Write On!

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike this winter against TV and movie producers was one of the longest successful white-collar worker strikes in U.S. history. It lasted 14 weeks less then the writers’ 1988 strike, which lasted almost 22 weeks, but it was far more successful.

As important as the significant concessions won by the writers is the fact that their victory might ignite a new, more militant phase of white-collar labor organizing. It might embolden dissatisfied “knowledge” workers to more militancy in the face of corporate America’s increased reliance on outsourcing, adjunct employees, contingency workers, and “permalancers” (permanent freelancers).

This insurgency could be expressed in increased organizing among non-unionized workers and increased militancy among unionized workers. Equally important, intellectual workers may turn to a host of other actions to express their growing dissatisfaction with corporate capitalism. Some might have wildcat walkouts; others may resort to wage-and-hour lawsuits; still others might come up with more creative actions. All are aware that the once renowned “creative class” is being systematically turned into a new blue-collar workforce, with automation rendering creative labor, be it scriptwriting, software development, videogame programming, or engineering rendering, into just one more de-skilled, mechanized process of the intellectual factory system.

Estimates of the strike’s impact on the entertainment business range from $1-$1.5 billion. The writers’ victory set two critical precedents. The contract gave the WGA jurisdiction over web writers and it provided the union with auditable accountability to monitor new media markets. Under the three-year deal, after a “promotional” window of 17 to 24 days of web downloads, writers get a flat fee for the first 2 years (maximum flat fee of about $1,200) and 2 percent of gross sales in the third year of the electronic sell-through and ad-supported streaming of feature films, television programs, and web-isodes and mob-isodes (programming for web as well as cell phones and PDAs).

Michael Winship, president of Writers Guild East, summarized the results: “Not only does [the victory] establish Writers Guild jurisdiction in new media, it gives writers the same separated rights provisions in new media enjoyed by the creators of original TV and motion picture scripts, as well as residuals for the reuse of movies and television programs on the Internet and in new media.”

The writers learned from the bitter experience of the 1988 strike that screwed them in terms of new media residuals. In the earlier strike, the Guild ceded control of home video. It settled for residuals of 0.3 percent on the first million of “reported” units sold and 0.36 percent thereafter. Over time, however, writers complained that without the ability to audit producers reports, they could never get an honest accounting and proper residuals. For those familiar with Hollywood’s legendary accounting procedures, a method that ensures that no one will ever collect on a “net” deal, the guild’s newly-secured right to audit sales is a critical achievement.

For more than a quarter century writers and other white-collar workers have been assigned a critical role by sociologists speculating about the evolving structure of contemporary capitalism. Among the leading proponents of the central role of intellectual labor are Daniel Bell, The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976); Alvin Toffler, The Cultural Consumer (1965); and, most recently, Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002).

Florida has turned his notion of the creative class into a cottage industry, promoting everything from the makeover “boutiqueing” of rustbelt downtowns to expensive workshops, lectures, and training sessions to book sales. His concept of the creative class is a very inclusive category at the center of which is the “Super-Creative Core.” He argues that this group includes “the highest order of creative work”—”Scientists and engineers, university professors, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the thought leaders of modern society—nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion makers. Whether they are software programmers or engineers, architects or filmmakers, they fully engage in the creative process.”

According to Florida the creative class includes anyone who uses his/her brain to create an innovative product or service. He estimates that this class totals some 15 million people, 12 percent of the workforce. Other estimates vary as to the size of this sector of the workforce. For example, Americans for the Arts reported earlier this year, in “The Creative Industries,” that nearly 3 million people work in some 600,000 arts-centric businesses, representing 2.2 percent U.S. employment and 4.3 percent of businesses.

A different estimate is suggested by the U.S. Census Bureau. It defines the culture industry in a very revealing way: “Cultural products are those that directly express attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity; provide entertainment; or offer information and analysis concerning the past and the present…. The intangible property aspect of information and cultural products make the processes involved in their production and distribution very different from goods and services. Only those possessing the rights of these works are authorized to reproduce, alter, improve, and distribute them.”

It divides the culture industry into two sectors, “information services” and “art, entertainment and recreation.” The former covers media production and distribution, including publishing, recorded entertainment and broadcasting; the latter covers the creative source themselves, be they individual artists, writers, or performers, or performing arts groups like theaters or dance companies. Based on census data, in 2001, just over 175,000 firms were operating in the arts and media part of the culture industry; these firms employed a total of 5.5 million people and generated payroll totaling over $250 billion.

The fundamental weakness of the Florida and Census Bureau analyses is the absence of a critical consideration of who controls the intellectual worker’s creative output. This debate is usually framed in terms of intellectual property rights. Florida retreats into liberal blather when he says: “The ultimate intellectual property—the one that really replaces land, labor and capital as the most valuable economic resource—is the human creative faculty.

“To some degree, Karl Marx had it partly right when he foresaw that workers would someday control the means of production…. Rather, more workers than ever control the means of production because it is inside their heads; they are the means of production.” Florida is playing a version of three-card monte that effectively falsifies Marx and obfuscates the role of knowledge workers in a “post-industrial” society.

The writers’ strike was a battle over the control of the product of intellectual labor as much as over the equitable remuneration for that product. Drawing out Marx for the second-half of the 20th century, Harry Braverman argued in Labor and Monopoly Capital (Monthly Review Press, 1981) that capitalism is merciless in its ceaseless effort to turn social relations into market relations, to colonize all aspects of human life and reduce them to commodities. Increasingly, this process of plunder has been applied to creativity, information, and knowledge. As Christopher May points out, capitalism does this by the “rendering of knowledge as property through patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other instruments transforming knowledge that might be regarded as commonly available to everyone into property owned by the few” (“Trouble in E-topia: Knowledge as Intellectual Property,” Urban Studies, vol. 39, 2002).

A Growing Rebellion

Emboldened by the writers strike in December 2007, “permalancers” at MTV Networks wildcatted over planned benefit cuts. Hundreds of 20- and 30-something freelance contractors walked out. With handmade placards shouting “Shame on Viacom” and “Sick-elodeon,” these permalancers paraded in front of MTV’s corporate headquarters in New York’s Times Square.

These workers rebelled after Viacom, MTV’s parent company, arbitrarily revised their contracts, reducing health, dental, and pension benefits. Viacom owns MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central as well as innumerable websites and streaming services. It employs hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contractors who, like the independent producers who create many of the original shows seen on the networks, work on a contract or project basis. Many receive no benefits.

After three days of picketing and other labor actions that garnered much media attention, an embarrassed Viacom/MTV capitulated to some of the workers’ demands. It agreed to allow some contract workers to keep their health and dental plans and to convert some of the contract jobs into full-time staff positions.

Earlier, in 2000, members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) struck Boeing. The association, which represented some 22,000 engineers, scientists, manual writers, software designers, and technicians, walked out in a 38-day successful strike that affected plants in Washington, Kansas, Florida, California, Oregon, Texas, and Utah (though the International Association of Machinists, the largest union at Boeing, refused to honor the SPEEA picket lines.) As another tactic, a growing number of creative and technical workers are turning to wage-and-hour lawsuits to address workplace inequities. In 2004 game developers at Electronic Arts (EA), the largest videogame company, sued over wage-and-hour violations of the California Labor Code. In two court judgments, the first in October 2005 and a second in April 2006, EA agreed to pay $15.6 million to the graphic artists and $14.9 million to the software engineers to end the cases. 

EA was not alone in facing challenges from disgruntled game employees. Also in 2004, Neil Aitken, a programmer at Vivendi Universal Games, charged the company with violating California’s overtime rules. Aitken alleged that Vivendi managers falsified timesheets.

Other high-tech workers have successfully used wage claims to address workplace disputes. Over the last couple of years, IBM was forced to pay over $65 million to technical and customer-support workers and Siebel Systems agreed to pay $27.5 million to about 800 software engineers. Two huge financial services firms, Citigroup’s Smith Barney and UBS Financial Services Inc., have also accepted hefty judgments, $98 million and $87 million, respectively.

The collective impact of labor-violation lawsuits is considerable. Michael Orey, writing in Business Week last year, estimated that “$1 billion annually [is paid] to resolve these claims, which are usually brought on behalf of large groups of employees” (“Wage Wars,” September 24, 2007). However, while companies agree to pay the settlements, they nearly always refuse to admit liability.

Other intellectual and technical workers are involved in unionizing campaigns. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) is battling two of the world’s leading technology conglomerates, Microsoft and IBM. WashTech was formed in 1998 by disgruntled Microsoft contract employees and quickly affiliated with the union. It actively campaigns against Microsoft’s Byzantine pay-grade system and performance-review ranking system. The CWA formed Alliance@IBM with a mission to support temp workers after IBM lost its wage-and-hour lawsuit. The company is reported to have recently altered compensation plans for 7,600 technical-support employees who often work at home and, the union says, imposed pay cuts. The Alliance also campaigns over occupational safety and health issues, particularly in light of IBM’s notorious history of resisting concerns about toxic chemicals in the workplace.

Other organizing efforts include the Freelancers Union in New York, founded by Working Today (more like an association than a union), which represents independent freelancers, consultants, temps, and contingent workers. The Graphic Artists Guild represents web creators, illustrators, and designers who work to improve employment conditions and fight for intellectual policy rights. The Creators’ Federation represents freelance writers and is credited with winning an important case requiring publishers to obtain freelancers’ approval before putting their work on a database. Finally, the National Writers’ Union represents some 5,000 intellectual workers and provides model contracts and bargaining assistance.

University and community-college part- and full-time adjunct instructors are also organizing to address workplace inequities. Many university adjuncts refer to themselves as the “academic proletariat.” According to the New York Times, three decades ago they constituted only 43 percent of the academic faculty, whereas in 2007 they made up nearly 70 percent of teachers at colleges and universities, both public and private. At the City University of New York, for example, there are 10,000 part-time instructors, constituting approximately 60 percent of the teaching faculty, and they teach about half of the classes.

Different organizing efforts are being pursued. For example, last year, the National Education Association joined with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to deal with the growth of adjunct faculty positions. More aggressively, in 2002, the United Auto Workers defeated the AFT in an election to represent part-time adjunct professors at New York University. However, the AFT forced Rutgers University to add 100 tenure or tenure-track positions and it is pushing legislation in 11 states to mandate that 75 percent of classes be taught by tenured or tenure-track teachers.

The Growth of Freelancing

All the hype generated by the strike often left out that the number of white-collar workers is expanding while the relative proportion who do not hold staff positions (with attendant rights and benefits) is similarly increasing.

The makeup of the Writers Guild West is illustrative of this problem. The West Coast guild has approximately 8,000 dues-paying members. According to Chuck Slocum, director of WGA-West special projects, there are “around 3,850 writers employed in a given year.” He estimates that about 2,500 to 2,600 writers are employed in television and about 1,600 work in feature film (the statistical difference represents those who write for both media). He points out that employed writers secure “about 50 percent employment in a given calendar year.” Slocum also admits that the guild is dominated by white men in their 40s and 50s, so the relative employment rates for women and “minorities” (i.e., people of color) are considerably less.

High-end creative work—whether done by a Hollywood writer, Silicon Valley software developer, New York clothing designer, or SeattleFlorida, this class of workers suffers from “high levels of mental and emotional stress.” He raises a strong warning about the creative class’s ostensible market freedom: “We crave flexibility, but have less time to pursue the things we truly desire. The technologies that were supposed to liberate us from work have invaded our lives.” airplane engineer—does not come without its downside. For those who are organized, the upside is a relatively secure job with a good salary, benefits, and a collective voice. However, for those not organized, economic insecurity is common, whether you are a freelancer, consultant, adjunct, self-employed, contingent employee, project-based worker, permalancer, or piecework hustler.

According to Florida, this class of workers suffers from “high levels of mental and emotional stress.” He raises a strong warning about the creative class’s ostensible market freedom: “We crave flexibility, but have less time to pursue the things we truly desire. The technologies that were supposed to liberate us from work have invaded our lives.”

Many of the pundits who covered the writers strike share Florida’s belief in the elite position, if not celebrity status, occupied by intellectual workers, including themselves; few are as honest as Florida is about the downside faced by these laborers, though he remains a defender of capitalist social hierarchy, especially for intellectual, or creative workers. These commentators implicitly assume that this privilege is extended to all creative, intellectual, or white-collar workers. They forget what attracted audiences to the Matrix film series: identification with the rebellion of an immiserated knowledge worker.

Today’s intellectual labor force is marked by a unique combination of the hippest creativity with the most blatant commercialism, the most progressive politics and selfish opportunism. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that you have to commercialize your creative efforts, marketing your spirit as a profitable commodity. This is required merely to survive financially—forget about being a success or a celebrity. 

During the writers strike, Florida posted the following note on his website: “In terms of historical analogies, the current creative class movement bears some resemblance to the early organizing struggles of old American Federation of Labor. But, later we saw the rise of mass production unionism with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Is a similar divide emerging between creative and service workers?”

This differentiation between craft-workers and industrial-workers is important, representing the growing polarities splitting workers within the cultural industry and the unionizing options likely to define further organizing.

This split represents the twin impulses of today’s creative workers. On one side are the craftspeople, meticulous in their practice, like illuminators of the past or writers of the present. On the other side are laborers, like the preachers and teachers of both the past and the present and, increasingly, academic adjuncts. The effectiveness of American unions and professional associations (like the engineers who struck Boeing) to organize these two sectors of intellectual labor and to promote more assertive labor demands will define the mounting struggle against conglomerate capital.

The line between the poor, working, and middle classes is disappearing. And so, too, the ideological illusions that, since the end of World War II, ground so much of America’s social relations. Hopefully, this will reinvigorate a creative workers’ movement (aligned with popular groups) that will seriously challenge corporate America.


David Rosen contributes to Z Magazine, CounterPunch, and other publications.