It’s been a little more than two months since the Writers Guild of America signed a new contract with the studios, ending a 100-day walkout that cost the local economy an estimated $2 billion. The studios have moved on to the final round of negotiations, seeking new contracts with the actors unions. Yet the emotional intensity that sustained the writers strike evidently hasn’t dimmed, at least not among the union’s leadership.
On Friday, the presidents of the guild’s two branches sent a letter to its members, lashing out at the “puny few” who “consciously and selfishly decided to place their own narrow interests over the greater good.” They listed 28 writers who switched from membership to “financial core” status, enabling them to go back to work without being penalized by the guild. The tartly worded missive -- whose recipients included TV supervisors with the power to hire and fire writers -- called for the 28 to be “held at arm’s length by the rest of us,” a not-so-subtle suggestion that they be blackballed. As the presidents put it, “Those who went financial core did not share in the adversity; and should not share in our victory.”
We don’t know what led those writers, many of whom worked on soap operas, to drop out of the strike. Perhaps their motives were the same as those of Jay Leno, a writer who went back to work during the strike, worried about sidelined crew members with no access to guild strike funds. And if their reasons weren’t so noble, they’ll have to make peace with colleagues who stayed out on strike regardless of the personal sacrifice.
But for the guild’s leadership to invite reprisals by the entire membership against a minuscule cadre that didn’t honor the picket line is vindictive and ugly. The leadership seems to resent the fact that the 28 continue to receive the pay, pensions and health benefits called for by the guild’s contract. But that’s because the guild has turned scripted entertainment in Hollywood into a closed shop. You can’t write for a sitcom, drama or feature film financed by the studios unless you’re covered by the contract. And if you disagree with the guild’s decisions or policies, your only choice (short of writing for reality TV) is to switch to financial core status -- which, by the way, means you’ll pay about 1.4% of your gross income in dues, instead of the usual 1.5%.
Unions can’t force-march their membership to victory over management. Their negotiating power relies on the leadership’s ability to rally members behind goals that are both important and shared. By that measure, this leadership was remarkably successful when it set its contract priorities and demands. Of the more than 10,500 guild members, less than one-half of 1% switched to financial core during the strike. The guild should be touting that unity, not flailing at the handful of writers who broke ranks.