Striking the Free Market

I’ve only followed the current Writers Guild of America strike in passing. Mostly I lament the impending doom that is no new episodes of How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Heroes, Journeyman, House, Pushing Daisies, and The Office. Still, I sympathize with the writers. I think what they’re asking for is fair and at least what I’d want in their position. I wish them luck.

However, they’re to blame for their own mess. This is what happens when unions interfere. The Us vs. Them mentality never succeeds long-term precisely because it creates Us vs. Them as the prevailing narrative. Perhaps management is to blame for the initial escalation. I suspect that’s often true, although I’m basing my assumption on no investigation of facts. The desire to get something for as little as possible is universal. No surprise there.

The writers have something of value, which is why they’re now withholding their services. I don’t care if people want to group themselves together, letting the superior talents of the few balance the lesser talents of the many. Take the successful screenwriter and use her as leverage to get the non-working scriptwriter better compensation. It’s not a deal I’d make, even though I have no illusions that I could be the former in my scenario, as opposed to the latter. But talent is always the biggest bargaining chip. Make a concession on that to pull up those who maybe shouldn’t be in the field and you’ve traded your strength for goodwill. I don’t understand that.

I believe in a market price. In this case, producers have a range within which they’re willing to pay. Writers have a range within which they’re willing to write. Somewhere there’s a deal to be made. Or not. The “or not” is the key. Unionization hampers the realization that someone’s expectations may be broken. As I implied earlier, I think that’s the producers in this case, because it’s reasonable for writers to receive compensation if producers use their work on the Internet or on DVD.

Harold Meyerson (predictably) takes up the WGA cause in today’s column. I could’ve guessed his conclusion before reading the first word, but here’s what he concluded:

Nations with more high-tech economies than our own, such as the Scandinavian states, have upgraded technology and increased productivity in ways that have enhanced, rather than diminished, the bargaining power and lives of their workers. In the United States, by contrast, our corporate elites, sometimes using technological innovation as a pretext for their power grabs, have destroyed workers’ bargaining power and kept for themselves almost all the revenue from technologically driven productivity increases. The picketers at Paramount and Disney may look to be a chorus line of wise-asses, but their struggle is a deadly serious test of whether any American workers retain the clout to strike a deal with the unchecked greed that is the modern American corporation.

Reference to any type of elites disqualifies your argument from serious consideration, in most cases. I’m simply not interested in entertaining conspiracy theories as a default.

That said, Meyerson offers the refutation of his own conclusion a few paragraphs earlier in his essay:

“Our current bargaining agreement doesn’t give us jurisdiction over content written for new media,” says Tony Segall, general counsel of the Writers Guild of America West. A side letter appended in 2001 to the guild’s contract with the studios exempted the studios from having to bargain with the union over the paychecks of writers turning out material for the Web, which the insufficiently futurist leadership of the guild (since replaced) apparently viewed as a distant prospect.

Is this not proof of what can happen when you turn over your individual bargaining power to the unchecked power of another? Leaving aside the reasonableness of the WGA’s demands, they created their own mess through unionization.

Meyerson also provides an example of free market principles, which he uses to explain only corporate greed.

Last year, however, NBC-Universal asked the writers of “The Office” to create two-to-three-minute “webisodes” of the series for the Internet. Though the webisodes drove up the show’s ratings, the studio paid the writers nothing for their work. The writers, not surprisingly, ceased their webisode writing; the guild sought to negotiate for them with NBC-Universal and got nowhere fast; and the issue of the writers’ right to bargain collectively for Internet work became the crux of the writers’ conflict with the studios.

Assuming no pre-existing contractual obligations for web content, won’t the writers have power without a strike to demand payment? I wouldn’t be so silly as to suggest that writers provide the web content for free to generate higher salaries for a show with improved ratings. Actually…

The problem with unions is that they’re not dynamic enough to keep up with the marketplace. They can’t handle innovation in anything other than hindsight. As a result, they create unnecessary problems and constraints. The current situation with the WGA is just further evidence.

One thought on “Striking the Free Market”

  1. The thing that bothers me is that other people, who would be perfectly happy to do these writers’ jobs for what the writers were making (or less) are forcibly prevented from doing so. So rather than moving on with smarter, non-union writers (and maybe some nice, non-leftist plots for a change), we just sit and wait.
    The waiting doesn’t bother me, since I don’t bother watching TV since they took Firefly off the air, but the fact that there are unemployed people who could use those jobs, and the law prevents the offer from being made, bothers me.

Comments are closed.