Friday, December 14, 2007

Picketing in Snowy/Rainy Times Square

I had a better headline all picked out for this -- not the most original mind you, just the first one that would most likely come to mind -- but then Nikki Finke had to go and use it herself. Oh well.

Irregardless, yesterday was by the far the most precipitation laden day of WGA picketing that I've seen since my recent time on the eastern seaboard. When i got out of the subway it was snowing pretty hard.

Yesterday's picketing action was in front of the 1515 Broadway building in Times Square -- where Viacom's headquarters are located. Offices for the channels MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon among others are housed therein. Ironically enough the first job I had in this "business" was working as an intern in MTV's series development division. On arriving at the picketing spot, I felt like I was coming full circle in a way. If someone were to have told me nine years ago that one day I'd be picketing in front of the Viacom building as a member of the Writer's Guild of America, I would have told them to stop smoking so much crack/cocaine and urged them to seek professional help.

My MTV history aside, there was something really surreal about the whole set up yesterday. As aforementioned, picketing in and of itself is bizarre -- but add into the equation Times Square and a wintry mix of snow and sleet? Let's just say I felt like I'd stepped into a music video directed by Michel Gondry. The snow piled on my shoulders as I hoisted my picket sign, and when I threw a gander up towards Gotham's gray heavens my gaze was met with the disapproving eyes of fabulous looking youth on a Juicy Couture billboard. It was a bit like Vanilla Sky meets America's Next Top Model.

Yesterday's action was a Future Members picket -- so several students from local film schools came out on the line. I chatted with a couple of writer's who were at the master's program in Columbia and they were great -- upbeat with refreshing perspectives, yet to be embittered old cynics. There were also members of other unions present -- including a representative from the Teacher's Union and an Aviation Engineers Union, which was extremely generous considering the circumstances of the weather.

First came the snow--

--which then turned to more of a freezing rain. This was more uncomfortable then the snow -- because all of one's winter wares got wet -- and fool that I am the one day I don't bring my umbrella with me is the one day I truly need it. Isn't that always the way?

Luckily, it being Times Square and all -- there were enough things going on to keep my mind off the fact I was freezing.

And by 'things' I mean half naked urban cowboys, of course!

Friday, December 7, 2007

New York City Picket Round Up

I've had an interesting week or so of picketing in New York City.

Last week proved to be strangely inactive for the WGA EAST (there was only the Rally on Tuesday and a single four hour picketing shift at the Time Warner Center). But things picked back up in full swing this week -- with three major picket "actions" at News Corp (FOX), 30 Rock (NBC), and HBO.

First, some highlights from last week's session at the Time Warner Center. At long last I got to get up close and personal with the giant inflatable greedy "boss pig" that I had only heard tell of via other blogs. The thing is pretty neat in person -- about fifteen feet high, and seven feet wide. It's quite the imposing figure.

Here's a shot I took from the center of Columbus Circle:

Then another one, closer up:

I arrived to the picketing spot right at ten, (the shifts in NYC are generally from 10 AM to 2 PM) and things were actually pretty quiet for the first twenty minutes or so.

Then writers began trickling in and before you knew it there was a decent crowd of at least a hundred folks or so.

Unlike Los Angeles, in New York, they only do one picketing location per day -- in the hopes that all the guild members at one spot will make a significant impression.

At first, when there were less people around, the crowd moved swiftly in a circle. The picketing pace was the clipped march you'd expect from New Yorkers -- none of this stroll B.S. We were cordoned off to the edge of the sidewalk by these metal gates used by police for crowd control at general events. The problem is the picketing space or "pen" as I've come to call it, isn't terribly large -- so as soon as more picketers show up, things become really crowded and the pace slows to a painful crawl. And when I say painful, I mean literally painful. It's so cold out (It's been in the low 30's the past couple weeks in NYC) that if you're not moving things get uncomfortable pretty quickly. Once the crowd hits it's critical mass -- about half way through the picketing shift -- I'd say there are over a hundred people present. Problem is it will take like thirty minutes to do one single loop.

Standing there, holding your sign (there's very little sign pumping in NYC) makes you a bit of a spectacle to the passerby on the street. In LA the majority of the contact you have with people is via the cars that pass you by. People either honk their horns in support or try to avoid eye contact in apathy. You might even receive a scowl of disapproval. In New York, every now and again you'll get a honk from a garbage truck or a bus, but those are pretty rare to come by -- maybe you'll get four or five within the whole four hours of picketing.

I'd say the biggest difference about picketing on the east coast is how much of a direct spectacle you become. Pedestrians making their way to and from work, tourists shopping, school children on field trips, people on lunch breaks, the whole lot -- hundreds of them, probably thousands are passing within feet of you. It's harder to avoid acknowledgement when you don't have a bubble made of metal and glass around you. People will literally point and stare, take pictures, and talk about you as if you can't hear them. I heard a girl in her 20's say to her boyfriend the other day in passing "they're not very good looking are they." Well I never!

Occasionally you'll get a supporter on foot. Somebody who leans in and tells you they agree with our demands, that they hope we get a fair contract soon, and they are behind us. That's nice to hear. Of course, there are the hardened few who will walk by as if there wasn't a herd of a hundred and fifty writers corralled behind metal gates holding signs right next to them.

I think my biggest fear is that I am going to end up in some tourist's photo album though. Some couple is going to travel back home and show their family and friends pictures of New York. There will be pictures of the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Tree at Rockefeller Center -- and then there will be the WGA Picketers.

They'll say: Aren't they just the darndest things? Standing out there like maniacs in the cold?

Picketers have become the new street musician -- fodder for a new kind of bizarre spectator sport in the city.

As for 'picketiquette' it is largely the same. The first day I was intimidated because I didn't know a soul there, and there were all these witty, sharp writers from the comedy/variety shows like Letterman, Daily Show, Colbert Report, etc. But as the days went on I got to meet more and more folks on the line. Demographically speaking, I'd say the WGA-East does not appear (at least based off what I've seen on the lines) as diverse as the WGA-West is. I actually had a woman come up to me when we were in front of NBC and say "Can you believe how few women there are here?" Out of a hundred or so, there were maybe only twenty women tops. Also almost everyone is in a black coat. There is very little color on the line. Ahem. Well it's true! This week I wore a green coat, with a purple scarf and pink mittens. I was given the unofficial "most colorful" picketer award. Oh joy.

Though a little gruff at first, the NY picketers prove to be a generally amiable bunch. The other nice thing is that since there is only one place to go on any given day and only one shift, you begin to see the same people over and over which lends itself to building further comraderie. The WGA East staff has also been extremely kind and enthusiastic about having West members on their picketing lines, quickly putting to bed any paranoia I had had of any West/East rivalries.

But now, for more pictures...

Our large writer herd outside of News Corp at 48th st. on 6th Ave.

It was really very cold that day...

Boss Hog follows us to News Corp:

Aw look -- News Corp is all dressed up for the holidays:

The next day was 30 Rock aka Rockefeller Center aka NBC headquarters aka where the big tree is. It snowed pretty steadily for the last hour of our shift!

This was also "comedy" day -- and so Andy Samberg, Amy Pohler and Seth Myers all came out in support -- though I've actually seen Seth Myers on the line every single day I've been out there which is cool.

Among other celebrities that I've seen are Rachel Dratch, Dean Winters, Jerry Stiller, Rob Morrow and Zeljko Ivanek. But there've also been some big gun writers out too -- among them Tony Kushner and Walter Bernstein (he wrote the Magnificent Seven and was actually a blacklisted member of Hollywood during the 1950's HUAC hearings!).

Here's a couple photos' from Thursday's HBO picketing:

and wherever we go -- so does Boss Piggy!

Stay tuned for more next week. But hopefully not much longer. I think my toes are developing permanent frost bite...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Back in Line: LA vs. NY in Battle of the Rallies

Well it's been a little while since I've posted last, in part because I didn't have much of note to report, but also because of Thanksgiving holiday, et al -- blah, blah, blah, let's get to the good stuff.

Last Tuesday, November 20th the WGA West hosted a union solidarity rally on Hollywood Blvd. -- in the main area of the historic Hollywood neighborhood.

There was live entertainment:

(Yes, that's actually Alicia Keys. Apologies for the washed out shot, but it was EXTREMELY bright and hazy that day.)

After her performance and some brief introductions by WGA West president Patric Verrone, the thousands of people that had gathered -- which included members of the nurses' union, janitor's union, SAG, AFTRA, and more -- marched down Hollywood Blvd. towards Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

[On a side note, I was both surprised and impressed by the amount of other union supporters present. I really hope that if and when their time comes to struggle or strike, that the WGA is present in as equal degree of the support that they have shown us.]

A photo of some fellow union supporters in the crowd:

As we approached the Chinese Theatre, there was a giant Teamster truck parked in the middle of the street which was pretty cool.

For those of you not familiar with Los Angeles, the area surrounding the Chinese -- which also entails the geography of the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- has become sort of like LA's mini Times Square...

Once we arrived there Senor Verrone spoke once more, as did other union leaders, an LA city councilmen and Sandra Oh (Sideways, Grey's Anatomy).

Now take one good last look at this LA crowd...

And now -- we flash forward one full week to today, November 27th, where a very similar rally was held at Washington Square Park in New York City. You may now compare and contrast with the folk at this rally...

I was excited at the prospect of being able to visually juxtapose these two events on opposites sides of the coast. But truth be told the rallies themselves weren't night and day by any means. The format was almost exactly the same.

Once again with the live entertainment:

I'm still not sure how I feel about having musical guests at these events. Part of me feels like some of the past artists have been really well known, i.e. Rage Against the Machine Alumnus and Alicia Keys, which unfortunately I think just plays into these negative stereotypes about the strike. Here we are just a bunch of rich celebrities having a party and hanging out. Which is NOT TRUE. However at today's rally the artists (truth be told, I don't even know their name, bad journalist, bad) were much more anonymous -- and their presence there seemed to function as more of a mood bolstering element than a privileged one. Instead of -- hey look we can get Alicia Keys to come play our event for free! It was more -- chin up union brother and sister -- "I think I can make it now the pain is gone... all of the clouds seemed to have disappeared. It's going to be a bright, bright sunshiney day..." (They did actually sing that by the way). They also played little bumpers in between the speakers which made it feel like you were at a taping of the Tonight show, but in the best possible way -- especially the rim shots after strained jokes.

The music was followed by a bevy of speakers -- more than there were in LA, due in part to the fact that we did not march anywhere, rather stood in place in front of the stage where we clapped, listened, hooted, hollered, and pumped our signs.

The Vice President of the WGA East spoke, as did the head of the local Teacher's Union. The biggest show of the day was probably presidential democratic candidate John Edwards.

His appearance seemed to cause a bit of a stir, as there were people milling about who were petitioning to have him put on the ballot in NY -- as well as folks who were trying to pull the veil on Edwards' history with big business, namely how he's received campaign funding from Hollywood moguls in the past. I never did see individuals from these two opposing groups butt heads, but it was interesting to see them working the same crowd.

There were also several members of the Screen Actors Guild who came out to the rally and spoke in support of our cause. Among them, Tim Robbins, Danny Glover, and, yes, Gilbert Gottfried.

Not that I don't appreciate the support. Hey, we'll take it when we can get it. But it doesn't diminish the randomness factor...

The other obvious difference of course is the weather. Now you'll notice people in their coats and such, but truth be told it wasn't even THAT cold today -- not by east coast standards. It was probably in the 40's. But let me tell you something. When you're standing still, holding a sign, gloveless, it gets chilly after a while. Look at us writers braving the elements all trans-continental and sh*t. You can't beat the heat in LA, nor apparently, the cold in NY.

One final thing. The biggest and most important different in picketing out here in New York vs. Los Angeles? It's the signs. The signs look a little different yes:

But the most important difference here is that the signs are fastened onto lightweight cardboard tubes instead of wooden sticks. Not only does this make for a light sign but it is MUCH, MUCH easier on the hands. Goodbye cruel electrical tape and blisters. Hello sweet smooth cardboard....

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I had heard tell of this little song sheet making the rounds at picket locations, but it wasn't until Friday night when I was at the guild for my van loading shift (which basically entailed me emptying a supply van for a picket location and reloading it) that I was able to procure one of these first hand.

Here are the inspirational lyrics that some 'scribe' 'penned' to the tune of YMCA by The Village People. (Am I going to get in trouble for using Variety slang since they supposedly side with the studios?)

WRITER, there's no need to feel down.
I said, WRITER, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, WRITER, 'cause you're not going down.

WRITER, there's a place you can go.
I said, WRITER, when they're talkin' your dough.
You can join us, and be sure you will find
Fair pay, health care, pension, and welfare.

It's great to be in the W-G-A
It's great to be in the W-G-A

We write everything
from the news to the soaps
We write all the late night jokes!

It's great to be in the W-G-A
It's great to be in the W-G-A

We script "unscripted" shows
We write clever comebacks
We won't take no stinkin' rollbacks

AMP-TEEP, are you listening to me?
I said, AMP-TEEP, what do you want to be?
I said, AMP-TEEP, we can make real your dreams
But you've got to know this one thing!

NO ONE does it all by himself.
If you want OSCARS on your office shelf,
Then just GIVE US our fair share of the pice
Or let NICK COUNTER do your rewrites!

It's great to be in the W-G-A
It's great to be in the W-G-A

and so on and so forth it continues on from here. I appreciate the sentiment of doing this, but could we perhaps make it to something a little more modern? Perhaps a former staffer on Welcome Back Kotter is responsible for these. I mean when was the last time you heard YMCA in public, or even on the radio? Not that I'm certain you could successfully do one of these with Justin Timerlake's SexyBack. I'm bringing residuals back. (Yeah!) These AMPTP peeps just don't know how to act...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Writers Get Creative Part II

As the days since the WGA has declared a strike have started to pile up (it was fourteen days ago that a strike was called), the signs that the writers have been marching the picket lines have become more and more inventive. The Guild has started to put out more and more of these "do it yourself" signs with blank white spaces in the middle, where people can write their own messages. The write ins range from simple "Honk for Support" to not so simple "Tom Freston got a $60,000,000 severance package." Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight Shrute on The Office) was marching in my picket line yesterday with a sign that said "Jesus was a writer."

But I think my favorites of all the ones I've seen are these series of signs titled "Without Writers" Check them out...

I think I want to create one of these posters for one of the big science fiction franchises out there. Either a Star Wars edition (Without Writers: You should be with the force and stuff.) or Star Trek (Without Writers: Have a long and happy life.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Week Two, Day Seven

Captain's log, star date zero one one, thirteen. As of yesterday before sunrise I found myself in a strange new place. Initial readings indicate that similar lifeforms to that found at previous locations are--

OK, I'll stop with the Star Trek referencing. I'm well aware of it's dorky-ness, but you have to understand that boredom has largely taken over my brain these days, and not for lack of change of venue.

This week the picketing schedules and locations changed. Due to Culver Studio's smaller size, the Guild decided to drop it from the picketing rotation. Myself, and my trusty crew (the people I work and write with) were diverted to Paramount studios. The picketing shifts also changed from 9 AM to 1 PM, and 1 PM to 5 PM, to 6 AM (!) to 10 AM, and 10 AM to 2 PM. I am under the impression that the major reason for this time change was so that the picketers could be present when the Teamsters who drive the production trucks onto the lot arrived -- the hope being that the Teamsters would honor the picket line, turn around, and disrupt production at the studios.

All these changes sent my team a flutter. First off many of them live on the evil (west) side of town, and so Paramount, which is located round the Hollywood parts was not particularly convenient for them. Secondly many of them balked at the draconian call time of 6 AM. The result of this shifting? My team has now fragmented. Some are doing Sony, some are doing Paramount, some are doing the very early shift, others the not so early shift.

Since I live close to Paramount (about ten minutes away, hallelujah!) I've been going there -- and the past two days I've done the 6 AM to 10 AM. First let me say that having your alarm go off at 4:53 AM is downright disconcerting. It's been dark outside when I leave the house, and never before has the desert climate of Hades (Los Angeles) been more apparent to me. When I pull up to the studio my car thermometer reads 55 F or so. When I pull away, we're up to 80 F.

Yesterday I started my shift outside of the Van Ness lot -- the one where the Teamsters generally pull up to. Ain't it downright picturesque?

We picketers were armed with flyers to hand out to the Teamsters to inform them more about the issues at hand, as we encouraged them not to cross the line. Unfortunately this endeavor was not very successful, not that I can blame them. These guys know that production may be shutting down for a while in the near future and they have families to feed. Though I don't think anyone else in my picketing group was angry at the Teamsters for crossing -- I do think the fact that our scheme wasn't working bred some frustration. Picketers started to walk obnoxiously in front of other cars trying to come in at times failing to let them pull into the driveway. Though many of the writers on the line may have fancied the drivers to be the big bad suits -- in reality they looked like a mixed bunch, whose scowls grew as picketers refused to stop their stomping to let they by. Though Emily Post may have fallen out of fashion -- common sense says to me you don't ingratiate someone to your cause by making them late to work. I left this gate of ornery picketers, to find another.

And find another I did. Voila -- the Bronson Gate.

There were about seven or eight writers at this gate -- where mostly suits and other administrative employee types drove in. The picketers were subdued and very polite, patiently giving right of way to every vehicle that wanted to turn in, even when we had the "walk sign" (there is a built in stoplight and crosswalk at the gate -- which allowed for nice albeit brief breaks to the constant trudging back and forth).

Thing is -- while the first bunch I was with were too cantankerous -- these guys were too docile. Too harmless, too nonthreatening, -- walking around without a sign pump to be seen, like animatronics Paramount had put out for passersby to stare at. "Oh honey, look at what the studios make the writers do in Hollywood! Those writers go around in circles for what seems like eternity only to realize they haven't gotten any further than when they first started." (Seriously one of the Hollywood Bus Tours stopped in front of us so the tourists could take pictures -- it was one of the lower points for me in all this) All this good behavior from my compatriots made me encourage honking -- from cars, buses, vans, anyone who I could get good eye contact with and then waving my sign around maniacally when they would. The thing is, when I'm the most vigilant in a crowd? Well, let's just say this does not bode well for the crowd...

I did the morning shift again today -- and stuck strictly to the Bronson Gate -- with a heavy heart that once again I would need to play the role of the rabble rouser. Little did I know I was about to be surrounded by a bunch of badasses. Uhuh, that's right.

(Let the record state that they were all actually extremely nice guys.)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Rally at the Fox

Well today marked the last day of the first week of the Writer's Guild of America strike. In both New York and Los Angeles, guild members rallied around buildings owned by the Fox Corporation, in an effort to make their voices heard as they continue to demand a fair contract.

The LA gang of writers met in front of the Fox Plaza -- right by the Fox Studio lot in Century City. It was a sight to be seen -- over three thousand folks were there I'd say. In about the first five minutes I was there, I caught glimpses of Judd Apatow, the actress who played Andrea in Beverly Hills 90210, Kelsey Grammer, a couple of the guys from It's Sunny in Philadelphia, and others. Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not a paparazzi -- so I don't have any photos of these famous folks. The only people I did feel comfortable photographing were a couple of the Reno 911 guys, because they were in costume. The Screen Actors Guild has stood in solidarity with the WGA, and all sorts of stars have come to march the picket lines with their writer colleagues.

During the first hour of the rally there were speakers for about an hour (by the president of both the WGA and SAG) and then for the second hour people moved down to the main Fox entrance to picket/protest. The cops even closed off the street for us and everything. Here's a look at the writers taking to the streets...

There were some other unusual aspects to the rally -- such as the fact that major agencies located just down the street sent their assistants out, all dressed up, to serve up churros (and other sweets) on platters to the protesters. I guess this is their way of trying to convince the writers they support their cause. That or they're just trying to ingratiate themselves with big names present in the hopes of luring them to their agency after this war is over.

Behold the churros...

There was also a young thin blonde woman in a scandalously short dress walking around with a large sign that simply read "Day 5." Not sure if this was at the behest of an agency, or if she was merely an entrepreneurial young actress trying to get her face, and ahem, other particulars seen.

Here are some photos as the crowds moved down to Pico (which is a major street in LA, for those of you not familiar) where the front of the studio is located.

You can get a peek inside the Fox Lot in this shot.

And that wraps up this week's reporting on the strike. Stay tuned for next week as (barring further negotiations -- which as of now there are none scheduled) I continue to man the picket line, and drive around, snapping photos of other picket locales.

Also, for those of you who wish to get a better idea of the issues at hand, here's a neat little video that some writers made to explain what is what.