It’s impossible to miss a week’s newsreel footage of writers singing, picketing disruptively or halting film and TV shoots at convenient locations and studios from Burbank to Chicago to New York.
Should Catholics care? Choose a side? Let’s talk about it.
Negotiations on a new three-year deal between the Writers Guild of America and the studios and networks that employ its members officially broke down on May 1, and writers hit the bricks effective the next day. The Writers Guild of America, or WGA, receives broad support from its sister entertainment unions, including actors, electricians, stagehands and Teamsters.
It’s been 15 years since the last Writers Guild of America walkout in 2007-2008, a strike that also halted production on most TV series and movies and lasted 100 days. No one on either side of what the writers say is an “existential” negotiation predicts that this one will be any shorter.
Networks and studios are represented by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP. They say their “emerging” streaming business models, cross-platform subscriptions and expensive short series make profits hard to come by, making their companies’ future earnings uncertain.
The writers counter that these companies are earning enough from their new “emerging” business models to pay a few of their CEOs more than the full dollar increase the Writers Guild of America is asking for over its entire three-year contract. .
They argue that mid-level employees who used to see 20 to 40 weeks of work every season find themselves working 10 weeks every two or three seasons for less money per week, on bigger hits. New writers and women, who often spend a decade or more before successfully “breaking into” the work of the WGA, find that they cannot afford to stay In. And the residue that sustained writers through the gaps in employment has all but disappeared.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Writers Guild of America since 1970, first as a newswriter and then transitioning into writing and directing television series, so I won’t pretend it’s is a scientific and unemotional examination of the merits of both sides. I am a trade unionist through and through.
Obviously, my loyalty is to the writers on the picket line. They include younger writers, women, and more POC (people of color) than I’ve ever seen. In contrast, if I close my eyes and think of previous WGA picket lines, what it conjures up are mostly images of OWGs (older white men).
So I won’t try to play “devil’s advocate” for the management side of this fight. As my favorite teacher, Fr. Luis Olivares, would remind me, “The devil never need a lawyer, Timothy, is already the devil.”
But I’ve been a Catholic longer than I’ve been a member of the WGA, educated alternately by sensible Carmelite nuns, charming Claretian missionaries, and ever-inquisitive Jesuits. So maybe I can be forgiven for wondering if our faith informs us which side of a picket line we should stand on.
Having covered the grape and lettuce boycotts of the United Farm Workers union from Ventura County to the Central Valley in the 1970s as a young documentary writer, this would have been an easy call for me.
UFW founder (and devout Catholic) Cesar Chavez always seemed to be three-tiered priests and nuns. It was because the local clergy supported their parishioners, the lettuce-picking workers, not the giant agribusinesses that Chavez accused of exploiting them.
But how do things work today in a more “complicated” union organization situation? Say, teachers trying to unionize a Catholic school? A pastor might warn his already cash-strapped parishioners that a union’s high wage demands and possible strikes could make their children’s religious studies even more expensive. Similar concerns arise when nurses and other workers try to organize in some Catholic-owned hospitals.
So, does church involvement teach that some flavor of anti-union can be OK? The Jesuits taught me that this type of reasoning represents the ethical relativism known as situational ethics. A scriptural example was when Jesus healed a man’s withered hand, but jealous Pharisees criticized him for doing this “work” on the Sabbath.
If you’re wondering, as I did, if the popes weighed in on trade unionism, damn it.
In a 2017 message to trade union leaders, Pope Francis said“There is no good society without a good union”, also appeal to unions do more to protect non-union members,”those who do not yet have rightsthose who are excluded from work and who are also excluded from rights and democracy.”
In Noveltiesthe papal encyclical often considered a founding document of modern Catholic social teaching, Pope Leo XIII called on the faithful to “save the unfortunate workers from the cruelty of greedy men, who use human beings as mere instruments to gain money”.
Even though he wrote this in 1891, it sounds a bit like the overpaid CEOs the Writers Guild of America complains about today, doesn’t it?
Ninety years later, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical exercise work that “workers must be assured of the strike rightwithout being subject to personal criminal sanctions for having participated in a strike.” That is quite clear.
As a general rule, writers try to be faithful to the original sources as much as possible and, as you probably know, Jesus never specifically endorsed unionism. Although he certainly said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, no one can show me where he added, “…and you shall bargain collectively with him”.
But beyond literal Scripture, I believe Jesus’ so-called “politics” as expressed in the Bible drives us to command ourselves? to support exploited workers as Jesus would if he somehow appeared today on a picket line in Universal City, or at a grape boycott in Salinas.
The WGA’s bottom line: The writers think the way they’re compensated is broken and needs to be dealt with contractually, and they’ll stay on the picket line for as long as it takes.
AMPTP’s track record: No counter-offer, no further talks, they have entered into a new three-year contract with the administrators and are currently negotiating with SAG-AFTRA.
So my advice is, sit down. This one could last a while.
And finally… just for fun, as I imagined things to earn a living, I tried to imagine how things could have changed if, instead of being mere fishers of men, the Twelve Apostles were also card-carrying trade unionists. (Do that eleven apostles. I had Judas as my pro-management guy path before taking the 30 silver coins and getting a kiss that bears his name.)
I guess with some unions involved, the events following the Last Supper might have looked more like this:
EXT. ENTRANCE, GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE – NIGHT
A CONFUSED ROMAN OFFICER AND HIS MEN WATCH 20 PEOPLE WALK IN A CIRCLE AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE GARDEN, BLOCKING ACCESS TO SOLDIERS.
THE APOSTLES AND SOME ALLIES WEAR GROSS SIGNS:
“UN-PHAIR PHARISEES!” “THE MONEY CHANGERS OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE!” AND “DID YOU KISS A PROSTITUTE TODAY?” (MARY MAGDALENE ONLY).
No one said we had to cross
a picket line… my brother’s
in the thatcher’s guild,
for the love of Zeus
(then, to OC soldiers)
Guys, guys, no hugs
PASS THEM TO ANOTHER PART OF THE GARDEN TO SEE:
KNEELING BEFORE A ROCK, PRAYING. HARD.
FEELS SOMEONE BEHIND HIM, IT’S THE APOSTLE, PETER.
Boss, I hate to interrupt you.
Don’t “hate” anything, Peter
we talked about it.
My bad then, the twisted
the high priests sent the Romans
here to stop and
take you to Pilate.
As my Heavenly Father foretold.
But as your union representative on Earth,
I just “predicted” a centurion
to stuff him in his little Roman
Do not stone the messenger. …
Just biblical fan-fic, you say? I say as far as we know the commotion might have confused the Romans enough to back down, regroup and try again after the next Last Supper. Maybe Judas has changed his mind, returns the 30 pieces of silver and goes to the fold.
And if the local carpenters (Jesus was one of their own, after all) respected the picket line of the apostles? No wooden object would have reached Golgotha. The enemies of Jesus should have at least found a workaround without a cross.
OK, I suddenly hear my Carmelite, Claretian and Jesuit teachers calling out loud a “wrap!” on this episode of Heresy Minute. But I hope it gets you thinking about where unionism and your own faith merge or collide.
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