On Saturday afternoon, I got a Facebook message from John Aboud, one of VH1's Modern Humorists. I've known John for years. Our dogs had a play date once.
"Do you have a strike team yet?" he wrote.
Strike team? I thought. Of course I don't have a strike team. I've never been on strike before!
"I'm your man," I wrote back.
If I'm going to have a strike captain, I thought, he might as well be a regular on Best Week Ever.
Two years ago, my wife and I sold our house in Austin, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles, because I finally had a chance to join the Writers Guild of America. My book Alternadad was about to get optioned and, union fees being what they are, the option money was my golden ticket to unionization.
Forget about chasing Hollywood magic. Sure, I had ideas for movies and TV shows. That was part of the reason we moved. But really, we wanted the health insurance. We were tired of disgorging $1,100 a month for the right to substandard care. Only the union could save us.
I paid my $2,500 entry fee and sent in my dues form. Our health coverage started in January. We went to the dentist and the eye doctor. Meanwhile, I wrote a screenplay and got a TV-pilot deal. The details of this deal must remain shrouded in secrecy, but I can say that it was the biggest break of my life. Last Friday, my writing partners and I got the go-ahead to write the script.
Instead, contract talks between the guild and the studios broke down over the weekend, and on Monday afternoon, I was carrying a strike sign and walking back and forth in front of a giant statue of Mickey Mouse's wizard hat from Fantasia. This was called "picketing the hat." My fellow strikers included the writing staffs of Jimmy Kimmel Live and Scrubs and the guys who wrote The Santa Clause. John Aboud and his fellow captains gave everyone a copy of the WGA's "Contract 2007 Negotiation Statement" and a sheet of chants. They included:
Network bosses, rich and rude
We don't like your attitude!
There ain't no power,
Like the power of the people,
Cuz the power of the people won't stop!
Say what? (Repeat)
"I hate chanting," I said to a stranger/comrade.
"Yeah, but you're on the pickets," he said. "You gotta chant."
He raised his fist to the sky.
"Dork power!" he shouted.
"This strike brought to you by LensCrafters," Aboud said.
It was the second time I'd heard him make that joke. I'll probably hear it a few more times, too. We're going to be seeing each other often.
I must pause here to say that I'm completely with my union and agree with everything the strikers are demanding. Of course writers should be fairly compensated for downloads of the shows they make. It's absurd for networks to contend that streaming videos of TV shows are "promotional" and therefore outside any possible pay structure.
At the same time, I feel completely disconnected from the reality of the strike itself. None of my work is available for streaming, free or not, because not a word I've written has ever been filmed. It feels like I've been taken out of class on the first week of high school and forced to march with the teachers' union. The fact that half the teachers are younger than I am makes it even stranger.
On Tuesday morning at 9, I arrived at Prospect Studios in Los Feliz. I'd gotten a call from another strike captain, a screenwriter named Jennie with 2-year-old twins, saying that she was organizing WGA members from the neighborhood to picket at Prospect. My house is a 10-minute walk from the studios, and I certainly hadn't enjoyed my drive home from Burbank the previous day. So I signed onto another team.
Prospect is where they film Grey's Anatomy, General Hospital, and a local news show. It's a mom-and-pop general store by Hollywood standards. I arrived to find about 100 strikers getting a pep talk from the location captain. He read a letter from Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy, who said she couldn't, in good conscience, complete her show-running duties. She'd be joining us on the pickets as soon as she received a woman of the year award from Glamour magazine in New York.
After that rousing start, Jennie told me that we were going to picket the southeast side of the studios. This was the main drive-on-and-off point for people who worked there.
"Sounds good," I said.