“We’re past the age of heroes and hero-kings”, once opined John Updike. “Most of our lives are basically mundane, and it’s up to writers to find ways to make them interesting”.
If you go along with that assertion by the celebrated American novelist, poet, literary critic and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, then you’re in agreement that a nation that loses its writers, effectively its storytellers, loses those figures in it whose job it is to imbue our lives with wonderment, with the realisation that things are not what they seem to be, that we need to judge anew each day.
Writers, however, are not ethereal, anti-gravitational creatures from a galaxy far, far away. They are down-to-earth mortals who, like you and me, need to earn a decent living-wage in order to live decent lives. And, also like you and me, writers bristle when their labour is exploited — and that includes Hollywood writers whom you would dismiss as lowbrow literateurs, in the most flamboyant sense of the word.
How much writers should be compensated for their work
Well, you may be high of brow, but these writers are still the folks who enchant you, entertain you and, yes, at times even edify you when you watch a show on your television screen in the comfort of your living room or a film on the silver screen in a movie theatre near you.
“We are the people who create the stuff that the world watches, and yet we’re treated as if we’re worthless”, chief negotiator for the Writers Guild of America, the labour union that represents writers working for film, television, radio and online media, told reporters on April 17, in the midst of contentious negotiations between his union and the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of studios, streaming services and TV networks. “Sustaining a writing career has become almost untenable for our members, and we are just at a breaking point”.
The negotiations centred around how much writers should be compensated for their work on films, TV shows and streaming series; around the equitable amount of residual payments (in effect, payments made to writers in cases of reruns, syndication and online streaming) they are entitled to; and, most notably, around needed protections against artificial intelligence, or ChatGPT, whose use threatens to replace them.
It is in fact the eighth since 1952 and the first in 15 years. The last one, in 2007-2008, lasted three months and cost the studios around $2 billion, or $2.8 billion in today’s money.
On that day, the Guild, which has close to 12,000 members, had voted, with an astounding 97:85 in favour, to authorise a strike if the talks did not conclude with a new three-year contract before midnight on May 1.
They did not. And at 12.01am on May 2, members of the guild officially went on strike, with hundreds of them in later days seen on sidewalks in Los Angeles and New York picketing studios and offices of Netflix, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney and others. And, yes, you would’ve loved some of the pithy, writerish picket signs. Here’s one — Writer: I have a family to feed/ Studio: who told you to have a family. Yet another — Give up just one yacht. And my favourite — ChatGPT doesn’t have childhood trauma.
This, of course, is not the first writers’ strike of its kind. It is in fact the eighth since 1952 and the first in 15 years. The last one, in 2007-2008, lasted three months and cost the studios around $2 billion, or $2.8 billion in today’s money.
If the strike has drawn international attention it is simply because what the striking writers create — by stringing words together — is now, in this globalised world of ours, consumed by an international audience. And when a popular show produced in Los Angeles is shut down it leaves an impact on audiences who watch in, say, in Singapore.
A fight to stay alive
And, yes, a lot of productions have so far faced delays or shutdowns, including NBC’s wildly popular sketch comedy Saturday Night Live — now in its 48th season — which went dark after the strike began. And, no, no one in America has questioned the right reserved by members of the Guild to strike. The right of a discontented segment of the labour force to strike is sacrosanct.
Yet, what passes largely unnoticed in this largely amicable era of labour-management relations is that the story of America is, on one level, the story of its people’s struggle for decent wages and decent working conditions.
Indeed, there was a time in modern American history, say in the first half of the last century, when, according to cultural historians and especially historians of the labour movement in the US, like Philip Taft and Philip Ross, the United States had the bloodiest and the most violent labour turmoil of any industrialised nation in the world. The precipitating causes of the violence often stemmed from the deeply toxic relationship between labour and management at the time, namely, attempts by picketers to prevent, say, a plant on strike from being reopened by strikebreakers (pejoratively known as “scabs”) and equally prevent raw materials from entering or finished products from leaving the struck plant. And sometimes the violence stemmed from company guards (who were also known by a pejorative, namely “goons”), police and at times National Guardsmen who attempted to break up the strikes. It should be admitted, though, that the violence rarely spilled over to other segments of the community.
Gone, of course, are those days and the labour strife that accompanied them, when the idea of an 8-hour day was a pipedream.
We live in times when Hollywood writers, who reportedly earn on average $4,500 a week, need better pay and protections against a Stanley Kubrick-like HAL threatening to take over their jobs and render them irrelevant.
Last Sunday, Bob Bakish, chief executive at Paramount, said that the studios were fully prepared to “manage through the strike, even if it’s for an extended time”.
So, it would appear, are the writers, who feel they’re in an existential fight aimed at salvaging no less than the writing enterprise itself.
And, as the tiresome cliché has it, the good always triumphs. Or does it?
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.