The Intersection

i-a5f650f0c573c71f8cc8c5b8da5ffe38-Striking.jpgLast week, Sheril got amazing and (to me) unprecedented blogospheric results when she directly took on a troublesome commenter. While I doubt I’ll get the same reaction, this post is in response to the same kind of thing.

Last week I wrote about the Hollywood screenwriters’ strike and, as a fellow writer, voiced my support. I was really disappointed by some of the resulting comments from folks who didn’t seem to understand why unions are important–and most of all, with a comment from “Bi-Liberal.” The comment was not only off point, but meanly so:

Uh, no offense, Chris and girlfriend named Molly, but really? Let’s sound the alarm that the profession you’ve chosen (blogger) isn’t paid that much??? Well, it’s been my impression that this is primarily a hobby for you and most bloggers. Your sole income comes in from other sources, namely the one where your expertise lies.

And considering you don’t have a 9-5er like most of us do, I don’t really feel bad for you. Most self employed, freelancing artists like yourself bite the bullet and accept their lack of time obligations as payment in itself.

You should probably invest in purchasing your own health insurance. I mean, you’re writing books, right? Don’t they pay you for that? Freelance artists generally don’t get “benefits” as they are normally framed. But thats the tradeoff in being your own boss! Perhaps on your next book contract, you should negotiate temporary insurance…

All good advice aside, I’m guessing you’re not paid 7.50/hr and boo hoo-ing about not being able to afford health insurance. Because, last time I checked, those are the people who really need support.

Sound your “I’m priveleged enough to make my own schedule and compensated adequately but still want more” alarm elsewear, please.


For clarity’s sake, let’s just point out that the issues brought up in my original post actually had nothing to do with:

1) A call for anyone’s sympathy for me personally.

2) The fact that there are some very successful self-employed freelancers who enjoy not being tied to a desk 24-7, or having a boss, but still get paid well. Yes, these people do have ample resources and time (or assistants) to figure out how to handle health care, etc. But other freelancers don’t.

3) Those folks who are “being paid 7.50/hr and not being able to afford health insurance.” This touches on plenty of important issues (the minimum wage, a terrible health care system, a lack of access to education and good jobs for disadvantaged people, etc…). However, those issues are also not what the original post was about either. The point is relevant to the initial post in the sense that many freelancers can not afford health insurance. The successful ones can.

So with that stuff out of the way, let’s get on to answering this comment from “Bi-Liberal.”

First of all, Writer’s Guild of America members are not freelancer writers, though they do shuffle from project to project and therefore deal with many of the same issues freelancers do. The Guild has “industry-wide bargaining” because in the 1930s embattled screenwriters in Hollywood organized a union. Now Guild members have a portable health fund that their employers pay into, and protection, unlike some freelance and other writers, from getting taken advantage of by employers on a number of issues. For instance: credits (i.e. getting credited and paid for what they’ve written), set (instead of arbitrary) pay standards, residuals (kind of like royalties), and access to arbitration for disputes with employers. These are amongst the many things a typical union contract protects you from or helps you with. And freelancers would benefit extraordinarily from having industry-wide standards, a health fund, etc., because freelancers are definitely not all equally successful.

So while “Bi-Liberal” tries to make the issue about me, how I spend my day, and how I’m compensated for it, what really matters is what kind of protections exist in general for freelancers or for screenwriters–and screenwriters are in considerably better shape because they have a union.

Meanwhile, on to bloggers, who are entirely dismissed as workers by “Bi-Liberal” because blogging is somehow supposed to be fun or a hobby. Well, guess what: Some people do not want to blog as a hobby; and some media companies are starting to make serious money off the work of bloggers. To me, and especially in light of all the attention bloggers have gotten in the last few years (they’ve been credited with playing crucial roles in elections, for instance), this suggests they should be taken much more seriously and treated as workers just like anyone else in many cases. Furthermore, just like freelancers, just like screenwriters, bloggers would benefit by having some sort of standards set in their industry. For one, those who are “professionals” should be fairly compensated for their quality work for blogs that are monetized–that bring in viewership or revenues.

There’s a far broader and more resonant point here: An increasing amount people these days are choosing careers that do solely depend on what they create for the Internet. It’s not just bloggers. Just look at job listings these days in the areas of media or journalism. In the case of the Writer’s Guild, this is one issue of many at stake in this watershed showdown: the Guild’s writers want to be paid for their work which airs on the Internet. CBS and the like, having to defend declining viewership to their shareholders, cite the ad revenues they’re getting from the Internet and other forms of new media. Meanwhile, they do not want to give a penny of it to the writers that created the original work. That’s not fair. And the stand WGA writers are taking on this will set a precedent in terms of Internet standards for all workers, which is why multiple unions are backing this strike.

Finally, there is a last critical point: screenwriting is one of the last highly organized industries in the US. Companies simply crush other unions through various methods like off-shoring and outsourcing. I’m not going to go into the issues of vastly increasing disparities between the wealthy and the poor. The simple numbers Jonathan Tasini put together illustrate that simple point, but it seems to me that this is the wrong direction for the world to go. Unions can and do create better jobs for all kinds of people. For their sake, and because the WGA writers’ cause is a reasonable and just one, people who care should figure out a way to support the writers in this crucial time. One way to help is through the blogosphere–because the PR war the companies have waged (amidst the media they own) has been tremendous and writers need to feel supported. Striking is a very scary thing. People, especially those who experience the same kind of issues the screenwriters do–aka freelancers, aka bloggers–should show their support.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    November 5, 2007

    [S]creenwriting is one of the last highly organized industries in the US. Companies simply crush other unions through various methods like off-shoring and outsourcing.

    The Internet tends to attract a lot of libertarian types (witness the phenomenal success of Ron Paul on the Internet). But I think a lot of them have not given much thought to the importance of having a strong, fairly treated middle class in this country. A country with a weak middle class tends to become weak in other respects as well (I think this was a recurring theme for Thomas Jefferson).

  2. #2 Jon Winsor
    November 5, 2007

    Paul Krugman, one of my favorite columnists (who actually introduced me to the blogosphere back in the day), has a book out that deals with this subject. He argues the weakening of unions as institutions has weakened the Democratic party–and also weakened the country left to us by our mid-20th century leaders like FDR. There’s a great interview with Paul Krugman up on Bloggingheads TV that’s worth a listen.

    I think the movement conservative propaganda that Chris has dealt with on this blog is connected with movement conservative propaganda in other areas–in favor of market fundamentalist economics, for instance.

    I’m not a union nut. I’ve heard stories about teachers’ unions that put me off. But I think the argument that people can get together and demand fair treatment is a compelling one, and it keeps employers honest.

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    November 5, 2007

    Paul Krugman, one of my favorite columnists (who actually introduced me to the blogosphere back in the day), has a book out that deals with this subject. He argues the weakening of unions as institutions has weakened the Democratic party–and also weakened the country left to us by our mid-20th century leaders like FDR. There’s a great interview with Paul Krugman up on Bloggingheads TV that’s worth a listen.

    I think the movement conservative propaganda that Chris has dealt with on this blog is connected with movement conservative propaganda in other areas–in favor of market fundamentalist economics, for instance.

    I’m not a union nut. I’ve heard stories about teachers’ unions that put me off. But I think the argument that people can get together and demand fair treatment is a compelling one, and it keeps employers honest.

  4. #4 Philip H.
    November 5, 2007

    The posters who bash unions are probably uneducarted as to what unions have given them – 40 hour workweeks are a union product, as are health and safety standards in industry, minimum wages . . . I could go on. I think the real issue most such folks have, though, is they are uncomfortable with changes in our society. They are uncomfortable with their perception of who controls the changes, and they are fearful for their own position in society. So they lash out, particularly at anyone who dares to challenge the status quo. sort of a “I can’t get more control over my situation, so why should you” process.

    And the poster taling about the loss of the middle class is spot on – many of today’s totalitarian regimes have, as their middle class, groups of people who owe the regime for their economic status, and so are less likley to challeneg it. That’s when they have a middles class at all.

  5. #5 Jennifer Ouellette
    November 5, 2007

    An excellent rebuttal, Chris. And yes, it is ultimately about bigger issues. That said, I personally get very annoyed with people who dismiss my freelance status and blogging activities as somehow undeserving of any kind of professional rights or protection with the lame argument, “Hey, you CHOSE to be a freelancer, knowing the score, and you have total freedom to set your own schedule, so what are you complaining about?” LIke you, I rarely complain, even though I work longer hours, pay twice as much as a non-freelancer in social security taxes, and have to foot the bill for my own health insurance, among other things.

    I happen to love my work, and I do take the bad with the good. But that doesn’t mean things can’t be better, and that we shouldn’t strive to give ALL workers the same kinds of benefits and protections under the law — and that includes not just freelancers but all the writers in the TV and film industry (who, as you rightly point out, are not technically “freelancers”). Unions can help accomplish that. Have unions misused their clout in the past? Sure. But they’ve also done a great deal of good, particularly in rapidly changing markets like what we’re seeing today. I don’t think the Writer’s Guild demands are at all unreasonable in light of that.

  6. #6 Emily
    November 5, 2007

    Chris,
    I think it is great that you are waving a [virtual] flag or placard (or whatever) in support of the WGA. Everyone deserves to be paid fairly for their work – and to receive benefits such as health insurance and sick leave – regardless of their chosen profession. While I enjoyed the quick shot stats about network execs, another useful comparison might be between the writers who craft the jokes and drama we love and the actors who speak those lines. The actors may have beautiful faces and impeccable timing, but someone had to put pen to paper (or excite some electrons and photons) to give them the right words to say. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m pretty certain there are some rather large gaps there, too.

  7. #7 Bi-Liberal
    November 5, 2007

    Okay, Okay. I get it, some feelings were hurt, I was harsh. Oops. Now, after working my day job, I can address the comment I posted that struck a bit of a nerve (Sorry for the personal attack). But, regardless of what affiliation you acknowledge, you are still a part of the group you are now an advocate for. Ahem, full disclosure, ahem.

    I do understand the importance of unions, and I believe professional actors, writers, screenwriters, etc. have the right to them. But, I don’t see why so-called “professional bloggers” wouldn’t be included in the writer unions already functioning. That’d be the logical first step to solidfy the kind of negotiating power an already-formed organization could wager for the professional blogging community.

    Perhaps, the lack of support for online writing colleagues is due to the newness of the media. Perhaps it’s the fact that anyone can be called a blogger and could join this professional organization. The standards are yet to be defined (amount of hits/site as indicator of pay, veterans receiving more)?

    I don’t exactly know the ins and outs of all the issues, but I’m not the only one who thinks there is something to be desired as far as message goes.

    One thing I will say is I wasn’t the only commenter no exactly convinced by the posting of the CEO salaries and revenues from said corporations.

    And, however you frame it, my “personal attack” roused up Chris’ favorite cause, controversy (don’t take that personally too, it’s kinda true). I thought your rebuttal was much more convincing today, albeit a bit long. Nevertheless, the point is, like Sheril’s arch-nemesis forced her (more than one time, in my defense) to clarify her thoughts, I think I have done the same for you, Mr. Mooney. Good pupil, you are.

  8. #8 Harry Abernathy
    November 5, 2007

    Whether or not professional bloggers should unionize (or join the Screenwriter’s Guild) is an interesting topic, but it’s a tangent to Chris’ point. He put up a post, as a book writer and blogger, to support his brothers and sisters (and sweetie) in the writer’s union.

    One of the sticking points for the union is that they feel their work is being undervalued, specifically for DVD- and web-only content. The executives are using the argument (expressed in the comments section of Chris’s posts) that the formats are “too new” and of nebulous value to be able to pay writers more. This is why Chris quoted the profit margins of the major media corporations that he did. The profit margins quoted were all above 10%, which is higher than the oil industry, and lots of people are complaining about them making too much money.

    The writers’ argument is that if the corporations are making so much money, surely they could cut a few tenths of a percent of the top and pay the writing talent a little bit more (athletic unions make this argument all the time). I guess if the executives wanted to make a stronger argument, they could charge less for their product and make a smaller profit margin, thus better justifying their claims.

    And for full disclosure: I’m just a materials scientist from Atlanta, GA; I’m not a screenwriter, nor a professional blogger.

  9. #9 Chris C. Mooney
    November 6, 2007

    Hey Bi-Liberal,
    Claiming victory is always a good rhetorical strategy, so I can’t blame you.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. I’m glad we’ve gotten past knee-jerk anti-unionism here and started to see some nuance.

    I’m still troubled, though, that more bloggers aren’t seeing the parallels between themselves and the screen and tv writers. The “new media” has created a wild wild west for writers of all types. Some thrive, some don’t, but certainly many are being taken advantage of in some way–because there are few rules, few standards, few protections.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if bloggers–whether through an existing writer’s union or a union of their own–find themselves making arguments similar to those that tv and screen writers are making at some point down the road.

    cm

  10. #10 Dr. Free-Ride
    November 6, 2007
  11. #11 Chris C. Mooney
    November 7, 2007

    Janet,
    Thanks so much for writing on this subject. Allow me to comment on your post:

    You are indeed a professional blogger, and I would argue that there is a perfect analogy between yourself, a professor who also blogs, and, say, a real estate industry worker who writes occasional screenplays and is thus a writer’s guild member.

    So in other words, these kinds of issues–who’s part time, who’s full time, who’s “professional”–already exist within already unionized groups of writers. Not everyone who’s a member of the writer’s guild is a full time screen or tv writer, or wholly dependent upon such writing for their income. but they support the guild nonetheless. the situation ought to be analogous with bloggers and I think you would probably agree.

  12. #12 STEW
    December 20, 2007

    DELAWARE COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS UNION ENDORSES JOE BIDEN
    Published: 12/17/2007

    “He’s not just pro-union, he’s pro-working families.”
    Wilmington, DE (December 17, 2007) – Today, Sen. Biden received the endorsement of the Delaware Communications Workers of America (CWA), Local 13101.

    CWA Local 13101 Executive President Bud Speakman said, “We were the first union to endorse Sen. Biden 36 years ago and have never regretted that decision. What distinguishes Sen. Biden is that he’s not just pro-union, he’s pro-working families. He’s never wavered in his commitment to the working men and women in Delaware and we would expect the same of him as president.”

    Sen. Biden thanked CWA Local 13101 and President Speakman for their continued support.

    “Because of the support of CWA and other unions, I was elected as the first pro-union United States Senator in Delaware history. Since then we have fought together for Common Situs Picketing in the mid-1970s, the prevailing wage, Card Check, OSHA standards, pension protections and, most recently, the Employee Free Choice Act.

    “History teaches us that when the union movement is strong, our middle class is strong. And when our middle class is strong, our country is strong. As president, I will immediately sign the Employee Free Choice Act into law. I will guarantee that the National Labor Relations Board returns to being a fair forum to contest unfair labor practices. I will appoint people to the Department of Labor who understand the value of unions to our economy and will make sure that pro-union officials play senior roles at the Departments of Commerce, State, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. And I will also create good, union jobs by investing in our national infrastructure. We have $1.6 trillion of work to do to rebuild our roads, tunnels, ports and bridges. That means more construction, manufacturing, and transportation jobs for Americans.

    “I am honored that the Communications Workers of America in Delaware have pledged their support to my campaign. As President, I will continue to work as hard for them in the future as I have over the past thirty-five years