In my first job out of college as a chemist, I worked in a factory. I was in QC and worked alongside lab technicians that were unionized. A lot of progressives have a love of unions that I don’t share because I saw a lot of pure human sorriness excused by the union rules. I watched guys set up a test that took an hour to run and 50 minutes into it would abandon it because it was their break time. They’d refuse to wait 10 minutes to break, and just let the test get ruined and need to be restarted later. I felt the union engendered a very much “what do I care?” attitude between the workers and their work.
Nearly 20 years on, I actually have flipped a lot of that feeling. I understand that unionizing takes the flexibility out of what you do, reduces the ability of the highest performers to more of a pack norm with the rigidity. I also have realized that no one does that lightly, and those workers willing to give up yet more of their money in union dues and sacrifice some of their advancement are doing it for a reason. Only when you are really getting screwed hard are you willing to organize and make those sacrifices. Whether it is for safety or working conditions or benefits or pay, unless you are seriously shafted as a group it makes no sense to introduce another player between you and your money. Entertainment industry writers are a group like that. They are the most poorly treated participants on the creative side of the house. They’ve had to unionize to protect themselves and now they think they need to strike to protect themselves.
I’ve seen lots of commentary on this strike from the informed participants like Ken Levine (1, 2, 3) or John Rogers (1, 2), but also from the uninformed and kind of dumb.
My friend CC Chapman weighed in and mused about what the strike means for new media. He has two points, one good and one heart-rendingly bad. If the strike is protracted and this means a drastic slowdown of new shows produced by Hollywood, that would be a wise time for the independent new media producer, podcaster or vlogger or whatever to try to make a splash. Fair game and when the entertainment vacuum arises, trying to suggest to the public at large that your show could fill that is cool. What is not cool is his second suggestion – that Hollywood look to new media as a source of non-unionized scab writers to work on their shows. Bad idea, really really fucking tragically horrible insane idea.
First, it is bad on the moral and ethical level. When these writers are striking to get their compensation in line with the rest of the Hollywood creative personnel, it is not your business to get into that and undercut their position. They live here, you are a tourist. What if you are at lunch and ask your boss for a raise, and the waiter overhears and says “Hell, I’ll do that job for 40% less than what you pay him/her!” If you slapped that waiter with a breadstick, he had it coming. That’s what you are doing, if you get into this you deserve to be slapped with whatever is handy.
Secondly, it is bad on a business level. If there is one thing I have found podcasters to be freakishly wiling to do, it is to work for free for the profits of others. Over and over and over again, I see this. Some company will arise, want work for free with some vague promise of possibly paying later if money flows, and new media people will flock to it, eager to work for nothing on the outside chance of getting paid or getting dubious promotion value from it. Have some goddamn self-respect, people. What the WGA is striking for is exactly that situation. 20 years ago, there was little money from home video and all the cash was in TV syndication so they were given a horrible deal on video sales with the promise of “We’ll take care of you if this ever makes money.” Oddly enough, when the money came in then no one was in a hurry to take less in order to give the writers more. Funny how that works.
On multiple occasions, I have received emails from someone “writing a book on podcasting.” They want me to submit a chapter. I always respond and ask if this is a paying gig, and they always come back with “Well, you’ll get a copy and the promotional value.” Nice. It’s cheaper for me to buy your book at Amazon than spend hours writing a chapter to get a free one. It’s not that I need the money per se, but I hate when people want to use my time, pay me nothing and profit from it. I’ve donated time in charity situations, but I’m not going to go work the counter at Starbuck’s for free. Way too many new media people don’t seem to view it like that, sign on to these work-for-nothing deals, devalue their own labor and that of their compatriots and basically screw the whole deal up. Either everyone is eating at the table, or no one is. It’s that simple.
So I think if new media people want to choose now to make a full court press on their promotions, it would be a wise time. If you are going to take your naive asses to Hollywood and write for pennies on the dollar and get an ever worse deal than the one the guild members are striking over, spare us all and don’t do it. You can’t negotiate a good deal in the podcast world where all the business people are relatively speaking gentle lambs. If you try in Hollywood, the sharks will eat you alive. So you will screw the existing writers for a chance to get screwed even worse yourself. Don’t do it.
Proactive update: Before I even published this, I see CC got a comment explaining the mechanics of why studios wouldn’t do this regardless. I’m publishing my post anyway because I always like to exhort the crowd not to give it away for free. If you want to be a successful whore, you can’t get there by being a slut first. That’s not a viable career progression.