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Lost for words in the digital age

In what may be a shock for those who believe that the digital age has made class struggle so last century, household names from TV and Hollywood are picketing and rallying in support of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on both sides of America. Spirits are running high as rallies bring together writers and performers against the corporate studios that dominate TV, DVD, film and Internet entertainment. Over 1,000 writers - a twelfth of the Writers Guild of America membership – organised by "strike captains" - have been picketing in Los Angeles and New York since last week.

WGA strikeThe WGA wants to renegotiate its contract with the Hollywood studios over the amount of money they receive from DVD sales. The big studios have used digital technologies to reduce the payments (called residuals) that writers receive every time a TV show they have written the script for is repeated. They know that the media corporations will not compensate them as new ways of downloading content proliferate. A video explains how studios plan to pay writers the lowest rates possible for DVD and Internet “residuals”. They fear that they will lose a large chunk of their income as television and Internet programmes are being merged.

Films posted on U-tube by the WGA demonstrate an amazing degree of solidarity from top stars who are on the picket lines in support of the screenwriters. In Los Angeles, actor Ray Romano brought bagels, fruit and orange juice for strikers outside Paramount Studios while in New York, Roseanne Barr, Holly Hunter and David Hyde Pierce joined the picket line. Actors like Tim Robbins and David Duchovny who are members of the WGA marched in solidarity. Glenn Close and Robert Redford paid tribute to writers, saying that without them, no story could be told and that actors would not be able to do their jobs.

TV personalities Seth Meyers, Tina Fey and Eva Longoria Parker offered sympathy and food when strkers protested on the "Desperate Housewives" set. On Day 5 of the strike, in New York, Rage Against the Machine singer Tom Morello, a long-time member of the US musicians union, sang a “freedom, fighting, union song” and said that the future of America would be decided “on the sidewalk outside Fox Studios”.

Tomorrow and Friday, 500 writers, graphic artists, editors and producers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, also members of the WGA, are voting whether to strike against CBS news, thereby joining their screen writer colleagues who are already on strike. Members who work in network and local TV and radio have not had a pay rise since 2004.

Observers have been surprised by the way in which different professionals and workers in of the US entertainment industry have come together to air their grievances and oppose the corporates who control the entertainment industry. Cornell University labour economist Richard Hurd comments:

"Even though the topics of the two strikes are different, they're both being driven by the changing nature of the industries and the increased concentration of ownership. The view of the conglomerates is that they have to minimise costs and maximise returns, and the unions feel that they're not getting what they deserve. There are moral principles at stake for both."

One might ask what kind of “morality” is it that makes life impossible for writers who are actually unemployed half the year, due to the casual and fluctuating offers of work, to pay their mortgages and afford health insurance? The answer is to be found on the picket lines across America.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
14 November 2007

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