I Walk the Line Badly

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Dec 03, 2007 12:01 AM
I Walk the Line Badly

I’ve been in the WGA for nearly 40 years. That means that during the first two decades of my TV writing career, I was on strike just about every three years. But the last time we struck was in 1988. That one lasted almost six months. It hurt the TV networks because they lost viewers they never got back. It hurt writers because most of us aren’t wealthy, and it’s difficult to go that long without earning a living. It even harmed people who aren’t in show business, but whose livelihoods depend on those who are.

A lot of civilians have no sympathy for our side because, one, they think we’re a bunch of overpaid hacks and, two, they think they could do what we do better than we do it if only they, too, had decided to fritter away their lives on such tomfoolery.

The fact is that most of the 12,000 members of the Guild are living hand-to-mouth because only a small percent of that number manage to sell a script or get a writing gig in any given year.

Until this past Monday, it had been 19 years since I walked a picket line. Moreover, it had been about 35 years since I walked one at CBS Studio Center on Radnor Avenue, in Studio City. Back then, I worked for Talent Associates, an independent production company responsible for the Rock Hudson-Susan St. James series, “McMillan & Wife.”

During that strike, the WGA had employed a campaign of divide and conquer. They invited production companies to keep their doors open and their cameras grinding by signing favored nations pacts with the Guild. That meant that they would abide retroactively by whatever terms the WGA and management ultimately agreed upon. In the meantime, this gave the companies a distinct advantage over their competitors, and hastened the day when their competitors would follow suit.

As a result, I found myself in the odd position, legally and morally, of not only crossing my Guild’s picket line twice a day, but of leaving my office every afternoon at 3 o’clock to take my turn on the line at the front gate and going back to work an hour later.

Mainly because I haven’t had much of a TV writing career once I foolishly tempted fate by turning 50 and partly because the majority of those 12,000 members only joined the WGA during the past 10 or 15 years, I didn’t recognize a single face when I signed in for picket duty the other day. It seems that the Guild had under-estimated the turnout. By the time I arrived, they had run out of picket signs. Still, I was assigned to join my fellow writers at the corner of Radnor and Ventura Blvd.

I was undeniably self-conscious. It’s hard not to feel redundant when picketing without a picket sign, but in for a penny, in for a pound. So off I went. As I reached the intersection, I looked around again and once again didn’t recognize anyone. There was a group of seven or eight fellows huddled by the stoplight, and I figured I’d mingle there. At least they all had picket signs, and I figured if I stood near them, it wouldn’t be as obvious that I didn’t. The last thing you want to look like at my age, after all, is a writers’ groupie. However, as I approached, the group all began to chant for reasons I can’t imagine, “We’re queer and we’re here.” While undeniably catchy, they’re probably not the words to put a chill in the heart of management. Still, they were enough to make me veer off at the last second.

After standing around for about 15 brain-numbing minutes, I was on the verge of taking off when some busybody handed me his sign. Soon, one of the picketers suggested we split up into two groups, half of us crossing to the south side of the street. Then every time the light turned red, each group would cross in the opposite direction. That at least gave us a sense of purpose beyond just looking as if we were picketing the Samuel French Book Store.

One young woman had been thoughtful enough to provide Trivia Pursuit cards. So I got to quiz myself for several street crossings. I only got two of the six questions right on the first card. But I kept exchanging cards with her, promising myself that I’d get to go home as soon as I got all six questions on a card answered correctly. That took another 20 minutes. When I handed that card back, she asked me if I wanted another. “No thanks,” I said, “I’ve nothing more to prove.”

Then I handed off my sign to a lady and I went home.

The nicest part of the experience was that the teamsters who drove past all honked their horns very loudly as a sign of solidarity, as did a great many civilians, who also gave us the two-finger V for Victory sign. But having been through all this many times before, I’m only too aware that after three or four months of TV re-runs, the same people will be giving us the one-finger salute. I understand that it’s not that they like the guys on the other side, guys like Sumner Redstone, Leslie Moonves and Rupert Murdoch, more than they like us, but those greedy so-and-so’s aren’t out there carrying picket signs or playing havoc with people’s viewing habits.

But for my part, the only really good thing about a WGA strike is that it serves to remind millions of Americans that Leno, Letterman and all the other talking heads on the tube don’t really make it up as they go along.