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Solidarity, sort of

November 09, 2007|JOEL STEIN

There were certain experiences I knowingly sacrificed by enrolling at Stanford: joining a secret society, going to a national football championship game, having sex. I also assumed that in exchange for a white-collar job, I'd never get to go on strike.

That was disappointing, because everybody wants to strike -- even people who hate unions. You get to be angry and brave and suffer nobly so that future generations won't be exploited by the overclass. Refusing to work is lazy, but a massive group of people refusing to work is righteous.

So I'm incredibly psyched to be on strike as a member of the Writers Guild of America. I'm not entirely sure what it is I'm on strike about, because my experience as a sitcom writer has primarily involved getting paid lots of money to eat free food and laugh at other people's jokes. But apparently while I was downing crispy rice with spicy tuna from Katsuya, my residuals were being bullwhipped by a foreman in some kind of hot, dangerous residual mine. Although nothing I've done as a guild member has aired more than once -- or at all -- so my residuals don't technically exist.

Unfortunately, I'm missing all the hot striking action because, for the next few weeks, I'm traveling to Europe and New York. I decided to do my part through virtual picketing. This seems appropriate because we're fighting over Internet profits, and I think it might actually be more effective. A studio boss can coldly drive by a bunch of people holding signs in the morning, but I know for a fact that you start to feel kind of bad about the time your 400th hate e-mail of the afternoon arrives.

I owe some work on a blind script to Regency, so I sent an executive there an e-mail Monday morning:

Re-gen-cy! Re-gen-cy!

Why don't you just bite me!

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.


I also sent one to Sony, and to a producer whose name also fit into the rhyme scheme. She offered me a pilot deal based on the e-mail, though I don't think I can accept it yet. I think she won that exchange.

Later in the day, I was devastated to learn that my fellow scribes were not taking their picket-chant writing assignments with the Woody Guthrie seriousness that I did. They were shouting, "No money, no funny!" and "No moolah, no ha ha!" This is not a good way to convince anyone we deserve higher pay. Couldn't someone have punched up "Network bosses, rich and rude/ We don't like your attitude"? Perhaps: "Network bosses, slightly richer and perhaps coming across as a little more rude than us because you're blunt instead of passive-aggressively sarcastic / We think you are just fantastic."

The whole point of picketing, other than the crucial societal function of making tourists feel bad for going to a taping of "Dancing With the Stars," is to win public support. Because when you're denying the public something they want -- air traffic control, baseball games, episodes of "Heroes" where that Japanese guy finally escapes that lame Japanese legend story line -- you need to convince people that you have some moral justification. That you're reasonable and the other side is greedy.

I have no idea who is right. I find the union's argument about intellectual property rights extending into the digital realm convincing, until I remember that I download free music. Also, the Los Angeles Times doesn't pay me residuals to run my columns online. I'd start a picket line at The Times if I thought there were enough people left in the newsroom to walk it.

But figuring out who has the moral upper hand is irrelevant. Capitalism isn't based on fairness, and the money that writers want wouldn't come out of the salaries of studio presidents. In fact, the writers picketing outside Paramount's gates probably make more than the average Viacom shareholder.

A strike may feel honorable, but it is simply what happens when two groups can't figure out how much one's labor is worth. Which shouldn't be nearly this hard, considering that on any project the writer's worth is debated in detail for months by an agent, a manager and a lawyer.

So while I'm rooting for my fellow writers to score big on Internet residuals, I know how much I'm worth. The odds of my working on a show that generates massive Internet profits are minute, so the truth is I'd personally be far better off sacrificing that pipe dream for the right to pitch my pilot this week and accept some ridiculous wad of cash for a sitcom that likely no one will ever see. If studios cave to the guild and start paying for performance, my career is over.


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