Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 19, 2007

Writers, Strikes, & the Challenge of Speaking Up (Instead of Watching)

Writers Guild of America strike, Ellen Pompeo 

As a few of you out there know (but most don’t), I made my first baby steps into the grown-up work world as a 21-year-old, stumbling office manager for Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, one of America’s leading independent documentary film companies for the past 35+ years.

I had been an intern there, and the former office manager/sales rep was going back to graduate school, so they gave me a shot. If the company name rings a bell, it may be because up until Bowling for Columbine, their film Hoop Dreams— about high school basketball, race and class issues– was the top-grossing documentary ever. It was also a contoversial un-nominated Oscar candidate in 1994, a snub that changed how the Academy nominated docs from 1996 onward. Last month, Hoop Dreams even won an award from the IDA, a major association of independent documentary filmmakers, as the best documentary ever (at least as voted by this “jury of their peers”), beating out Michael Moore, Errol Morris and a number of other Academy Award winners.

I did only a smidgen of P.A. work on Hoop Dreams, but my name does appear in the credits– which I’m thankful for because it makes me seem impressive at parties. More importantly, I’m just proud to have been associated at all with Gordon Quinn, Jerry Blumenthal, Jenny Rohrer, Steve James and the other members of this important film collective. I still see them occasionally, even though I’ve shifted into communities other than the film industry. They’re always very friendly, and always up to fascinating new things.

Some of Kartemquin’s best-known early work, like The Last Pullman Car, was about the changing role of labor unions in American life. I had grown up in a “union” family myself, as the son of an IBEW electrician. I also worked five straight summers in the 1980s for electrical contractors at a first-year apprentice wage: probably three times what my fellow college students were earning at the local McDonald’s.

So I must say I owe a lot to the union brothers and sisters of prior generations, in various professions, who fought hard for protection of their rights and their livelihood. Historically, unions have been one of the main ways that the “working class” has gained access to some of the rights and priveleges that the middle class takes for granted.

Which leads me to the quandary I’m in about the current writers’ strike in Hollywood (and elsewhere, I assume… wherever Writer’s Guild members are working for, as their official site puts it, “motion picture, broadcast, cable and new media industries” ).

On the one hand, it’s very bad news, and very bad timing. In an economy already primed for a big recession, the entertainment industry is not only a heavy-hitter, but a major morale booster for U.S. families. We are a population that currently has little else to be thankful for beyond the four walls, three square meals, and 2.5 children whose maintenance occupies most of our daily lives.

So it may sound silly, but I really, really NEED my weekly fix of The Office, just to stop this destructive internal monologue about lead paint in toys and the ridiculous Iraq war for a little while. I also need my Daily Show with Jon Stewart to stay informed about that war in a way that won’t make my head explode with grief.

Hey! I just checked, and it appears I have at least one other thing to be thankful for: Harry Shearer’s Le Show dome is still open, keeping me informed and entertained about the latest developments in Pakistan, Iran, China, New Orleans, the banking industry and any other hot spots where humor can still be gleaned from utter horror and stupidity. Le Show’s on listener-supported public radio, so I suppose that while Harry supports the strike, in this other venue he can keep working without feeling like he’s crossing a picket line. Or maybe he’s just concerned that his Simpsons money will go missing during the strike and needs a backup plan to keep up his mortgage payments. Whatever the reason why it’s still going, go subscribe to the Le Show free podcast at KCRW.com, before it’s too late.

So now you see my dilemma: I’m pro-union, but I want my MTV… and by that I mean Mark’s TV, not all the cheap, trashy MTV or other “reality” programming that doesn’t even employ writers (nor anyone else with a brain in their head).

In the Writer’s Guild’s defense, there really is no good time for a strike anyway. It’s always a pain in the ass, for those striking as well as for the employers. If it were easy, then it wouldn’t really work, would it? Plus I’m inclined to agree with the main thrust of their argument, that they deserve a fair share of the income generated through the re-use of their material as presented online (see the “new media” clause above).

I myself have begun watching more broadcast programming online than ever before, maybe 20-25% of all my tv viewing. Furthermore, the lines between TVs and computers and cellphones and publishing are getting very blurry, on both the business and technical fronts. The media world is changing daily, in form and in content. So the writers who provide that content gotta protect their interests, lest they be left in the dust.

These writers may have a higher standard of living than a United Farmworker, but that still doesn’t mean that multinational media conglomerates have the right to build their empires without properly paying the people who keep customers like me coming back for more. ‘Cause I’m sure not tuning in for the Taco Bell and Verizon product placements…


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