“Vocational Awe” On The Picket Line

Despite Chris Seaton’s best efforts, the writers’ strike continues and we may never see a sitcom again. It presents an interesting contrast to many of the more popular platitudes of the unduly passionate, where people who followed their passion are now constrained to admit that love doesn’t pay the bills.

Last month, in an interview about Warner Bros. Discovery’s $50 million streaming profit in the first quarter of 2023, the company’s chief executive, David Zaslav, told CNBC that he believed the Writers Guild of America strike would ultimately end because of “a love for the business and a love for working.”

As the sixth week of the strike begins, the writers’ persistence reveals a sharper truth: Love, unfortunately, doesn’t pay the bills.

Sound familiar?

Note that the “$50 million streaming profit” is in the first sentence, and it’s just from the first quarter. And that comes after deduction for Zaslav’s salary and bonus, Obviously, Warner Bros. can afford to pay their writers better. Isn’t that the way employee compensation works?

The implication that love is a suitable stand-in for job security, workplace protections or fair pay is a commonly held belief, especially in so-called dream jobs like writing, cooking and working in the arts, where the privilege to do the work is seen as a form of compensation itself.

But the rhetoric that a job is a passion or a “labor of love” obfuscates the reality that a job is an economic contract. The assumption that it isn’t sets up the conditions for exploitation.

Surveys show that young people care far more about work that gives them a sense of satisfaction, whether that means indulging their personal passion or serving whatever they consider beneficial to mankind. Surveys show they are willing to forgo higher salaries and benefits to do this work. Surveys are great until the bills come due.

Indeed, creative, mission-driven and prestigious jobs often take advantage of employees’ love for what they do. According to one 2020 study, employers see poor treatment of workers — such as expecting overtime work without pay or asking people to do demeaning tasks that aren’t part of their job descriptions — as more acceptable if the workers are thought to be passionate about what they do. This stems from bosses’ tacit assumptions that their employees would do the work even if they weren’t paid.

Is this really the bosses’ fault, or is this the lie employees tell themselves, only to be blamed on exploitative bosses after the employees get their fulfilling jobs, for which they are willing to suffer lower pay, and then want higher pay because they came to the realization they can’t eat and pay rent with their passion.

That seems to be the message some W.G.A. members have gotten. “Writing is a noble vocation,” says Charles Rogers, a writer and showrunner who is on strike in Los Angeles. “But the industry is set up to make writers feel like they should be grateful just to be here.” Employers then rely on employees’ indebtedness and the proverbial line of people out the door who would happily take their places to justify paying them less than they deserve.

And therein lies the harsh reality of employee compensation that doesn’t disappear when you stamp your feet. On the one hand, if the job of writer doesn’t pay enough to live, then get a different job that pays more. Not that simple, you say? No, it may not be when other jobs are either scarce, require skills or degrees you don’t possess, and involve structural shifts you’re unwilling to take. Maybe the job is in Des Moines, and who wants to live in Des Moines rather than Hollywood? Maybe the job involves writing technical manuals and it’s somewhat less satisfying that writing “Blackish” or “CSI: Puppies”?

But when there is the “proverbial line of people out the door who would happily take their places,” this is the job market telling you that you are fungible, and if the terms and conditions of employment aren’t good enough for you, don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

But thankfully, workers are recognizing their collective strength. Employees at workplaces across the country have organized and are fighting for better conditions.

In Hollywood, it’s the screenwriters demanding more job security and a better cut of residuals. In Ann Arbor, Mich., graduate students at the University of Michigan are also on strike, demanding a raise in minimum annual salaries from about $24,000 to $38,500. In Oregon, nurses are calling for staffing increases to better serve patients.

And they have a lot of support. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a Gallup poll from last year, which is their highest recorded approval rate in the United States since 1965.

The irony here is that while approval of labor unions may be high, participation is at the lowest its been since 1983. As both union members and businesses came to realize when Detroit went bust, there are limits to the utility of unions, where salary and benefits (like pensions and health insurance) only go in one direction, and eventually break the bank as costs that seem far in the future at the negotiating table eventually come due.

That the writers aren’t being paid enough to survive the cost of living where the minimum wage for the unwashed have driven costs to an untenable level isn’t surprising at all. Whether they are being exploited is another matter, but it’s the sort of rhetoric that tends to easily sway the people who aren’t responsible for paying their salaries. When television and movie stars honor their picket lines, they applaud and embrace them as fellow travelers, even though these same stars could willingly take a pay cut so the writers are better paid and still be able to afford gas for their Lambos. That’s the price of following your passion, even when you are good enough to land a job in the writers’ room.

4 thoughts on ““Vocational Awe” On The Picket Line

  1. B. McLeod

    Obviously these “writers” suspect what many of us suspect, that AI can do their jobs and they are now redundant, inefficient and useless. They may have to openly go into politics to put beans on the table.

  2. Hunting Guy

    Robert Heinlein.

    “Happiness lies in being privileged to work hard for long hours in doing whatever you think is worth doing. One man may find happiness in supporting a wife and children. Another may find it in robbing banks. Still another may labor mightily for years in pursuing pure research with no discernible result.

    Note the individual and subjective nature of each case. No two are alike and there is no reason to expect them to be. Each man or woman must find for himself or herself that occupation in which hard work and long hours make him or her happy. Contrariwise, if you are looking for shorter hours and longer vacations and early retirement, you are in the wrong job. Perhaps you need to take up bank robbing. Or geeking in a sideshow. Or even politics.”

  3. Alex Stalker

    If the writers aren’t being paid enough to live, then they’re being exploited. Luckily they have a union and are taking steps to address that.

    I would quibble with your assertion that employees engaged in writing are fungible. Much like other professions, such as the practice of law, some people are better at it than others. Just because there is a line out of the door of people who would step in (or, e.g., new unemployed law school graduates) doesn’t mean you can replace your workforce with scabs and get good results. I suspect if Hollywood could replace all their writers and keep paying them peanuts, but still maintain roughly the current quality level of scripted TV, then that’s what they would do. I’m sure many of us will notice the general lack of quality when the movies and tv shows that were penned by scabs to keep the machine rolling come out in a couple years. I certainly did last time there was a writer’s strike.

    I’m not sure why actors should take a haircut so that the writers can be paid more. If Hollywood is swimming in profits (and they appear to be doing so), they can cough up some of those profits to pay their writers more. I suppose if the studios were doing poorly, it would be a different matter. But by all accounts they are not.

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