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There Are Serious Reasons for a Strike, but It Can Be Avoided

April 30, 2001|JAN OXENBERG

As one of the film and television writers included in a Calendar round-table discussion of a possible strike, I thought the headline ("A Strike? The Script Is Out of Their Hands," by Rachel Abramowitz, April 20) and the focus of the article (war stories of disrespect) left a familiar impression: writers as whiny complainers, feeling slightly victimized by everybody, including their union.

Free rewrites, being replaced on projects, the quality of the movies that are made--these make for interesting anecdotes, maybe sexier than the issues that are actually on the negotiating table. But it was not the substance of our serious two-hour discussion about the possible strike.

In fact, I think every writer at that table expressed nuanced concerns, weighing the fairness of the Writers Guild's demands against the effect a strike could have, not only on ourselves but also on the many other people in Los Angeles whose livelihoods depend upon our industry. We expressed confidence in the people who are negotiating for us and recognition of the responsibility they've taken on.

The question to be answered this week is, will the studios negotiate with the guild in good faith? If they do, there will be no strike.

It's been a surreal eight months. Everybody's talked about "the strike" as if it's an event we'll all be attending together, like a wedding or a bar mitzvah, scheduled to occur on a specific date after a long period of careful planning.

The studios claimed to "want" the strike so they could get rid of "deadwood." Writers lamented the necessity for the strike but planned work and vacation schedules around it. Meanwhile, everyone's posturing and vowing never to back down, in rhetoric reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis.

But the atmosphere of high drama, or comedy, surrounding this thing has finally given way to a sobering reality (reality as in Los Angeles, not Pulau Tiga). I heard the voice of that reality last week, listening to callers to a radio show about the strike. One set carpenter was terrified that all this posturing and brinkmanship will not merely put him out of work for a few months but send his job permanently to Canada. A woman who does hair and makeup in a Beverly Hills salon wondered if a dispute over something called a "vanity credit" will force her to pull her kid out of a decent school.

So why don't the writers simply back down quietly?

Because it isn't fair. Fifteen years ago, the Writers Guild gave large financial concessions to the fledgling cable, video and foreign TV markets and to the new Fox network--a sort of in-kind contribution to help these new parts of our industry get off the ground. The writers were promised that when these new businesses became established and profitable, our residual compensation would be appropriately adjusted upward.

Some of the companies that made those promises no longer exist; many have become parts of the huge multinational corporations that run the universe. Now they're saying (so far), we're not going to keep those promises. The guy who made them isn't with the company anymore. Anyway, we can't afford it and, even though we all know that's a lie, we're going to keep on saying it. As a matter of fact, we need you to take a multimillion-dollar pay cut in the form of rollbacks.

I don't have an MBA. Maybe the companies really can't afford the money they promised. Still, various solutions come to mind. What if the studio CEOs--reported in The Times to make between $42 million and $165 million a year--each chipped in three days' worth of their yearly compensation? (Isn't it interesting how unthinkable that is?)

If there is a writers' strike, it won't be frivolous and it won't be grudging. It will be because the studios were so unwilling to find common ground that their intransigence seemed like a shot across the bow, aimed at diminishing the future negotiating power of the Writers Guild. Since the guild is the organization that fought for and won health care for writer, that created our pension plan, that allows an individual writer to have a chance of satisfaction in a dispute with the multinational corporations that employ us, a threat to its future is serious business.

It needn't come to that--and I don't think it will--if everybody plays fair.

It's time for the studios and the Writers Guild to take responsibility for the widespread anxiety our brinkmanship is causing. The city will be a more livable place this week if both sides take our fingers off the button and admit that we're going to do what it takes to find fair, common ground--and not blow up the world.

Jan Oxenberg is a writer-producer on the ABC series "Once and Again" and is a member of the Writers Guild. She is not an authorized spokesperson; her only official position with the guild was playing second base for the WGA softball team in New York. She lives in Venice.


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