February 20, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg
Now that the WGA strike is over (and the writers are mostly happy about it, yay!), I’m reposting an article I wrote for Pop Vultures about walking the picket line with the writers, back in December. The photos are all mine, but Marcia at PV probably did neat cropping things to them, so thanks to her for that and for publishing the piece in her blog, which you should all read after you finish this entry.
What does a writer do when she has a morning free in Los Angeles? First, she puts on her vintage ‘I survived the Writer’s Guild Strike 1988′ t-shirt and her Imagineering bomber jacket (circa 1992, when Mom was part of the Disney family). Then she finds a picket line of striking Writers Guild of America writers, wondering what she will find there. Angry writers in baseball caps bashing their signs against the studio gates?In order to talk to the striking writers, though, she has to locate them.
When I arrive at the Universal City Metro station, two men standing at a table covered with strike information tell me that there are writers at Gate 3 of Universal Studios. Plenty of signs-on-sticks heaped up near the table indicate that either the writers haven’t all arrived yet, or someone ordered too many signs, or maybe that the writers are so angry that they break signs and these are the replacements.I cross the street and find gate 5. I walk further and find gate 1.
Beyond this seems to be office buildings. Perhaps the wacky numbering system has angered the writers? When I return to gate 5, I’m pointed back to gate 1, where the woman in the gatehouse repeats, ‘talk to the writers?’ in an accent described by Central Casting as ‘former Soviet bloc’. No, the writers won’t be here until nine, and they aren’t allowed to come inside, so they’ll be out on the sidewalk and thus impossible to miss. With an hour to kill, I decide to wander further down the block, where I find gate 2 and, beyond it….
…about two dozen writers, gamely marching back and forth across Gate 3 (Muddy Waters Drive).
Having been advised by one of the United Hollywood writers that I was more than welcome to turn up and support the strike, I fall into line and start chatting with a guy – not at all angry, so far as I can see – who asks if I want to carry a sign. Absolutely! He hands me his (which is helpfully reinforced with duct tape along the bottom, presumably so as to avoid splinters on the picket line) and gets another for himself when we swing by the ’spare signs, brownies, and sign-in-sheet’ area.
I mention that I’m writing a piece for a pop culture blog, and he asks what it’s called.
‘That’s a good name.’
The person handing me his sign and complimenting Marcia on her blog title is strike captain Steve Mazur. Over the course of the next hour I chat to several more strikers, and they share a cheerfulness somewhat astonishing in light of the fact that their creative output for the last six weeks has shrunk from ‘hour-long features’ to ‘writing phrases on signs’. Many of these signs confirm the presence of Trekkies:
Another reads, ‘phasers on strike’. *rimshot*
Perhaps the writers are happy because they will never suffer the problems of the WGA East membership, where picketing is enlivened by white flakes falling from the cold, cold sky. Yet even those writers fail to show anger while on the line.
Mostly, the upbeat feeling is amazing given that the chance of a settlement before Christmas is roughly akin to Pete Doherty winning an Academy Award for Best Genome. However, after this week, the writers can be unemployed without having to march across incoming traffic, as today is the last day of picketing in 2007. The only other pre-Christmas event was a ‘gathering’ (technically NOT a picket) at the Death Star, a/k/a the headquarters of AMPTP – the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who aren’t actually producers, nor do they play one on TV.
(In the interests of fairness, I should not say unsubstantiated bad things about the AMPTP, but I have it on good authority that their leadership regularly ties puppies onto railroad tracks, and also they smell of wee.)
(Okay, that AMPTP link is actually a parody site – someone’s cybersquatting on AMPTP.com. [NB the link now goes to the archived parody site.] No one can do this to the WGA because WGA.com is owned by the Western Growers Association, which could work out nicely if everyone’s still unemployed by the time planting season comes around. The real AMPTP site is amptp.org, where you can find lots of huffy statements blaming the WGA. They really need new material. Hey, maybe the AMPTP could hire some…naah.)
The writers have specific shifts. I’ve turned up two-thirds of the way through the 6am-9am one, which is early, but not as early as Paramount, where they’re on the line at 5:30am. Things move smoothly: we walk, we stop at the opposite sidewalk and make sure everyone behind us has enough room to stay in the line rather than bunch up on the curb, we walk back across, we pause to let cars go into the studio, we surge forward when someone squawks that we’re not moving. When passing cars honk, we cheer and wave our signs, even though it isn’t always clear whether a honk indicates support for the strike or a request to get the hell out of the way. At one point there’s a vigorous debate over whether a passing driver shouted ‘keep it up!’ or ’sucker!’
The United Hollywood people turn up with a camcorder to get sound bites. One question they ask is, how long are you willing to strike? – answers range from ‘forever’ to ‘August 2010, but then I have to attend my son’s bar mitzvah’. At one point we all gather around Kit, the organizer of the afternoon shifts, who’s wearing a Santa hat with a huge WGA pin on the front. He gives a brief thank-you speech, reminding the writers that they’re the public face of the strike.
Sadly, today’s picketing is also a wrap party, for it’s the last day of strike action here at Gate 3. While Steve hopes to keep the group together, it’s possible that some of the writers who live on the west side will go over to Fox. The remaining writers may end up over at NBC, where one gate in particular needs more assistance — the gate for the Ellen DeGeneres show. (She got a lot of bad press early in the strike for giving up support after, oh, twenty minutes, and it doesn’t sound as though she’s redeemed herself.)
Someone points out that the success of the Gate 3 group is because, unlike other groups, they do not chant — at which point some writers start chanting ‘We don’t chant! We don’t chant!’ Perhaps it is the presence of Trekkies which prevents the universe from imploding in a paradox. Or maybe Steve succeeded in giving the Vulcan sign just after this picture was taken.
Everyone waves goodbye to the guard on the gate, who says she’ll miss us.
As I head back towards the Metro station, I find that other gates now have impressive complements of walkers. They also have a wider array of signs – though, in the case of the SAG signs, there’s a lot of small print to point out that they themselves aren’t on strike and aren’t asking anyone to withhold service.
While the world of unions is a strange one, it seems that a true sense of unity – not anger – is sustaining an entire interrupted industry.