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You’re not supposed to point out the flaws in the side you support in a strike. You’re supposed to support the notion that all issues are black and white, and your team wears the right colour hat. In fact, thinking for yourself is frowned on in any contentious situation like war or the “war” of a labour negotiation. But while I support the writers in their regular jobs and in their current strike, I’m not a big fan of their guild.

Hindsight is wonderful, but the WGA’s not-stellar skills were on display in the failed 2006 strike, where they used the America’s Next Top Model writers (or “writers”) to test the waters of organizing reality shows, and then walked away, leaving the writers (or “writers”) without jobs.

Daniel J. Blau, an ex-ANTM story editor, recently wrote an account of the WGA’s feeble Plan A, and no Plan B, for the LA Times. He points out that their failure in 2006 is resulting in their weak position right now:

Had the WGA fulfilled [then-director of organizing, now executive director David] Young’s initial promise to procure guild status for all writers working on reality, animation and nonfiction shows, the networks would shortly have nothing new on the air at all. As it stands, the WGA has pushed its members to walk out on their own jobs, and it has left the networks with powerful leverage — the ability to keep making new TV content.

Should the WGA incorporate reality writers? (I’ll stop with the “writers” – I might not be completely comfortable with that term for what they do, but they do craft the stories.) I don’t know. I don’t care. I only know they tried, badly, and failed, badly, and therefore missed out on the biggest strategic advantage they could have had in their current and future negotiations.

Blau’s article reminded me of two posts I wrote a couple of years ago. In the year or so before the failed strike, the WGA ramped up to it by waging an odd campaign to discredit reality shows. (Wait, did they ever have credit?). They marched against product placement in reality shows at the same time as they had a Reality Organizing Committee with a mandate to expand their membership into the reality show ranks.

They created an Internet campaign, including the Subservient Donald viral site that amounted to nothing more than a sneeze, and a fun but pointless website called Product Invasion, both of which have since been as abandoned as the ANTM story department. The explicit point of that 2005 campaign was to protest product placement in reality shows, which were not and are not under the WGA purview. The hidden point was, of course, something entirely different: setting the stage to organize reality show writers.

A commenter to one of those Blogcritics posts on the subject makes that point explicit, and I have reason to believe it was made by a WGA member:

You’re missing the point of Product Invasion. The producers of reality shows do not recognize the Writers Guild of America. Therefore, the reality writers are unprotected, working 100 hours a week, while the producers are making boatloads of money by (a) not paying union wages and (b) not paying for actors and (c) placing commercials within the episodes of their shows. The Product Invasion campaign is meant to embarrass the advertisers into forcing the producers to sit down and negotiate.

My response:

I understand the point – that’s what the Variety link expands on. But the Product Invasion site is an indirect, dishonest way of making that point. It’s couching the issue in a way that makes it seem like they are protecting the creative integrity of their shows on behalf of the audience. I fully support the writers getting fair union wages, and a bigger piece of the pie. I object to a campaign that pretends to be about one thing when it’s really about another. If they succeed in their negotiations and get a fair deal, will they continue to wage war against product placement? If so, then you and I are both missing the point. If not, then the Product Invasion message is hypocritical – unlike what the text of the site says, the issue all about money, not the undue influence of advertising, or the type of advertising.

I could have been briefer (I could always be briefer). If I were to reply now, two years later, I might just say: The WGA’s point was to organize reality show writers, and if they had succeeded, they would have happily, hypocritically taken the product placement money. Why should I care, then?

The producers’ side of the current strike gives no one any reason for optimism. But looking back on that failed 2005/6 campaign (which, by the way, occurred under the leadership of the current president of the WGA), I find it hard to be optimistic about the WGA either. They might be wearing the white hats in this strike, but they also might be taking a few too many photo ops in them.

There’s too much at stake for this strike to be a flashy PR campaign. So as negotiations continue after the weekend, it can’t hurt to remind both sides that what happens in that room is what’s important, not posturing and pencils.