THE BLOG
12/06/2007 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writers Guild Strike Primer: Part 8, The Big Question

Negotiations between the Writers Guild and AMPTP have started again, and there is a fascinating situation at play, yet it has gotten little attention.

Look at that sentence again. Actually, I'll make it easy for you, just re-read the first seven words.

"Negotiations between the Writers Guild and AMPTP..."

It certainly looks normal. No one gives it a second thought. But the entire entertainment industry should. In fact, everyone should.

There is a hugely-important question here.

The AMPTP, you see, is a group of about 350 member film companies. Nine companies at the top, however, drive the whole train.

"Nine companies" is a polite term. Megathorpian multinational corporations is the accurate term. You know, General Electric, Time-Warner, Sony Electronics, News Corp. -- otherworldly behemoths, like that. The kind of gargantuan institutional leviathans who, when you refer to "they" (as in "You know what they say" or "How could they do this to us?") are the "they."

Here's the question.

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

In fact, why is the AMPTP negotiating with anyone? The Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, any of the 80 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements it handles.

The issue is not that these AMPTP companies are part of multinational corporations...it's that they are competitors with one another.

Let's repeat that: the AMPTP is comprised of competitors. And they are negotiating together against labor?? In heaven's name -- why?

Before anyone tries to answer the question, hold off a moment as this is put into a larger perspective.

Imagine the auto industry for a moment.

The AMPTP is like if General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all got together, decided the terms they would offer employees, and then negotiated as a single body against one isolated division of U.S. auto workers at a time. Divide and conquer. Take it or leave it.

It's not that it would be massively illegal. It's that it would be unconscionable. No one in the aghast free world would stand for it. Even Luddites who wished it wasn't illegal understand why it's unacceptable.

Or imagine if all the tobacco companies got together. What if they hid research about nicotine, and then...oh, wait, they did. And they all got hauled before Congress.

Competitors are not allowed to negotiate together, to even confer together. It's called collusion. When baseball owners merely created an "information bank" for offers being made to free agent players, they were fined $280 million. Two competitors cannot talk with one another if there's just a hint of agreement. Imagine ALL competitors in an industry getting together to set ALL wages and ALL labor conditions.

It doesn't happen. Anywhere. Not "anywhere in the U.S." Anywhere in the free world.

Except Hollywood.

Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., NBC, Disney, CBS, Universal, Sony, MGM...and 341 of their signatory pals all unite to set the pay scale and working conditions for writers. And then for actors. And then directors. And then for all employees in the entertainment industry.

Say what?

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

Everyone grasps that it's wrong for competitors to gang up. Little children understand it's wrong. ("Mom! Billy and Janey are teaming up against me!" "Now, you kids leave your brother alone. You know it's not nice.") Everyone knows it. Embryos know it. Paramecium. Rocks.

And even the AMPTP knows it

On November 14, WGA president Patric Verrone and SAG president Alan Rosenberg went to Washington, D.C. and met with congressional leaders and the FCC to inform them about the difficulties of negotiating with "seven multi-national conglomerates, all supposedly competitors but they all come together to negotiate."

Two days later, the AMPTP announced it was finally willing to go back to the negotiating table.

This was not a coincidence. There were many reasons the AMPTP went back to the table -- but this was not a coincidence.

Two days. There were terrified.

It's not just the terror of Congress looking into monopoly collusion, but Congressional hearing and lawsuits over the media monopoly stranglehold. Americans have a long-held abhorrence for illegal monopolies.

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

In any other world, in any other industry, the writers -- and then actors, directors and others -- would each negotiate separately with their employer, one at a time: You get a fair contract with one studio, and everyone else either agrees to the same basic deal or falls behind their competitors. It's the way business works. It's the way the law works.

Up to now, the entertainment industry has accepted this arrangement. Up to now, they've long-become used to heavy-handedness, but they expect fairness, as well. However, when rampant, monopolistic corporate greed passes all decency, at some point they might have to give the arrangement another look.

"They" - this time - is the United States government.

And so it's up to the AMPTP to decide what's truly in their best interest. Greed or fairness. What's at stake for them is arguably their worst nightmare. Because someone in a position to do something may eventually ask a very big question.

Why is the AMPTP negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???


UPDATE

One semi-caveat here, just to be fair. Because Fair R Us. I've subsequently been told that there might be some law that allows for certain collective bargaining by companies. But regardless if that's the case, the larger perspective and question that's posed remains -- even if there is some law, it's obviously not something that's used much, if at all, in other industries. Why Hollywood stands for competitor companies uniting to negotiate is something that should be addressed -- not only by the creative community, but the companies themselves, since it's becoming apparent daily that they have such divergent interests among one another.

And to be clear, it's not just that competing companies unite to negotiate, but that they do so against each individual segment of labor one by one. If the companies really do want to unite to negotiate, make it a fair fight and negotiate against all the unions of their industry together, as well. Then, you might see quite a different result. (It would be a mess, but hey...)

The bottom line is that there certainly appears to be some major unfair balance here, whether there's a law or not, that should be addressed. Laws are supposed to correct wrongs, not bring them about. If a law does exist, then it appears its being abused as not intended, and should be redressed. In the end, law or not, the question remains -- why is it the AMPTP who each union negotiates with, not individual companies?

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