Friday, November 09, 2007

Writers on Strike

A peculiar spectacle in Hollywood and New York, and everywhere else TV shows and motion pictures are being made, is before us. The writers are on strike. Of course when one thinks of workers on strike it usually calls up images of beefy scary looking truckers or other threatening masses of mostly men picketing outside factories and the like, daring anyone dumb enough to even attempt to break through their lines. This is not the case as mostly scrawny looking men and women, clearly of the nerdy variety, march around with bland (ironic for writers) signs and lame unionist chants. At stake? Contracts with TV and motion picture producers over royalties from DVD and other "new" media, which has grown by leaps and bounds since their last contract.

This is a very legitimate issue which any producer of intellectual property (in this case scripts, screenplays, etc.) should be properly concerned with. The problem here though, and it's a problem which exists for the entire industry, is why writers (and I mean good and exceptional writers) would ever want to tie themselves to unemployed, mediocre, or otherwise bad writers under the same contract. The advantage for the sub-par, or even par, writers is obvious. A share of revenue they would otherwise either never get or would only get on a very lucky day. The talented writers, however, have no such advantage. In fact, even a much better contract than the one they currently have is likely to be inferior to a contract their abilities and value could net them were the writing labor market a free one. This is a demonstrably true (both in economic theory and in practice) proposition, and thus puts a strike against the age-old idea that economic interest alone determines one's actions. So why do the talented ones "go along" with this (for them) waste of time and hit to their pocketbooks?

One reason is ideological. Hollywood and the acting/producing community in general has staid remarkably true to its unionist heritage while much of the rest of the economy has moved very quietly and successfully away from unions. Even the best and most talented writers take pride in their belonging to a "guild" of craftsmen, much like their medieval forbears upon which their organization is based. Of course, laws back up this activity (writers are legally able to collectively quit their jobs temporarily without any repercussions other than an obvious lack of pay) and thus add a coercive element that would otherwise be entirely lacking. And it is well known that, as a group, actors, writers, producers, directors, etc. are a very liberal group of people among whom a pro-union proclivity is a sine qua non of their culture.

Another reason is fear. Standing against ones peers on an issue like this is a scary prospect on many levels, not the least of which is the deserved reputation for violence which striking mobs of workers have gained over the years. Not only that, but if you are not confident in your moral right, as a talented individual, to not be shackled to the dead weight of your inferior colleagues, you're hardly likely to put yourself forward to suffer the abuse which would be inevitable. Also, anyone in such a community who asserted their superiority and thus their ability, desire, and right to make as much as that ability allowed them (far above their less talented fellow writers) to, would have aspersions like "selfish," "individualist," "greedy," or that horrible appellation given to any who is thought to work for themselves amidst a strike "scab," attached to their careers and reputations. Such a person would soon find themselves blacklisted by their industry and by their guild. This is ironic given the myth that Hollywood survived persecution and is anti-blacklist (they just did not like the criteria for the movie studio blacklist from the 40s and 50s).

Perhaps another reason is economics. Some successful writers, not particularly confident that their abilities will be around forever, may reason that sticking with the union contract, as opposed to being paid what they are worth as an individual writer, is the safer and, in the long-run, more profitable path. These people, while successful now, are thinking as if they were one of their more mediocre colleagues. This reasoning betrays a lack of confidence in their talent common among today's successful people in all fields of endeavor. It is actually portrayed today as a virtue to have confidence "issues" or to display humility, anything to avoid the appearance of arrogance: arrogance taken to mean a grand view of one's talents and worth and a willingness to boast about it. The actual meaning is something closer to a deliberately invalid and inaccurate view of one's talents and worth and a compulsion to boast about it. One would just be dishonest to not give an accurate appraisal of their virtues and faults, abilities and deficiencies, pros and cons; dishonest with others but also, just as important, dishonest with themselves.

So while the writers march, with signs which belie their craft and chants which demonstrate why they are not orators, and as our favorite programs go into reruns and we begin to grow frustrated and angry with the whole mess and look for people to blame we should remember some things. The producers, faced with the demand to pay all writers a minimum amount in media royalties, even to inferior writers, were correct to refuse. If the writers wish to operate as a guild and negotiate collectively, they must realize that the market price for most of their mediocre membership is going to be quite low. Among those same writers though, it is the talented, the able, the good, and the great among them whose fear, ideological wrongheadedness, or lack of confidence (or all of them working together) which has given this movement any strength at all. Were they not willing to support their inferior colleagues then their strike, their guild, and the coercive laws which support them against aggressive anti-union measures from the producers (i.e. hiring outside writers) would collapse or be on a much shakier foundation than currently buttresses them.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I have posted the latest piece of scholarly work which I am prepared to share on the sibling Blog of the Early Republic, and link to it is provided. The article, on the Duke of Wellington's various images in the early American republic, has been a long labor which I have presented at two conferences, the latest being the First Annual British Scholars Conference in Austin, Texas on the third of November.