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Culture Zohn: 'Union' is Not a Four Letter Word

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As I write this, the WGA and AMPTP are going back to the table so who knows, my predictions for a long-winded strike may prove, blessedly, wrong.

This is my first strike as a card-carrying union member. The Eastern branch of the Guild, (which I joined based on a documentary I wrote for PBS) is headed by Michael Winship who worked at WNET during my years there though he was in Public Affairs (ergo, future union big wig), and I was in Cultural Affairs (ergo, rank and file with predilection for a well-made placard).

I have been the eager recipient of Winship's rousing emails, not only for their purely informational quality but also for their "period" flavor: Winship and the committee in NY have seized upon the strike to take us back to our roots, the good, old-fashioned days when union members and owners were really very far apart socially and economically and the notion of a hybrid, (show runner), just did not exist; you were either on the line, or you were in the front office. Winship, whose prose style recalls his news background, has also invoked the Solidarity days (Lech Walesa, Poland?) and most recently Gandhi, which I am sure was the first time that civil disobedience and the Disney Store on Fifth were used in the same sentence.

But they have also made me a teeny bit worried that the leadership has gotten a little bit confused between the cinematic or literary notion of a strike and an actual strike--which would be totally understandable given our profession--but which is already is deeply affecting families all over LA and NY in ours and ancillary businesses. I am relieved there is some motion to talk.

Yet Winship is onto something: he knows that may of us are lusting in our hearts for a time when camaraderie of the front lines was a way you got out in the world, when you could think of yourself as noble and not as a pitchmeister or sell-out-for-money type of person, and not incidentally, when you could meet lots of new people, and don't tell me that all those writers on the lines this week haven't eagerly seized the moment to try to find the man (or woman) of their dreams after being in lock up for so long. Writers actually do love to socialize, it's just that mostly we can't. All those ashen-countenanced, hunched over scribes shaking off months of solitary with glazed looks and carpal tunnel syndrome meeting cute on the lines, it's an image any one of us would eagerly co opt for our next screenplay since we're tired of having people meet cute on line in the grocery store. I'd like to know the stats of how many relationships began on the lines these past weeks: like blackouts, I bet the strikes breed pair bonding and babies too.

My confession: I have not yet been doing my share of duty on the lines even though the WGA has threatened all of us with expulsion if we don't show up for three shifts a week. The reason is that like many screenwriters, I have been working at other gigs for a number of years now to keep from going totally insane (see the Culture Zohn for example) so have had my hands full.

Yet I am a student of women in strikes *--and though we can point to the courage of young workers at the Triangle Factory, or Mother Jones or Elizabeth Flynn, sometimes the history of women and marching has indeed been bound up with meeting cute (or possibly even sex).

Mary McCarthy, the writer who was the subject of the documentary I wrote for PBS American Masters is a case in point. McCarthy did not consider herself political but soon found herself on a list of anti-Trotsky forces after an ill-informed comment at a party. McCarthy marched down lower Broadway in 1936 (same time as Dorothy Parker was on the Hollywood front lines of the nascent writers union) chanting and singing and generally having a good time, more interested in her fellow travelers (she noticed all the good looking marchers--like her-- had been placed on the flanks and the less attractive in the middle) than the cause du jour. McCarthy later wrote that Dear Abby used to advise girls to meet guys at church groups but that she had had found joining the Trotsky committee a lot more productive.

A story I subsequently wrote (for the LA Times) about the all-female Ink and Paint Department at Disney during the heyday of handrawn animation(Snow White et al), when the Hyperion Studios were the collegial replacement for many of the staff and most of the animators were male, reminded me of McCarthy's experience. The women in the department generally went straight from high school to the studio, with an occasional stop at trade school along the way. When the famous Disney strike began, the department was deeply divided, some going out, others staying behind, lining up more alongside boyfriends or husbands who also worked at the studio than for any entrenched political beliefs, the organizing and the rhetoric often forming bedfellows.

Then of course, there's Parker who actually did have a clue and who was politically engaged for many causes. Parker was an early WGA champion since she became a Hollywood writer after abandoning the Algonquin Round Table. Parker's wit held her in good stead, even as she was very much in evidence on the front lines, "Now, look, baby, 'Union' is spelled with 5 letters. It is not a four-letter word."

But the iconic figures most of us have in mind when we think of women and strikes together, are Kate Morosky (Barbara Streisand), whose afro and schlumpy clothes attracted none other than Robert Redford in The Way We Were during the Hollywood Blacklist and who would not give up her principles for love, Norma Rae (Sally Field) who got up and pivoted on a factory tabletop holding her homemade card which said "Union", trying to stimulate her co-workers to join and shut the factory down, and Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) who died, some say, because she was the double whammy of unionist and nuclear power whistle blower. Union = Oscar don't you think?

The strike did come close to home last week as I was finishing my Friday column. All week long in Palisades Park, a giant crew had been setting, painting, uploading shrubbery, laying cable, hauling star wagons, positioning cranes and the like for the new Eddie Murphy movie. The amount of work is always staggering to actually see. You write, "Exterior. Day. The kids pour out of school." and then an entire battalion of cast and crew have to make that happen. Normally, at this hour (6:30 - 7 am) the park is inhabited only by a rare homeless person and the dog folk. So it was odd to have to navigate our way around the porta pottys. Later that morning, however, my fellow union members showed up a hundred strong and set up a picket line, and Eddie Murphy, bless his bad- ass heart, refused to cross the line. That meant nobody else could either. (How exactly this went down is in some dispute.) What is not in dispute is that the whole shebang shut down. The next morning, the guys were out there re-coiling the cable, carting away the shrubbery (we needed it! The park looks so bare again!) and backing out the crane.

There wasn't a romantic, literary thing about it, however, just a tremendous amount of sadness at all that waste.

I believe everything we the writers are advocating for is just, and even modest. Toiling as I do in new media, I can see that the migration is coming and we would be foolish to ignore its implications. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote rousing verses to the Pioneers and later Diana Trilling, famous literary anti-communist used his exhortations as the touchstone for her essays: We must march my darlings.

And so, this week, I metaphorically lay my pen down, (even though the Huffington Post is not on the list of big no-no's that my union sent me to remind me of what I could not do, and in fact has been serving as forum for the disenfranchised scribes) and join the rank and file, not only in honor of my colleagues but also our shared past with workers, cinematic, literary, and flesh and blood, those who have stood shoulder to shoulder because it was the right thing to do.

The only downside is that I wanted to take up Nora on her invitation to blog about what I'm making new for Thanksgiving this year (note to Nora, Suzanne's recipe is fantastic). But here's the thing. I'm not cooking, I'm marching. How appropriate to be reminded then as women writers that sometimes the front lines can be right in our very own kitchens.

***

*Mini bibliography for those interested in more about women and labor:
Jacqueline Jones
, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. Vintage, 1985
Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, America's Working Women. Norton, 1995

Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.