MotherJones SO93: Hollywood backbyting

This may come as no big surprise to people who watch TV or go to movies, but some of the best writing done by members of the Writers Guild of America is never aired in public--nor is it meant to be. Since 1987, members have used the guild's computer bulletin board system to send their most passionate, angst-ridden messages back and forth to each other. That is, they did until this past April, when three BBS activists filed a free-speech suit against the guild for making them sign "loyalty oaths" to use the BBS. In response, the guild's board of directors summarily shut down the BBS for being excessively contentious, a potential legal liability, and generally more trouble than it was worth.

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The BBS was disliked in certain circles because some activists used it to attack the guild's executive director, Brian Walton. Walton, they charged, dominated the board, ran roughshod over the membership, and, out of fear of offending the TV and motion-picture industries, voluntarily surrendered the union's most effective weapon (the threat of a strike) for the dubious benefits of industrial harmony. In addition, he refused to reveal the terms of his employment contract. "The president of the U.S. has to tell us how much he makes," says Larry Gelbart, a writer for "M.A.S.H." and Tootsie. "Why does a man employed by almost eight thousand people withhold from us what we pay him?"

As is usual in these kinds of disputes, the real issue isn't so much free speech or the director's personality as which political point of view animates the union. The problem in the Writers Guild is that not all writers are created equal. In any given year, half its members make no money at all from TV or screenwriting, while 2.5 percent make more than $350,000 each. As some high-earning writers see it, if they do what the activists want--go on strike at every opportunity--they could easily end up losing their houses, marriages, and mental health, just because some "thirties-style Wobblies and fifties-style Reds" aren't happy unless they're hitting the bricks, joining hands, and singing "Joe Hill." Instead of attacking Walton, says one former board member, activists should be lighting candles in his honor: "He brought the union back from the brink of disintegration and saved it from total collapse."

The BBS activists take strong exception to the notion that they are paranoid left-wingers who would rather strike than write. All they want, they say, is a little more recognition (and money) for their contributions to the industry. That many successful writers now disdain going on strike seems more than a little arrogant to the activists, considering it was the willingness of previous generations of writers to strike when need be that allows some of today's members to live in million-dollar houses and drive $80,000 cars.

"It's not too much to ask them to put a little aside [in case of a strike]," says Ferde Rombola, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "What's wrong with driving a Honda?"