Last week, when people started talking about an A-list writer going “financial core,” I was surprised to find they were speaking of me. I don’t work in day-to-day television anymore and have completed exactly one studio movie script in the last 24 months.
Doesn’t take much to get on the A-list these days.
Nevertheless, yes, I’ve gone fi-core. (If you need a primer on what “financial core” means, refer to this Op-Ed and this Times story on soap opera writers making the switch.) Since I was conscripted into the Writers Guild of America a decade and a half ago and membership in the guild is mandatory I’ve found myself politically opposed to it on any number of issues. Not long after, I wrote an Op-Ed about the woeful lack of diversity in Hollywood and what little the guild was doing to rectify the situation. I got a personal call from then-WGA President Frank Pierson ripping me a new orifice for daring to take my disappointment public. The gist of his argument: If you haven’t anything nice to say about the union, then shut up. But, hey, what did I expect? If you shake the tree, you can’t get upset when the apples fall.
And mostly I didn’t. Until the strike.
I don’t blame the union for the direction the strike has taken. It was the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers that walked away from the bargaining table. And when you get into a fight with a passive aggressor, you can’t help but look like a bully.
Still, I’ve had concerns about the guild’s approach to this work action: the lack of an individual with experience in Hollywood deal-making to lead negotiations; bargaining chips moved on and off the table in the haphazard manner of a first-time gambler at a roulette wheel; interim agreements arbitrarily granted, without the necessary vote by membership. But apparently, to speak publicly of such concerns is to be on the same level as the jerk who gives away the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I lived with the vitriol stirred by my questioning. Never mind that I’ve walked the picket lines. Never mind I’ve donated to the strike fund.
The first rule of Strike Club: Never talk about Strike Club!
That would be fine for an organization whose membership joins voluntarily. But when membership is compulsory, free expression must be accommodated. The obligation of the union is to protect, not crush, the minority view.
In December, I attended the general guild meeting in Santa Monica. Outside the Civic Center, before the meeting, guild members told me that I was not welcome and that if I went inside, I should prepare to be pilloried. During the meeting, one high-profile television writer announced to the membership that anyone who didn’t have anything good to say about the strike should shut up. If I used the adjective “frenzied” to describe the reception the declaration was given, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating.
Did the president or the executive director who sat onstage rise up and announce even if just for show that their tent is large enough to accept dissent? That their cause is sufficiently just to withstand criticism? Or did they tacitly support the blood fervor by sitting on their hands? That is, if they weren’t also applauding wildly?
They sat. They let the threat carry the day. I got the message.
After 15 years of being told shut up, sit down and be part of the groupthink, I decided I did not belong in the guild. The guild has a way to option out. I took the option. The predictable response has been largely hateful and personal, including accusations of cowardice. But the membership of the union can’t have it both ways: an allergy to internal dissent and an aversion to migration. If you don’t want me around, don’t get angry when I leave. And while the consensus among writers may be that I’m a scab, or out for my own self-interest, fortunately, I don’t live my life by consensus.
I also think it’s ironic for anyone involved in the strike to speak of self-service when every aspect of this work stoppage is about putting or extracting money into or from somebody’s wallet the writers, the studios, the whole economy of Los Angeles. If I cared just about money, I’d continue on the guild’s current path: working to secure extra revenue from the studios without regard to the financial impact of the work stoppage on the populace. If I understand their logic, that effort is not at all self-serving, even though we put money in our wallets while others suffer.
I know some have suggested I should forgo any gains that the guild tallies on my behalf. And I would, if I worked under the guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement. Fortunately, on the rare occasions I work in Hollywood, I don’t work under the MBA. There’s nothing for me to give back, and I won’t seek compensation from the membership for deals my team cuts that are over and above the MBA. I will continue to pay dues. But brother, if you want me out of your life so badly, I’m happy to swap the 1½% of my gross income for that automatic subscription to “Written By.”
Beyond that, and short of my ongoing concern for everyone who is caught in the middle of this labor action, I’m done with the strike. I’m done with the two unreasonable sides and the YouTube videos and the dueling spin doctors. I’m quite finished with the mindless glee that comes from interrupting a taping of “Last Call with Carson Daly.” I’m finished with the lost wages clocks and shrill industry trade ads.
I’ve no desire to start a movement, to be the first name on an open petition, or to be the poster child for disgruntled writers. I don’t want to do a money grab and jump on a rewrite of “Pinkville.” Though, I’ll be perfectly honest with you: If I’m going to be trashed anyway, I’m not about to be trashed on the cuff. I am, simply, done.
So, then, this is my interim agreement. You all can have your strike. I’ll take what can’t be bargained for: self-determination.
John Ridley is a screenwriter, novelist, blogger and commentator for National Public Radio.