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January 19, 2008

Writers Guild Strike

The Writers Guild strike is entering its 12th week and the union leadership is finding itself faced with a difficult decision - end the strike with a settlement similar to that of the recent Directors Guilds negotiations or to bunker down and prolong the strike.

This is not a fork in the road the union leadership expected to reach. If it is true that every action we take as individuals or as institutions opens the door for more choices then the labor action by the Writers Guild has brought them to a point where either choice they make at this juncture is problematic.

The recent Directors Guild settlement falls short of the demands of the Writers Guild, particularly in addressing the primary issue of new media. Jonathan Tasini, Executive Director of the Labor Research Association points out several problems with the Director's Guild settlement on his blog Working Life:

   My take: I think this is really a problem. It goes to the very question of union jurisdiction and what kind of world we will see in ten and twenty years. The DGA only gets jurisdiction over product currently under contract. That means that all non-union work--such as reality shows--will remain outside the new media jurisdiction.

    And any work done under those thresholds will not be covered. The industry is precisely moving to a lower-cost structure--doesn't that sound familiar? It's the "kid-in-the-garage" problem--content coming from everywhere and everyone. As I described it in a panel discussion I just spoke at this week, it's similar to the off-shoring of work in manufacturing. You have the world of the WGA, where the standards are decent, with wages, health care and pensions. And, then, you have Big Mediastan--that would be the world where there is no union, where there are no residuals, no pensions, no health care. The above provision agreed to by the DGA seems--seems--to allow the growth of Big Mediastan.  As an aside: it is one reason I believe that a critical component of the WGA's future--and that of the Screen Actors Guild--is to focus intensely on organizing the young kids today who are cranking out material using IMovie and other software. The unions have to get those younger--and older people--who are now producing content into the union now so that they don't become this mass of unorganized, low-wage labor that has no connection to the labor movement.

    If the WGA agreed to those terms, it would basically be giving up on an important issue: union jurisdiction.

On the other hand, if the Writers Guilds' leadership prolongs the strike they face a serious risk of losing the  dispute. As today's NY Times  and LA Times articles point out there is pressure within the WGA to put an end to the strike. Some members are beginning to feel that if they can't win in 12 weeks they wont win by holding out one day more.

There are a couple of fascinating aspects to this strike that force us to ask some questions. For one, the Chief Negotiator for the Writers Guild is David Young who was profiled in a Wall Street Journal article a few weeks back:

Mr. Young worked for a time as a plumber after he graduated from college in San Diego. As a union organizer, one of his highest-profile jobs came in the mid-1990s, when he worked for Unite, the garment workers union. Mr. Young helped lead an organizing drive against Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer Guess Inc. Trying to unionize thousands of low-wage workers, many of them illegal immigrants, Mr. Young led an effort targeting Guess and its local suppliers that continued for several years.

After a series of setbacks the Writers Guild hired Mr. Young to bring his experience in leading aggressive, creative and strategic campaigns pioneered by service & industrial unions in the late 80's, a style of organizing and bargaining that has increased manifold within these unions and now appears to be spilling over to the professional unions.

By all accounts Mr. Young has done a tremendous job in following the "strategic campaign" play book and many  have been surprised at the result - The result being great PR, high profile supporters, impressive rank-and-file mobilization and unity between Guild members who are often separated by a wide gulf in terms of pay & prominence. Unfortunately none of this will get the result that is most important - a contract settlement with the types of gains sought by the Guild.

This type of union campaigning has been a real step forward by service and industrial unions because they signify Labor's willingness to retool in the face of new challenges and that when pushed Labor can mount a serious response. Yet the results of these type of campaigns have been mixed, in fact  if we use 1990 as a starting  point  labor union membership has continued to decline in the ensuing 17 years and there have not been many breakthrough collective bargaining agreements or new organizing in that time, despite pockets of success in certain geographic locations and specific industries.

What these types of labor campaigns are missing is economic analysis. By that term I am not implying number crunching. What I mean is that these types of campaigns need to also look at the context & institutional incentive regime within which the campaign takes place. An example -  in the WSJ article that profiles Mr. Young they speak about a campaign he worked on for the garment workers union in the 90s:

Trying to unionize thousands of low-wage workers, many of them illegal immigrants, Mr. Young led an effort targeting Guess and its local suppliers that continued for several years.

But the move backfired. The organizing effort failed, and Guess moved most of its California manufacturing jobs to Mexico, costing thousands of jobs. "It's a story of American manufacturing over the last 30 years: If workers try to organize, their jobs are taken away. They're fired by globalization," Mr. Young said last week, reflecting on that effort.

A serious "economic analysis" of this campaign, I believe,  would have revealed that the incentives in place for Guess to move were so great that any pressure applied on them would have only hastened the move. An understanding of this could have led to a much different strategy or at least the saving of a lot of time and money.

The same questions can be asked of the Writers Guild's current strategy. There is no question they have built the perfect campaign but have they assessed the incentive regime that is in place which will determine  which forks in the road  their campaign will lead them to?

January 19, 2008 in Labor Disputes | Permalink


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