03 February 2008

The writers' strike

Over the last 12 weeks or so, I've been following the news about the writers' strike in the USA. At first, I just sort of dismissed it as "one of those things". I mean, it's only about TV scriptwriters, right? Do I care if Scrubs production grinds to a halt? Not really - I don't really watch a lot of TV and I'm not really a huge fan of US TV programmes (the last time I watched a US series was way back when, when I developed an unhealthy liking for Thirtysomething). But I've been thinking.

The Writers Guild is clearly very powerful, if it can wreck award ceremonies and disrupt the production of TV programmes. And I'm impressed by the solidarity shown by actors across the pond in not crossing picket lines.

As I confessed in my last post, I have rejoined the NUJ after a break of some 15 years. One reason I hesitated rejoining for so long is that I think it is toothless. Granted, any union is better than none, but despite being a believer in the power of the union, I've never felt the NUJ was much cop. When I first entered my trade, the union had a stranglehold on Fleet Street that could only be described as unhealthy. I knew the person who had invented "unworked overtime" which the union forced employers to pay - a top-up on top of overtime rates, which the workers got on an overtime shift even if there was no work for them to do and they spent the time in the pub. That's just daft. And it was scenarios such as that that encouraged Thatcher to trash the unions, a situation from which they have never recovered. I'm glad the closed shop has ended; I never approved of it as it encouraged a "jobs for the boys" atmosphere and nepotism.

But what power does the NUJ have now? Not a lot, I'd say. When my reapplication was approved, the accompanying letter said "see below for details of your local branch officer". I looked and it said "position vacant, call head office if you need to talk to someone". How depressing is that? I live in a city that has two commercial radio stations and three local rags and between them they can't muster a branch officer. I wonder why I bother for £15 a month.

I'd bend over backwards for a union that had the power of the Writers' Guild. Can you imagine if the NUJ called a strike? No newspapers appearing every day, magazine production somewhat erratic, and picket lines and boycotts supported by those on the periphery of the industry...

I guess not. I'll just keep taking the pills and dreaming.

It would be nice, though, wouldn't it?

4 comments:

Donnacha DeLong said...

Welcome back to the union. You do pose a very important question, how do we build the collective strength of the union? I'll tell ya how: recruitment, recruitment and more recruitment. But to do that, people need to get organised locally. Have you thought about getting involved in reorganising the branch so that the positions are not vacant? That's something that can't be done from the top, the NUJ is a very democratic union and its up to members to organise themselves (with help, of course, but the NEC can't run branches!). There's a very active branch in Manchester and I'm sure some of the people there would be willing to help out.

wordsmith_for_hire said...

Perhaps people might feel more inclined to join if the NEC spent less time pushing through daft motions against Israel at the ADM and more time dealing with problems on the ground that do actually affect membership. International solidarity is all well and good but it is sadly irrelevant for most members.

As for reorganising, a nice idea in theory but I don't have the time. It's hard enough keeping things afloat as a freelance. The union seems dead in my city - a coffee with a colleague last week revealed that she can't afford to join the NUJ on her pitiful salary, not when she has a family to support. I gather few of her colleagues are members. Perhaps NEC should send someone up here for a day to recruit among the staffers - there might then be a possibility to revive the branch and get us freelances involved too.

Donnacha DeLong said...

Eh, the NEC didn't put forward the motion on Israel - in fact, no-one from the NEC even spoke on the motion at last year's ADM. Have a look at this year's agenda and see the amendment from the NEC trying to put an end to the whole thing.

As for recruitment, I've sent a message to Dave Toomer, who's the NEC rep in your area.

As for people not being able to afford it - are they aware of the reduced subs options?

wordsmith_for_hire said...

Hmm, whoever proposed the motion or spoke on it is slightly irrelevant really, the issue being that the union as a whole ought to spend less time on gesture politics and more on tackling the real problems faced by members in the UK. I for one would like to see the NUJ doing far more for freelances, given that there are so many of us now.

Dave Toomer ought to head for the Chester Chronicle if he plans to visit.