Last year's Guild rally drew a line in the sand

INTRO TEXT:

A year has passed since the Writers Guild of America went on strike against Hollywood’s majors, and now the biz is girding for the prospect of another strike by the Screen Actors Guild.

The WGA’s Nov. 9, 2007, rally outside the Fox Plaza building in Century City, held on the fifth day of the 100-day walkout, proved a turning point for those on strike and those in the executive suites. In this excerpt from her forthcoming book, “TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet,” Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton describes the significance of that morning.

By 8 a.m., Avenue of the Stars, a tony stretch of high-rise office complexes and hotels, was swelling with striking writers and their supporters, yet the atmosphere still seemed eerily quiet with the street shut down to through traffic.Writers Guild of America leaders made the savvy decision to close out the first week of picketing with a mass rally at a single location, complete with rabble-rousing speakers, protest music and a permit from the LAPD to shut down the street for a demonstration from 10 a.m.-noon.

The rally was envisioned as both a morale-booster for guild members and a visceral demonstration of the WGA’s strength in numbers. It would prove to be a defining moment of the labor action that was spurred as much by disputes over money — specifically how to compensate writers for exploitation of their work in new media — and a deep distrust between the leaders of the WGA and the CEOs of the town’s major employers.

For many of the striking writers, the rally was the electrifying demonstration of solidarity and unanimity that WGA prexy Patric Verrone and the architect of the strike, WGA West executive director David Young, had hoped it would be. For the industry executives who warily monitored the goings-on from afar, it was the full flowering of the thing they feared most — a militant spirit among the rank-and-file.

At times the gathering took on a jovial, college-reunion vibe. Writers who had spent long hours working together on long-ago canceled TV shows ran into one another for the first time in years. One participant remarked on how unsettling it was to see “so many people who beat me out for jobs” in one place.

Speakers ranged from Norman Lear to Seth MacFarlane to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s presence conferred a national importance and civil-rights imperative to the writers’ cause.

Verrone took the stage for brief introductory remarks.

“My name is Patric Verrone … and I am a writer.”

Verrone’s steely gaze eased into a smile as he paused to take in the applause.

“We’re shutting down production,” Verrone told the crowd, “… and we’re kicking corporate ass.”

Verrone would proudly hail the Fox rally as the largest “mobilization” of members in the Writers Guild’s 74-year history, with more than 4,000 members and supporters gathered on the lawn and street in front of the 34-story Fox Plaza.

The Rev. Jackson followed.

Jackson did not expand much from his trademark “keep hope alive” stump speech. He didn’t need to. His rhythmic oratory struck a chord with many in the crowd.

The strike was “part of the larger struggle in America today,” Jackson asserted. “Too few control too much.”

Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg was appropriately dramatic in offering a fiery voice of support for the WGA’s fight.

But Rosenberg’s populist rant was tame compared to the rousing speech delivered by the WGA’s Young.

From the day he was promoted to executive director of the Writers Guild of America West, Young was eyed with extreme caution by execs at the major studios. His background as an organizer for blue-collar unions representing plumbers and textile workers raisedred flags, and fears that would bring blue-collar agitation and negotiation tactics to the fore in representing the decidedly white-collar workers on the WGA West.

By the time Young left the podium at the Fox rally, he’d given a performance that would convince the CEOs that he was a master propagandist hell-bent on furthering a political agenda, not reaching a compromise at the bargaining table.

“Brothers and sisters …”

The folksy salutation sounded odd to Hollywood-jaded ears. But Young had their attention.

“Brothers and sisters, we are involved in a huge struggle, and all of you are making a huge sacrifice for the Writers Guild, for the labor movement and for Hollywood. This is a watershed moment in our history. We had a good relationship at one time perhaps with our employers. We are in the process of being left behind. Is that OK with you?”

“No!” the crowd responded, without skipping a beat.

“Brothers and sisters, we cannot screw this up. We’re going to get it right this time,” Young assured.

The crowd’s response grew louder and more defiant. The substance of his remarks was startling to many, invigorating to some.

“We are part of a broader struggle that has been going on between the American middle class and power concentration. Everywhere in America families are dropping out of the middle class. As power has been concentrated in six corporations that control everything that we read and see and hear, and everything that you produce, writers and talent are being strangled not just economically but creatively.”

Wild applause forced a pause, which Young needed to catch his breath. The crowd was riveted.

“Brothers and sisters it’s time for us to take a stand! I’m here to tell you, on day 5, we are winning this strike! Let me hear you!”

Fists shot into the air, picket signs waved side to side and up and down amid the cacophony of shouts, whistles, howls and hands clapping.

As details of the size and the tenor of the rally spread around town later in the day, Young’s fiery call to arms in particular put the CEOs on the defensive, and it encouraged them to dig in their heels. They shared a collective disgust at what they viewed as the oversimplification of the financial issues at stake and the convenient vilification of them as greedy executives.

When word spread in the executive suites that Verrone had made the comparison between the guild’s fight and groups persecuted by the Nazis — Verrone closed the rally by reciting a variation of the World War II-era poem “First they came …” — the CEOs wrote him off as delusional, and in love with the spotlight.

It was an overreaction, to be sure. But the protest-march symbolism and anti-studio sentiment on display helped deepen the divide between WGA leaders and studio executives. The tenor of the fight between screenwriters and their employers had become far more intense by the early afternoon of Nov. 9 than it was when the sun rose over the Fox Plaza that morning.

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