When Candidates Strike

In the fall presidential campaign of 1980, as Ronald Reagan was looking to peel away presumed blue collar union support from President Carter, his campaign issued a flier that marked one of the few times Reagan even mentioned the then-ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike.

The flier read, “He led the Screen Actors Guild in its first strike and he won it! Elect the former union president, President.”

Now, as then, Hollywood labor strife is proving irresistible to the presidential field. And while Reagan ended up capturing man blue collar voters back then, its uncertain just who will benefit the most from jumping into this labor situation.

Democratic candidates have issued a flurry of statements in support of the writers. John Edwards walked pickets in Burbank and this week addressed a rally in Manhattan, where he framed the strike, and that of Broadway stagehands, as indicative of the struggles of the middle and working classes.

And on Wednesday,  the candidates succeeded  in scoring one for the Writers Guild of America East, which is threatening another strike of some 500 CBS News employees. The presidential contenders vows to not cross picket lines forced CBS to cancel a Dec. 10 debate in Los Angeles.

Months ago, I called around to various Hollywood politicos and asked whether any Hollywood strike would score the candidates attention. Such a thought was a stretch, I was told, and I laughed it off. Why would presidential campaigns get involved in a strike that (a) involves not blue collar voters but the creative class; and (b) pits them against some of their studio chieftan donors. Moreover, the risk was that they would get trapped in a labor conflict that the rest of the world, including Iowans, would see is millionaire vs. billionaire. It’s not too uncommon for show runners walking the picket lines to make a cool $12 million a season, after all.

Instead, I stand corrected. The campaigns have gotten involved. It didn’t matter that these were not blue-collar workers. “It’s labor, baby,” one top Clinton fund-raiser told me that day.

What I also didn’t factor in was all press attention surrounding this strike, certainly much greater than it was even in 1980, and the temptation of campaigns to pounce on it.

Led by Barack Obama, then Edwards and Hillary Clinton, the candidates issued statements on the first day of the strike in support of the writers. Michelle Obama, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth each cancelled appearances on “The View.” The camera crush when Edwards walked the pickets in Burbank was so great that one cameraman described it as an “O.J.-sized” media throng.

It’s an open question as to whether any of Edwards’ fellow candidates will walk the pickets. Of all of them, he has the least amount of industry support from studio moguls. But the cynical part of me thinks that is beside the point. Fund-raising season is winding down. Presidential contenders, after all, have already raised the bulk of primary campaign money from Hollywood. Save for some major change in political dynamics, whoever is the Democratic nominee is bound to get the lion’s share of industry support next year, anyway.

Reagan did manage to capture a sizable chunk of those blue collar voters — for many reasons other than his union leadership. But it probably didn’t hurt to highlight it, either, as it obscured some of his anti-union positions of his political career.

At Edwards’ appearance in Burbank, I talked to one picketer who wondered whether his loop around the picket line would help the guild more than it would help the candidate. After all, how much did he really know about the issues? It didn’t matter, for the campaigns have found a way of taking sides in a battle they have determined they cannot lose.

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