of the guild, but some items are more important to the whole membership than others. So anything we give up should come at a cost for the AMPTP. They have so many slashes and rollbacks on their agenda that will need to be knocked off somehow. Keeping our demands right now will allow the committee, not the AMPTP, to decide what they feel they need to give up as bargaining chips and what they feel they need to keep.

So why aren’t they ready to deal?

Is it that they don’t care about making TV shows and movies anymore? That it’s no longer a “profitable” business? Don’t be fooled – this is exactly what they want you to believe. This is a business and it’s a very good one. The companies make billions each year. That’s why GE and SONY and Viacom and News Corp bought into the business in the first place, and I see no one divesting their entertainment divisions. Entertainment is still one of the biggest exports this country has. Not only do these companies have broadcast networks, but they have movie distribution companies and DVD companies and hungry cable outlets. They sell the DVDs and pay per views, and they are in the business of growing their libraries because they know this stuff is worth a ton of money now and heading into the future.

Is it because they don’t need writers? Again, that’s what they’d like you to believe. Of course if there was an army of fantastic writers around the corner willing to work for free, they’d hire them. But they don’t exist. When you are forced to read a spec script because your aunt promised her friend you would, how often do you read anything great? You forget, that there is actually a very limited pool of talent. Of course they need us. And while they may steadfastly deny that…the fact is, they hate us because they need us.

Is it because our leadership is crazy? Hmmm. Well, I know Patrick Verrone. He’s not crazy. David Young doesn’t seem crazy either. They do seem pro-active and not willing to roll over but it doesn’t matter. The AMPTP would be trying to make us doubt whoever it was. Their goal is to divide and conquer by making us believe that our leaders are “crazy.” Plus this town has a long history of making deals with the craziest assholes on the planet. Nope, not buying it. They’re just not ready to make a deal.

So, why aren’t they ready? Because they believe by waiting they can save money. That’s it. It’s about money. They see the future just like we do and they know there is big money out there and they want to keep it.

The money they are losing by sacrificing the current TV season (and possibly the next one) must be less than they’ll save by allowing us to strike.

Could the internet be even more valuable than even we think? What if the studios know it’s going to be worth so very much so very soon that shelving a TV season is nothing compared to the money they’ll make in the future if they can get us to take a bad deal? What if every tenth of a point they give up is worth billions of dollars in the next 10 to 20 years? If all you cared about is making money, you’d wait and hope the WGA either falls apart or weakens enough to take less of “your” pie.

Every move you’d make would be designed to create panic and discord in the union. You’d ignore them for as long as you could. You’d accuse them of being insane. You’d let the membership think they are replaceable. You’d highlight things the union is asking for that seem low priority to make them feel like they’re fighting for the wrong things. You’d undermine the union’s confidence by using the press you own and the experts you’ve hired to make them feel like they’re having no effect. You might even start negotiating with another union like the DGA to make people think it’s the crazy WGA’s fault this is happening (knowing the DGA might not take a tough stand on the internet because the DGA has different interests.)

They’ve balanced the costs. They want us to bleed and suffer, hoping our spirits will be broken. If they can stir up dissension and in-fighting there will be less pressure to give us a decent deal. It’s just business.

You know what else is good business? Making an example out of us. They can’t afford to let other unions think that striking is even an option so the Studios will get to pay all the other unions less, too. That’s seems pretty good for their bottom line.

So how can we fight them?

First, we don’t capitulate. We hold firm. If the union asks us to show we are united, we SHOW WE ARE UNITED. Let them know their tactics won’t work, and the waiting won’t get them a better deal. Make them see it’s in their best interest to settle this.

The strike is working. We are having an effect. Sure, this hurts us, but our sacrifice hurts them more. They were actually surprised by the November strike date. They didn’t have time to save the TV season or finish all their scripts for the SAG strike. They’ve started to hand back money to advertisers and they stand to lose a lot more when their nine billion dollar upfronts come and they don’t have a new season to promote.

In spite of “stock piling” there are lots of movies that aren’t getting made. The pipeline is thin, and as the SAG strike approaches they needed to be making more movies (not less) to beat down that union. The studios are looking down the road and see that what we are doing will effect TV sales, movie sales, DVD sales, cable sales and subscriptions, PPV sales, etc. Plus they are helping to drive an ever shrinking audience elsewhere. Everyday that passes they dig themselves a deeper hole they’ll have to get out of.

The WGA has filed charges against the studios with the NLRB because the studios don’t legally have the right to walk away. By law they have to bargain in good faith. Admittedly, this is a gesture and no one thinks the Bush administration will ever help us here. But it’s important in the battle of public perception that everyone know we are the ones trying to negotiate in good faith. We are the ones who want to put the town back to work. They are the ones keeping that from happening.

The WGA has talked to Wall Street. They are making business sense, and major shareholders are listening and bringing pressure down on the companies to settle this.

Advertisers are being contacted. Unions from all across the country representing millions of workers are asking how they can help. They would be willing to boycott advertisers. The advertisers are being made aware of this and soon the boycotts of large sponsors like Proctor and Gamble will begin. And it won’t just be unions. The public will help. The public is on our side. Sure the members of IA somehow blame us for striking and not the AMPTP for forcing us to strike, but most of America supports us. Who knows -- they might join in.

The WGA is approaching some of the companies from the AMPTP that want to make a separate deal, and is attempting to negotiate with them one on one. Not the big 6 or 7 companies, but the next level. Those companies don’t have a problem with what we are asking for and would rather get back into production. If we can make enough of those deals some of us can get back to work, and the coalition of the greedy will feel the competition breathing down their necks.

In addition, the WGA and many of its top talent are starting to make deals with Google and Yahoo and other internet strongholds. This should snap some sense into the studios. If they want to remain relevant in the next ten years, they need to dominate the next medium which will be the internet. If other companies, with enough money to bring eyes to their sites, start to get into the game, the studios will be left behind. If I were them I’d be very scared of that possibility and I’d want to do anything I could to prevent top names from helping to establish a new medium that they don’t own.

We are also approaching legal experts to challenge the networks’ legal right to own the productions, distribution, and exhibition of entertainment. In the old days that was considered a monopoly. We have left it alone for years because they have been our partners but now they aren’t acting in good faith and it’s time to make sure there is more competition in the market place. We have the desire and ability to take this issue all the way to the top courts in our country. The studios aren’t going to like that.

There is more pressure coming at them as SAG will stand with us, and if we are still out in June they’ll go out with us and shut down whatever production is left. They will have upfronts in May without product to sell, and the 9 billion dollars they usually make goes out the window. Studios have execs on salary doing nothing, and time is ticking.

What’s the Deal with the DGA?

The DGA will soon attempt to negotiate a contact. If they negotiate a good one, then that’s good for all of us. We can use that as the formula for making a deal, and they get to say that the DGA are reasonable adults and the WGA are petulant children. And that’s fine by me. Whoever makes the deal that insures our ability to work into the next 20 years is a hero. It doesn’t have to be Patrick Verrone.

However, if they make a bad deal (which is very possible), then we simply have to remain united. Let the studios see that no matter what the DGA settle for, the WGA and SAG are not going to take anything less than a deal that gives us full jurisdiction on the internet and a fair compensation for showing our work there.

Why We Fight (in case you forgot):

The AMPTP has made a grave miscalculation. We know we are fighting for the very ability to make a living in the future. We know we are losing money now we won’t get back – but it is for the greater good and for the least powerful among us. We get that. We’re good with that. The corporate mind can’t fathom it.

What we are asking for is fair, and reasonable, and affordable but in a negotiation there is NO WINNING, only a deal to be made where we get less than we hope for but more than they want to give. That said, for this strike to end we will have to get some kind of fair compensation for showing and selling our shows online. The way to do that is to not argue with each other, but rather, to keep the faith that your union is working hard to make a deal that will get us back to work. And to keep giving the union your support in anyway you can -- whether it’s marching, or showing up at rallies or simply staying hopeful.

The only other option, as far as I can tell, is that the union falls apart, and we are all on our own against these guys. If you think you don’t have power now as a group, try it on your own. If the union gets destroyed then we will have given up fifty years of gains that were struck for and won by our brethren – not to mention any chance that young writers in the future will get a fair deal. There’s too much at stake to let that happen.

There will be curve balls and surprises and we will have to continue to struggle. The pressure from our membership and a town out of work will build. But if we stay together and hold out for what we believe in, we will no doubt achieve a better deal than the October offer and be all the stronger in future negotiations.

Yours truly,
Jay Kogen

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