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Mobtown Beat

Boos and Catcalls

Local Writers Picket to Draw Attention to Hollywood Strike

Jefferson Jackson Steele
EXT. PICKET LINE--DAY: Writers Guild of America members Rafael Alvarez and Khris Baxter demonstrate at a strike rally at the Inner Harbor.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 12/26/2007

This should have been a pretty joyful Christmas for Joy Lusco-Kecken. The 35-year-old screenwriter should be enjoying a nice morale boost for being selected to co-direct an episode of the final season of The Wire, but instead she's waiting out the Writers Guild of America strike, now in its seventh week with no end in sight, that has put a stop to pretty much all business in Hollywood. So this holiday season, instead of celebrating her career coup, Lusco-Kecken is dealing with the reality of losing her health insurance.

On Dec. 20, Lusco-Kecken and about 35 writers, actors, and supporters from the AFL-CIO labor union participated in a rally at the corner of Pratt and Light streets, across from Harbor Place, to draw attention to the plight of striking writers. For two hours they waved picket signs taped to cardboard gift-wrapping rolls, putting faces on what has been perceived by some as an anonymous Hollywood labor dispute. The sign wavers drew the attention of motorists, some of whom honked their horns in support.

The Writers Guild--which is actually two unions, East and West, that serve writers working on each coast--represents both TV and film writers. Guild members, who have been on strike since Nov. 5, are facing down the industry's six major producing studios, owned by the likes of Sony and General Electric. Lusco-Kecken says that the effects of the strike are also being felt by the technical crews as well, such as camerapeople, carpenters, and electricians.

"I complain about myself," she says, "but I think about everyone else who is out of work during the holidays."

Coverage of the strike in the media has created a perception that this is a public relations battle between writers and producers, both looking for public sympathy over a dispute about royalties from DVDs and internet programming. Both sides are trying to avoid being perceived as the instigator of the dispute. Rafael Alvarez, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter back in his native Baltimore for the holidays, says the strike is not unlike a typical blue-collar labor strike.

"You strip away that veneer of the artists vs. labor--if you strip away that fine veneer, then we're just average Americans trying to get a fair deal," says Alvarez, an ex-Sun reporter and a former writer for The Wire. "Do we talk about different things on the picket line than the autoworkers or the steelworkers? Probably. But that's just the surface. Right beneath the surface is just people trying to feed our families."

The biggest point of contention is over royalties for internet sales of TV shows and movies. Industry insiders see new media as being the most dominant distribution channel for movies and shows, and writers are asking the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a larger slice of the sales pie. Put in more basic terms, if someone buys an internet download of a movie or TV show, the Writers Guild wants to make sure that its members receive royalties for that sale.

"We have won the public relations battle for the sympathy of the American public because everyone understands that we are asking for 4 cents of every dollar of profit," Alvarez says.

"We are taking a stand and saying we want a small piece of what is a very large, profitable pie, when we provide the major ingredient for that pie," says Linda Burstyn, a striking writer and spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America West in Los Angeles. She notes that under the current contract writers have with studios pensions and health-care packages are based on how much they earn per script sale. If writers go through a period in which they cannot sell a script, they lose their health-care packages, and that's exactly what happened with Lusco-Kecken, who, like other Guild members, won't sell scripts till the strike is over.

On the flip side, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers insists that new media is still an unproven market and is not yet as profitable as it could be. A spokesperson for the organization would not comment on the record; a statement on the group's web site says the writers have always been compensated for paid downloads, but not for streaming free-content sites supported by ads. Producers say the free-streaming model has only been around for a year and is not yet economically viable.

"It is crucial that we have provisions that encourage--not inhibit--our ability to experiment, innovate, analyze and adapt to the transformative changes confronting us," reads a statement by Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers President Nick Counter posted to the organization's web site on Nov. 2, just a few days before the writers went on strike. The Alliance later said, "The negotiations did not break down over new media issues. Instead, the negotiations broke down primarily over one of the most old-fashioned issues of all: The desire of the [Writers Guild of America's] organizers to increase their own power and prestige by expanding the jurisdiction of the union over reality television and animation writers. These jurisdictional expansion efforts have very little to do with the concerns of the working writers who are on strike."

Back on the Baltimore picket line, the players express angst about heading into a new year with no contract, but there was some solace in the fact that the AFL-CIO came out to show its support. Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland-Washington chapter of the AFL-CIO, says the writers strike is a high-profile example of the struggle between the embattled middle class and a small but powerful elite class interested in further concentrating its wealth.

"When there's enough of people getting hit up side the head, people will resist," he says. "And I think that's what we're beginning to see."

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