Posted by: coloradokiwi | November 10, 2007

Steeee-rike!: Why you need to explain to Uncle Ned why he should support the WGA, even if it means missing “24”

Much of the big news in entertainment these days is of course centered around the WGA strike. And of course for most Americans this means little more than that nearly every show they watch that actually requires writers (thinner on the ground than they used to be, but still the majority) is on indefinite hiatus. So right then, what’s this all about?

John August puts it succinctly:

If you know absolutely nothing about the issues — or if you have to explain it to your grandmother, who’s upset that her favorite soap opera is off the air — here’s my very short summary of the situation.

* Writers for film and television are paid a small fee when the things they write (movies and television shows) are shown again on re-runs or DVD. These are called residuals, and they’re much like the royalties a novelist or a songwriter gets.

* Residuals are a huge part of how writers are able stay in the business. These quarterly checks pay the mortgage, particularly between jobs.

* There’s widespread belief that the rate paid to writers for DVD’s is too low. It was set 20 years ago, when DVD was a nascent and expensive technology. DVD’s are now cheap and hugely profitable, yet the rate remains fixed.

* Downloads will eventually supplant DVD’s. That’s why it’s crucial to set a fair rate for them now, and avoid the same trap of “let’s wait and see.”

There are other creative and jurisdictional issues (such as animation and reality television) which are also on the table. According to the AMPTP, residuals are the major stumbling block, however.

And as usual, John Rogers does a bang-up job not only of summarizing this whole situation, but providing context and a well-reasoned defense of the WGA’s position here: in a nutshell, the huge corporations who run media in this country are acting like huge corporations and trying to avoid having to share profits; whether or not any writers actually starve over this is not as important as the fact that someone else is getting rich off of their ideas, then keeping that money to themselves. Simple, right?

Well, in step so-called free marketers who see the strike instead as being about the last (thank God!) gasp of unionism in this country:

Don’t be fooled, none of this is about money, the writers are already in high income brackets, it’s about the attempt to make a weak union strong. In the end it won’t work, we already know they are no longer wanted or needed in the modern work place.

Wow, you mean in an era of massive media consolidation that it’s in the interest of Mr. and Ms. Jack and Jane Writer to leave the Guild and bargain on their lonesome with the likes of Viacom? Hell yes, power to the…person!

Of course, once again John Rogers comes in to hand this spermsicle his ass:

There is no free market in Hollywood. In television for example, with the dissolution of “finsyn” rules in 1995 almost every independent producer has been either absorbed into one of the big media companies or dissolved. We’ve gone from 40 producers in television to the big Six.

Six. Six companies control almost all mass media in America. They control all, and I mean all, the standard distribution channels in America. They are also negotiating as a single entity, the AMPTP. If you’ve read your Adam Smith, you know that this is actually one of the situations he notes in Wealth of Nations which will indeed break the fingers of the invisible hand . . . Listen, I get it. You love free markets. So do I. I just know that they weren’t designed by Jesus. They’re not perfect, and sometimes you need a union not out of any high moral stance, but just to maintain fair business practices.

That right there is why you need to explain some of this to ol’ Uncle Ned. Because that bullshit argument about how unions are of the past, and we don’t need unions, and unions have ruined America, is all smoke and mirrors and a means to allow gigantic corporations to do whatever they like. Now listen, unions are not perfect, either. One could make the argument that union “over-reach” has not exactly helped our auto industry move with the times (although a lot of this has to do with the fact that GM has to pay for all its workers’ health care, which wouldn’t be a problem in a civilized country…ahem). However, this is the perfect teachable moment: huge corporations are really just doing what they do, which is to maximize their profits, if necessary in the most cutthroat way possible. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a downside to the rationalism of capitalism is that it’s completely amoral, so making money by any means is actually rewarded. Most of us think that acting amorally, much less immorally, is wrong. This is what these companies are doing. The WGA is attempting to prevent them from doing so. And if the WGA weren’t there–if there was no union–the bastards would get away with it.

***Aside: what some idgits who love the “free market” don’t seem to realize is that an utterly free market is not really “survival of the fittest” in terms of inculcating a robust business ecosystem; it’s about “survival of the fittest” in terms of allowing the blob to simply continue to shore up its power and size and swallow up everything in its path, until all you have is a blob or handful of blobs who are all roughly the same size. How big? Too big to control.***

So use this as a teachable moment with your conservative brother-in-law, or your Aunt Sylvia, or your dad, or whatever: unions exist so that very wealthy and powerful corporations are occasionally kept from royally screwing over their employees and/or anyone else who gets in the way. Whatever you might think of the “over-reach” of unions in the past, this does not mean unions are bad in principle. What the WGA strike teaches us is that in an age of corporate consolidation and globalization, unions are more important than ever.

For what it’s worth (possibly not much), show your support here.

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