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The most contentious area, both economically and ethically, of union action involves strikesWorkers collectively walking off the jobsite in an attempt to pressure employers to accede to their demands.: workers collectively walking off the jobsite in an attempt to pressure employers to accede to their demands. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) led one of the most publicized recent walkouts when Hollywood script writers put down their pencils and closed their laptops—at least officially—in November of 2007. By the time they returned in early 2008, the economic damage wrought in the Los Angeles basin was massive, $3.5 billion according to some estimates, but the resolution ultimately satisfied most members of the moviemaking community.
During the strike, two constellations of ethical issues came to the fore. First, questions involved
The second set of questions involved responses to the strike:
Some Hollywood writers are contracted by faceless studios to churn out rewrites for movies; others generate TV dramas and soap operas. There’s work to be done inventing jokes for sitcoms like The Office, and opening monologues for Jay Leno’s Tonight show need to be written a few days every week. As the writers’ strike extended, the walkout’s effects beamed into living rooms. Almost immediately, Leno went into reruns. The Office, which had a few episodes in the can, lasted several weeks. The moviemakers—many of whom live underneath piles of scripts submitted unsolicited by writers—kept going.
Out on the picket lines, Leno zipped around in his vintage sports car to support the stoppage, and occasionally stopped to chat with the strikers and crack good-humored jokes. Of course Leno, who makes millions a year, probably didn’t really need his paychecks. Others in Hollywood, however, live from day to day and without much room for unemployment. Set designers, prop companies, on-site catering services, all the people surrounding the now-halted industry saw their income wither. In the face of the injurious consequences, three arguments nonetheless favor and justify the writers’ walkout.
On the other side, the kinds of arguments normally set up to obligate striking workers to return to their stations involve responsibilities to the larger community:
Finally, it’s important to note that strikes don’t need to be long-term walkouts. The dynamic and ethics surrounding the refusal to work change when, for example, a union decides to go on strike for only a single day as a way of pressuring management.
The Hollywood writers’ strike featured some big-name backing. Jay Leno cruised around in his Bugatti; Steve Carell, star of The Office, refused to cross the picket lines; and Sally Field mingled with writers in the Disney Studios lot. These shows of support scored public relations points and provoked this question: what obligation do workers in related fields hold to support strikers?
The range of responses corresponds well with those already outlined to justify the unionization of workers in a particular shop.
As events transpired, the WGA did, in fact, receive wide support from across Hollywood, but the solidarity was far from complete. As this outburst from a writer’s blog shows, some network studios tried to keep their soap operas in production by hiring strikebreakersThey occupy the posts of striking workers during walkouts, alleviating pressure on employers., or scabs, as they’re known to picketers:
The scab writers work under fake names, work from home and use different email addresses so only the executive producer knows the real identities of the scabs. These tend to be experienced soap writers who aren’t currently on a show. They are then promised employment after the strike is over. While they’re scabbing, they get paid less than union writers.John Aboud, “Scabbing Doesn’t Pay (For Long),” United Hollywood (blog), November 8, 2007, accessed June 9, 2011, http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/2007/11/scabbing-doesn-pay-for-long.html.
This under-the-table scripting captures a conflict inherent in the union’s attempt to use economic force against employers. On one side, by cutting off their labor, strikers are trying to win concessions through economic force. But their success depends on the suspension of basic economic rules: as this blogger is admitting, there are scriptwriters out there willing to work at current wages for the studios. It sounds like they may even be willing to work for less.
For these secretive scriptwriters, what ethical justifications can be mounted for what is, in essence, picket-line crossing? The blog post decrying scab workers actually rallied some to post arguments in the strikebreakers’ defense. One comes from a poster named Jake: “Maybe he [the blogger writing the original post complaining about strikebreakers] has unlimited funds somewhere and can stay out of work forever, but some need to support themselves now.”Jake, November 8, 2007 (6:44 a.m.), comment on John Aboud, “Scabbing Doesn’t Pay (For Long),” United Hollywood Blog, November 8, 2007, http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/2007/11/scabbing-doesn-pay-for-long.html.
The argument here is that we all have fundamental duties to ourselves that must be served before deferring to others. It’s not, in other words, that scriptwriters should feel no obligation to their colleagues, but all of us have a deeper responsibility to our own welfare (and possibly to that of our family members who may depend on us), and that responsibility takes precedence when the situation becomes extreme, when going without work represents more than just an inconvenience.
Another argument wraps through the following exchange between two blog readers. The first, who registers his comment anonymously, writes, “I’m a little amazed by some of these comments.…Do you guys [who support strikebreakers] not know about unions? Do you not understand what it means to cross a picket line?…People need to work for just (as in fair) pay.”Anonymous, November 8, 2007 (8:15 a.m.), comment on John Aboud, “Scabbing Doesn’t Pay (For Long),” United Hollywood Blog, November 8, 2007, http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/2007/11/scabbing-doesn-pay-for-long.html.
This response comes from a poster named Tim: “Anonymous said, ‘Do you not understand what it means to cross a picket line?’ Yes, it means you are trying to work for someone who wants to pay you. In moral terms, it’s just a voluntary mutually beneficial exchange that for the most part is no one else’s business. Members of a union do and should have the right to refuse to provide a service, but they don’t have a right to prevent others from providing the service.”Tim, November 8, 2007 (8:32 a.m.), comment on Anonymous, “Scabbing Doesn’t Pay (For Long),” United Hollywood Blog, November 8, 2007, http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/2007/11/scabbing-doesn-pay-for-long.html.
Tim’s argument is based on the principle of free agency and the ethics of freedom. According to him, what’s morally right is any action particular scriptwriters and studio owners agree to undertake. The only ethical obligation individuals have is to not violate the freedom of others and, according to Tim, everyone involved in this strikebreaking is acting freely without stopping others from doing the same. The strikers, like the strikebreakers, may go to work—or not go—whenever they like. To the extent that’s right, ethical objections shouldn’t be raised against either choice.
The key phrase in Tim’s response is that the strikebreaking writers’ actions are “no one else’s business.” Those defending the union could choose to intervene here and assert that the claim is fundamentally wrong. Ethics depends on compassionately taking account of others’ interests, and factoring them into your own decisions: what writers decide to do must serve not only their own but also the general welfare. Possibly, Tim could respond to this by asserting that in a market economy the best way to serve the general welfare is for individuals to pursue their own success. There are responses to this argument too, and the discussion continues.