Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Strike

The other day I was walking down Fairfax Avenue on my way to catch a bargain matinée showing of American Gangster. The "bargain", by the way is $8.75, but that's life in the big city. Anyway as I crossed Beverly and headed past the gates of CBS's Television City complex, I noticed a large group of people congregating on the sidewalk. Not an unusual sight, since I often see people lined up along the sidewalk there, hoping to get a shot as contestants on The Price Is Right. But instead of the typically middle-aged, overweight and mostly female demographic hunkered in their lawn chairs, this group was decidedly more, shall we say, 'upscale.' They looked to be in their mid-thirties and early forties, mostly white, about half men and half women, with nice haircuts and comfortable yet stylish "walking shoes." And they all wore red t-shirts. For a moment I thought that a group of photogenic Target employees was being given a tour of CBS. But I quickly realized my error: they were writers on strike. I guess maybe the protest signs should have tipped me off.

Now of course I was fully aware that there was a writer's strike -- it was the biggest news story in town since last month's fires. And I was fully on the side of the writers, for one thing because I hope to become one of them, but also because they are right. And yet when suddenly confronted with this contingent of until recently well-paid Hollywood elite, I was struck by a quite unexpected emotion. Instead of feeling a bond of kinship and camaraderie with the red-shirted mob, I felt instead quite unsympathetic, and perhaps even a little angry.

I realize my feelings were totally irrational -- none of these writers was doing anything to harm or injure me in any way. In fact what they were doing might well benefit me someday. At least I hope it will. What they were doing was quite noble, in fact -- exercising their rights to collectively bargain for a reasonable share of the profits generated by their creative endeavors. It's no secret that without writers, the entertainment industry wouldn't even exist. There would be no movies, no TV shows, no sequels, no spin offs, no ancillary revenue streams... Likewise, it is well known that the writer has long been considered the least important member of the "creative team." So it is only natural and necessary for the writers to band together to try and carve out their fair share of the juicy Hollywood Pie.

So why was I so pissed off at them? Simple, because they have (or had) jobs and I don't. As I watched the picketers with their mass-produced placards and bottles of Evian, marching in an orderly fashion along the sidewalk, all I could think was that every one of them has achieved something that I have wanted most of my life and still don't have. They had made it. They were in the inner circle. They were friends with others in the inner circle. And here they were clearly demonstrating the strength and unity of that inner circle. With their red shirts and fancy signs, it was almost as if they were saying "we're cool, you're not -- we're at the party and you aren't invited -- keep walking, loser..."

Of course, that is not what they were doing at all. They weren't thinking about how lucky they were or how cool their jobs were or how great it is to have such a large support system behind you when you decide to stand up for your rights and increase your earning power. They weren't thinking about that stuff at all. And they certainly weren't thinking about me as I passed them on the sidewalk feeling jealous and outcast. They were probably thinking about their mortgages and car payments and kid's college funds. They were probably hoping the strike ends soon. They were probably worried about all their co-workers and how the strike is affecting their jobs. They were probably scared.

I know what that's like. I know what it means to walk away from a well-paying job to do something you believe in. I know how it feels to wonder how long you can hold out without a steady paycheck. I know what it is to put everything on the line and not know if the gamble will pay off.

On the way home from the movie I passed the writers again. They were still going strong. I felt less angry this time. You can't blame the lucky for being lucky. You can't fault people for trying to improve their lives. Sure they may have a better deal than I do, but there's a whole lot of people who don't. Like the folks who lost everything in the fire.

It will be interesting to see how the strike affects the industry. How long can people live on reruns? Will we realize that television isn't really that important? Will people start reading books? Or having conversations? I doubt it. We still have YouTube and Halo 3 and DVDs. Thank God. We'll never run out of entertainment.

I hope the writers get what they want and I hope they get it soon. And I hope if I ever make it into the inner circle, I won't forget what it felt like to be on the outside.

But I also hope that someday I have a bunch of compatriots dressed in red shirts who all feel as passionately as I do about what we are doing. And I hope we are passionate enough to stand up for our rights and even risk our jobs when we feel we are being disrespected.

Maybe then I will feel like one of the cool people.