Insights Into the Writers Strike: An Interview With Cornell University Economist and Labor Expert Maria Figueroa
By Jason Anastasopoulos
Is only one writer's union going on strike or are there many?
There are two writers unions on strike, the Writersí Guild of America West (WGA-W), and the Writersí Guild of America East (WGA-E).
What are fundamental issues are the writers concerned with?
The main issues involve the additional payments that writers receive for the repeat use of the films and TV shows. These are the so called residuals and they are paid when the film/shows are shown on supplemental markets such as cable, syndication, DVDís and the internet. Writers are demanding increased residual payments for DVDís and internet. They are also asking for residuals to be paid for shows produced for mobile phones and exclusively for the internet, as well as for the free episodes that networks stream on their websites.
Another issue, but of lower priority, is obtaining jurisdiction over reality shows (most of which are scripted).
What kind of impact will a prolonged strike have on television programming and movies?
The impact will be more severe on TV programming than on movies. Movie producers have piles of scripts that they can use for making movies and there is no season like in TV.
A strike that lasts more than three months (going into February and March) will impact the 2008 season (or cycle), according to experts. This is so because the networks need to get their new and returning shows ready for sale to advertisers in May-June 2008.
Because some shows continue using writers well into the season (soap operas, talk shows, and other dramatic scripted material), networks will have to go into rerun mode and are likely to lose audience to the internet and other new media. Advertisers are likely to withdraw or reduce payments to TV stations, causing significant losses in the industry.
What kind of shows will be impacted most by the strike?
Soap operas and other dramatic scripted shows that need a weekly fix (e.g. ABCís Lost, CSI Special Victims Unit). Talk shows went into reruns immediately.
Big celebrities such as Jay Leno are supporting the strikers, in your experience have you found a great deal of solidarity within the arts community? Is there anything that other unions can learn from these kinds of entertainment unions?
Yes, there is significant level of solidarity among arts and entertainment unions, but there are some real limits to it, mainly defined by the type of production and timing. Currently, the writers are getting great show of support by the actors unions, especially the Screen Actorsí Guild. The Teamsters union has also shown support by not crossing writersí picket lines.
Another example of this type of solidarity was the musiciansí strike on Broadway (2003), when the actors and the stagehandsí union (which is currently on strike) refused to cross the picket lines. This solidarity was key for the musicians to win their strike.
There are definitely lessons that other unions can draw, particularly in terms of the importance of coordinating unionsí actions and contract expiration dates when there is more than one union negotiating with a common employer.
This is the first time that labor unions have been featured prominently in the media for months. Is this an opportunity for labor gain favor/popularity?
There might be an opportunity, but is difficult for the average person to understand the plight of the writers. The common belief is that they are highly paid and leave in mansions. Many of them do, but there is a large majority who relies on residual payments to maintain middle class standards of living.
What does this strike mean, financially, for big production companies and producers like Jerry Bruckheimer?
It means a great deal, especially if they produce for the TV networks. They have deep pockets, but they need the writers to come up with new shows for the next season and to continue producing the ones that are currently being shown. They will be affected immediately depending on the type of deal they sign, but if this is a protracted strike they may face significant losses.
How long do you think that this strike will last?
I think the writers will have to be on strike for at least 4 months to get the producers to concede.