WGA West board member Luvh Rakhe has offered a history lesson on the power of solidarity – and the price that unions pay when they’re divided during strikes and collective actions.
Rakhe, who’s running for re-election as a supporter of the guild’s stance in its ongoing battle with Hollywood’s talent agencies, argues that writers should learn from Nick Counter, the late-president of management’s AMPTP, which he reunified in 1982 after the contentious breakup of the old Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers when Paramount and Universal split to form their own Alliance.
“Having been on the board for four years and the negotiating committee in 2017, I want to share a few lessons I’ve learned about how our collective power works,” Rakhe wrote today in a posting on the Medium social media platform. “I’ll start with an inspirational quote from Nick Counter, founder of the AMPTP. Here he refers to studios and independent producers in the ‘70s using two different, weak alliances to bargain with the WGA, SAG, and the DGA: ‘Since the two groups’ bargaining objectives were neither identical nor coordinated, the guilds found themselves in the happy position of securing different concessions from the two groups, and then returning to each group to seek agreement on the concessions the other had made…’”
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“He’s describing the strategy of divide and conquer,” wrote Rakhe, a TV writer whose credits include New Girl and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
And that’s the same strategy the guild has embarked on in its standoff with the talent agencies – hoping to peel off agencies from the Association of Talent Agents and get them to sign the new franchise agreement that the WGA has implemented. That standoff is now in its 132nd day.
Here is the rest of Rakhe’s post:
“From 1940 to 1980, Hollywood’s unions had an extraordinary run” Rakhe wrote. “By dividing and conquering studios, independent producers, and networks, they won remarkable gains for their members. Not that it was easy. It took strikes from the WGA and SAG to get health care, minimums, residuals. Striking writers in 1960 gave up residuals on the pe-1960 films, an enormous sacrifice, in order to create the pension plan that supports us to this day.
“In 1970, Nixon’s FCC established Fin/Syn rules that prohibited distributors from being producers. They couldn’t own each other and they couldn’t bargain together.
“Things were good — but then in 1982, Counter created the AMPTP. He was determined to unite the companies and he succeeded. Moreover, he offered a powerful framing argument: strikes were bad for everyone and should be avoided by all. This was the Reagan era, corporatist and anti-union, and much of the town accepted this.
“The WGA undertook painful strikes in 1985 and 1988. Clinton undid Fin/Syn in 1993, ending the era of independent producers and concentrating more power in fewer hands. We eventually succumbed to Counter’s frame, that strikes were to be avoided. In doing so, we did the studios’ work for them, undercutting our only leverage. We created the Contract Adjustment Committee to deliberately avoid strikes. We hired a CBS executive to be our Executive Director, thinking good deals come from insiderism.
“They don’t. We swallowed rollbacks to health and pension. The AMPTP set in stone lower cable minimums and residuals that were supposed to be “experimental.” The home video market exploded and we made no attempt to fix the formula, forcing it to become an issue in 2007.
“Negotiation is not about cajoling, or personal forcefulness, or bluffing. It is not even about making an argument. Facts are not leverage, because a negotiating table is not a court of law. Each studio exec could buy all of our reasoning and it literally would not matter.
“We know this because corporations, whether they’re agencies or studios, are not oriented around reasonability. They have no place to put it. Their only reasons for doing things are profit, revenue, cost, risk, and liability. Every action they take must translate into one of those things. They can’t make concessions for free; they have to be outweighed by the possible price. Our power is in imposing this price.
“Negotiations are about power. You get what your power merits.
“During a collective action, we do offer arguments, facts, figures — to our members. As a democracy, we cannot tap our power unless our members are aligned. We need to do politics. We need to convince people. We need to unite people.
“This is exploitable because it is one-sided. The CEOs of the agencies do not need to ‘convince’ their organizations of their points of view; they are the bosses. The frame of reasonability is itself a negotiation tactic. We must be reasonable because if we’re not, we will lose our members’ support and thus our power. CEOs do not need to be reasonable and accordingly have not been.
“Not that there aren’t politics on their side — they just exist between companies instead of between individual people. The companies have very different interests, risk profiles, levels of diversification. They are vicious competitors.
“But, the opponents of our current strategy, to a person, want to go back to negotiating with the ATA. They want to negotiate with the agencies as a group.
“Why in god’s name would we do this? After all our history, all the times we’ve been taught that we’re stronger if we’re united and they’re weaker if they’re not, why would we want them to team up — something they want to do so badly they have to be sued to stop?
“Our opponents lament our not working with SAG and the DGA. Which means they understand the power of unity. So why confer that power on the agency CEOs? For nothing?
“We have a path forward. Collective action and power does not involve very many certainties, but I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty: you do not win by making it easier for the other side.”
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