In New York last week, I joined the striking film and TV writers on the picket line in front of the Disney store on Fifth Avenue. Before the morning was out, I’d gotten involved in a tussle that could only happen when writers strike.
I picked up a sign that said, “Fair Share for Writers!” and joined the line of hundreds in an enclosed space on the sidewalk. Our numbers kept growing until we couldn’t move at all, just shuffle in place. There were star writers like David Chase, who created “The Sopranos,” and Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America,” along with writers who barely earn a living. (The average member of the Writers Guild earns $60,000 a year) I caught up with a friend who writes big horror movies, but who’s one of the calmest, dearest, sane people I know. He asked that I change his name, so let’s call him Jerry. We hadn’t seen each other in years and were catching up, when we spotted a trim man in a beautifully tailored navy suit and tie outside the barrier. “Go home!” the man yelled, “Go back to work!” People started asking, “Who is that guy?” and we heard, “He’s from management. He looks like a suit, doesn’t he?”
He was, in fact, the only man in sight wearing a suit. Writers live in jeans or sweats and sneakers.
We kept shuffling and talking, handing out fliers to passers by, blowing whistles and beating drums. The Suit kept trying to incite people, and had a cameraman with him. “Don’t you want to work?” he shouted. “When was your last pay check? If you ever hope to see another one, get your ass back to work!”
Jerry and I decided he was an agent provocateur from some sleazy TV program, trying to get the writers angry so they’d behave badly. Then they’d get it on film, air it and embarrass the lot of us. Jerry started telling people, “Don’t react, don’t take the bait. Just ignore him.”
And so we did. But an hour later, the Suit, who had dark curly hair and narrow slit glasses, appeared with a box of donuts. Right in front of Jerry and me, the Suit threw a donut in a striker’s face. Then he looked at me and asked, “Want a donut?” I shouted something incoherent, bracing for a donut to hit my face. Jerry yelled at him, “Get out of the line. You don’t belong here!” The Suit, impudent, stood his ground and asked Jerry, “Want a donut?”
Jerry—the calm, sane guy—took his picket sign and whacked the donut box— whack, whack, whack!—until the Suit dropped it and the donuts spilled all over the ground. The Suit looked into the camera and smirked. Jerry said, “I’m gonna call the cops,” and barreled toward the side of the enclosure. I started after him. Jerry was clearly reacting as the Suit had wanted him to and I hoped to diffuse things, but another guy stopped Jerry and said: “The Suit’s a writer for Saturday Night Live. This is a skit, that’s all.”
Oy. We’d been gotten.
Jerry returned to the line abashed. “They shouldn’t let me out of my apartment,” he said. “I wanted to punch that sucker out.” Ten minutes later, the Suit had changed to a Writers Guild shirt and cap and was picketing with the rest of us.
“Warring Signs.” Peter Simon shot this at a Vietnam war protest in the 60s. History repeats itself…
We all had a good laugh, which was sorely needed, as the situation for writers looks grim. People ask me, “Is your TV show affected by the strike?” Like, totally! We turned in a draft of the pilot for “Leap!,” the drama series, just before the strike began, but we can’t do revisions or prepare to shoot until the strike ends. And that may not happen till next summer, or later. We’re asking for two per cent of what the networks and studios make on sales of our work over the Internet and new technologies. They’re standing firm at zero. Nada. No matter how rich they get on our work, they give us nothing. Jerry says three of the heavies in management—Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., Sumner Redstone of Viacom and Jeffrey Immelt of GE—are know for their hostility to unions. They want to cripple ours, just as other unions in the country have been weakened. These conglomerates can afford to lose billions if that will undermine the pesky writers’ union.
But the writers are united, determined to go the distance.
Wherever you live, you can pay $1 to send a box of pencils to media moguls in support of striking writers, sign the online petition, or write to the heads of companies and urge them to negotiate and give writers a fair share. The companies consider one letter to represent the views of 100 people, so your voice will matter.
Watch a video of the titans predicting how much money they’ll make over the Internet.
Send a message to Sara.