One of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction is trying to outdo the true stories of real life. As a fiction writer, I struggle, for example, to make sense of a newspaper with a decades-long open bias against unions solemnly telling a union how to conduct its own business, as The Times did in the editorial “Just deal with it.” I struggle as well with what to make of the charge of unfair labor practices filed by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a group not yet known for its efforts to protect workers rights.
If I pitched either story to a studio, I’d be told “Bernard, that would never happen.”
Yet the AMPTP, newly vigilant in its concern for employee-management comity, announced its unfair labor practices suit against my union, the Writers Guild of America, for highlighting the anti-union activities of former members. And The Times chided my union’s elected officials for suggesting that union members consider the merit of keeping “at arm’s length” those who left the union to take over the jobs of striking writers.
What the AMPTP might have missed in its rush to complain is that writers who chose to leave the guild during our recent strike highlighted their own actions. They went public months before the guild issued the letter to which The Times objects. They openly took the jobs, salaries and benefits of striking writers. With an eye to union-earned residuals, they even took screen credit for what they did. They published their own names on screen during the strike.
Times editorial writers -- apparently finding no irony in the fact that they make judgments in every editorial -- suggest that we union members cannot judge the motives of those who traded union membership for “financial core” status. “We don’t know,” The Times writes, “what led those writers ... to drop out of the strike.” Nonsense. We know that they wanted the jobs of striking writers, and they took them.
Perhaps WGA writers are more comfortable than editorial writers in making judgments about our fellows. We’ve supervised them, and they us; we’ve read their writing, and they ours. Because the production process produces intimacy in writers’ relationships, we know their hopes, dreams and aspirations. We know their loves, families, hobbies and quirks. We know whether they prefer Mexican or Thai food, scotch or gin, Chaplin or Keaton, Gervais or Carell. We know they have access to union loans, and we know what they earn because the biggest open secret in the entertainment industry is one’s salary. With that knowledge, we may confidently question the motives that The Times bids us not to judge.
Implying that we ought not judge motives ignores our obligation to judge the switch to fi-core status and the effect it has on the community of writers. If, by their actions, writers hurt the shows they’re working on, we’re professionally obligated to make judgments to protect the show. If some actions hurt writers, we must make judgments to protect the greater community against the consequences.
The Times routinely judges politicians and policies, laws and attitudes, trends and values. If politicians serve themselves before the commonweal, we are encouraged to vote against them. What is that but keeping those politicians at arm’s length? If a policy is judged to be detrimental to our future, we’re encouraged to abolish or modify it; in other words, we are told to keep bad policy at arm’s length. If a hospital has a lousy record, we’re advised to keep its physicians at arm’s length. Someone has the measles? Arm’s length.
But it’s not just the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do tone of The Times’ editorial that bugged me. There is the matter of that dismissive title, which implies that the damage done by fi-core writers is already ancient history. On the contrary, it is ongoing and keenly felt. Some striking writers were fired during the strike and have not been rehired. And in what the WGA argues is an open and ongoing violation of the terms of the strike settlement agreement, some financial core writers hired to replace striking writers are still working. Management continues to punish striking writers and reward those who took their jobs.
Finally, there’s this: The editorial confuses giving reasons to keep someone at arm’s length with blackballing, when in fact what the guild did was nothing more than pass along worthwhile consumer information. I have a right to know what hurts me and who hurts me. I want to know of decisions inimical to me and my community. I need to know about such actions. So when gathering or joining writing colleagues, I must do what I’ve always done and what Times editorialists do every day of the week: I must make judgments. I will look for talent and integrity. I will also look for the union label because it reflects a set of values that I prize. Those in the community of Times editorial writers will do exactly the same. They’ll make the judgments they’ve always made, seeking talent and integrity and a prized set of values while keeping those antithetical to their values at arm’s length.
Bernard Lechowick is a two-time winner of the Writers Guild Award and a veteran television staff writer, show runner and series creator. He teaches writing at USC. During the recent strike he lost his job as a creative consultant to the CBS serial “The Young and the Restless.”