Tuesday, November 27, 2007



“...and the men of Israel were gathered together, pitched by the valley of Elah, and set in battle array against the Philistines.”

I'll be joining the Day of Solidarity with the WGA in Toronto today. But with both sides in the Strike back at the table and hopefully making progress, I wanted to communicate a little about my own experiences negotiating writer agreements.

I hope it will help those of you who are new to this process understand what you can expect in the coming days. Because this is where the hard part begins. This is where you come face to face with Goliath, depending on little more than your faith in what you believe in and hoping the small stone in your sling is enough.

I have been connected to Unions my whole life. When I was a kid, one of my grandfathers and later my dad worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. One of my dad's best friends was an officer in their union and went on to become a respected Member of Parliament.

I can remember going to smokey meetings in the local Legion or Oddfellows Hall as he would outline the latest company offer or a negotiated agreement the other men needed to ratify.

The details of those deals were beyond me, but I won't ever forget the turmoil and emotion in those meeting halls as men struggling to make ends meet argued over what they were losing to see a few extra dollars in their pay packet or achieve a benefit many of them might never require.

That taught me early that no one wins a strike. No one.

In school, they regularly showed us NFB films about the importance of the rail lines that connected the country and gushed with pride over the massive shipments of wheat and cattle that left places like my home town to feed great cities. We were the "Breadbasket of the world".

Those sprocket jumping films showed me that the companies who owned the box cars carrying our produce also owned ships and airplanes, great skyscapers and luxury hotels; along with the shiny streamliners with Club and Observation cars that zoomed past town once a day in either direction.

It would be years before anyone coined the term "convergence". But the overall message was that the companies were very rich and very powerful and we were very lucky to have them looking out for our interests.

But then the railroad workers would disagree with the wage or benefit packages the company offered, negotiations broke down and their union went on strike.

It wasn't anything they looked forward to doing. To be honest, it made no sense given the money and power arrayed against them. But like sending a child into battle against a giant, it was the only option they had.

And it made you realize that maybe the companies didn't have your best interests at heart at all.

What I remember most from these disputes was the way it impacted my family. I overheard late night calls threatening my dad if he didn't go back to work and discussions with men who worked alone or in small groups in remote locations along the tracks. They were vulnerable and afraid, often warned of the imminent arrival of scabs and railroad "Bulls" determined to break their will, physically if need be.

It was a time when it wasn't unusual for union men to be beaten or humiliated in front of their families, sometimes as the Mounties looked on -- or just the other way. I remember seeing my dad and my grandfather and that future MP loading the .38s the railroad had issued them to protect its property, now being carried to defend themselves from their benefactors.

It was an early lesson in how fragile society really is, how the concept of fairness doesn't seem to graduate past grade school with some people and that those with power sometimes feel the need to grip it with frightening tenacity.

It was my introduction to the concept of the "Working Class Hero". I understood you should respect authority and great wealth and power -- but you could never trust them to show respect in return. Sometimes they had to be reminded that people without wealth and power were people too.

And like the man said, a working class hero was "something to be".

My own union affiliations have included the Musicians Union, Canadian and American Equity, ACTRA, the Writers Guild of Canada and the WGA. Early in my career, when Canadian writers were still members of ACTRA, I was part of the group that helped seperate us from their embrace and form the WGC.

That was a difficult and complicated process, especially for me, mostly still an actor at the time. But I knew that the working goals of actors and those of writers were not always compatible and whether I stuck with the new Guild or not, writers needed their own voice, which by its separateness could enhance rather than weaken the position of Canadian artists overall.

My original WGC membership card was #2.

Around the same time, I was pressed into service on the negotiating team that hammered out what became the WGC's first Independent Producer Agreement. For the first time in my association with Unions, I was part of constructing the terms and conditions under which I worked.

Along with Jack Grey, the Guild's first President, John Hunter ("The Grey Fox") and rotating regional reps, (ably guided by the Guild's first Executive Director, Margaret Collier) we spent the best part of a year locked in that process. Opposite us were several producers I'd worked for and an experienced entertainment lawyer; like us, determined to create an agreement that realistically reflected our growing film and television industry.

At first, a lot of time was spent with both sides being painfully honest and detailed in how we worked, what individual and industry realities we faced and how we envisioned a future that could benefit all of us.

For all you've heard recently about how essential writers are to the process, writers also know that a prosperous industry is just as important and that the future needs to be bright for everyone involved.

That approach is complicated by the knowledge that the industry is populated on both sides by those whose motives are more selfish and to whom the "here and now" always takes precedence over "down the road".

As Craig Mazin correctly compares labor and baseball here, you quickly learn that your duty in that room is to be both strong and reasonable.

Strong as an advocate for your fellow writers, reasonable in knowing that you can't always get what you want.

Writers here at that time were trying to establish that there really were -- writers -- here -- at that time. Some of us had a certain caché because we'd sold scripts in NY, London or LA. But overall, there was little to encourage Producers to use local talent. It was much more fun for them to fly to LA and come back with a little bag of "sparkle dust" from there.

Come to think of it, some things never change...

So part of our agenda was to create incentives to encourage our hiring while not undercutting what were economically realistic WGA minimums. To establish a foothold in the industry, we needed to be cheaper than they were without working for less than we could live on or leaving the impression that Canadian scripts weren't worth as much as those sold South of the Border.

The Producers had their own problems. Development money was non-existent. Production funding was tenuous right up until the day cameras finally rolled and Distribution was American controlled and iffy when it came to accounting for the profits.

Some of that was posturing. But we knew that establishing ourselves as working writers depended on helping them reach a position of cost certainty with backend profit sharing structured to ensure that they had seen profits in the first place.

Canadian residual income was a pipe dream in the late 70's with neither side seeming capable of tracking where and when income was being earned after the initial theatrical or television runs.

Like I said, some things don't change...

However, in a day when almost any information is a few mouse clicks away, it might be hard to understand that creative unions once used to horde TV Guides from all over the world as their trump card in keeping Producers honest.

I once learned a film of mine was making the rounds of American USO's only after getting fan letters from soldiers in Germany and Korea. Another time, I discovered another was being shown as in flight entertainment from a friend who'd seen it while flying Hong Kong to Bombay. The somewhat chagrined airline paid, after achieving a lower dollar amount by insisted the film had only been made available to those in "Second Class".

The negotiation process is a complex one. You come to see some of your own positions as justified but maybe unattainable. You see some of the Producer's requirements as onerous but logical. And both of you get snagged on issues that can't be addressed without throwing some other section already agreed upon completely out of whack.

A clause may be painful for some of the membership and perfect for the rest. They pay the same dues and work just as hard. What do you do?

A loophole covered creates another that a disingenuous producer could drive a truck through. Do you hamstring them all for the sake of one potential bad apple, or cut them some slack and hope the trust is appreciated and respected?

Those two words constantly reverberate in your head -- strong but reasonable.

In the end, the final agreements are always imperfect. This isn't a business where everybody operates the same jack hammer.

Both sides also know that times change, they're not carving anything in stone and better minds or new experience will get a crack at the same issues in 2 or 3 years time. You do the best you can under the circumstances, both for your union members and for your industry. Sometimes you make mistakes.

Our first IPA (Independent Producers Agreement) was imperfect, but it achieved its goal of creating a a reliable foundation for a burgeoning industry. Accepting that development money was scarce, we made the initial writing stages cheaper, creating a "script fee" that was below WGA rates, but was topped up when it went into production. We also created a "Production fee" that prepaid residual uses and didn't require further outlays from the producer until he was out from under his negative cost and in profit.

I've had writers tell me it was an agreement that finally allowed them to earn a living in this country. I've had others insist it cost them a fortune. They're probably both right.

What comes out of the current talks in Los Angeles will be imperfect. Nobody will get everything they want. We'll give away things we've championed to make a deal and some writers will complain that the strike wasn't worth it.

There will also be producers who find loopholes in the new contract and use them against our best interests. That's simply the nature of the beast and not something you change with a sling and a small smooth stone.

But it's all we've got -- and sometimes it can make all the difference.


wcdixon said...

Wonderfully informative and entertaining post, Jimmy...but I really need to know - who was #1?

jimhenshaw said...

They had to give it to Jack because he was the first Guild president -- either that or because he was the oldest -- can't remember.

Brandon Laraby said...

Hi Jim!

Thanks for the comment on my blog and for letting me sit in on your stories. Yes, they were a bit freaky to hear - especially as someone still fighting to get into the industry - but it's good to go into it with my eyes open. I really appriciate that you guys didn't pull any punches, it's all stuff I've gotta hear or I'm going to end up living it (will probably end up living it to some extent no matter what, I'm sure there's no real way around that).

Anyways, thanks again! I'm sure I'll have lots of my own stories to tell soon enough.


Ed McNamara said...

As someone who sat on the management side, it is interesting to hear that the same goals - ie. strong but reasonable - are what the producers try and stick to as well. Perhaps that's one reason why these things are so complex (not to mention that of course what one finds reasonable, someone else may not...). Great post.