Most discussion of the Hollywood writers’ strike has centered on money: the studio chiefs, tech demigods and private equity oligarchs who have it and the writers like myself whose labor should entitle us to a greater share of it. As a member of the Writers Guild of America, whose strike will enter its second month this week, I think that discussion is important, but it misses the real point of why workers strike and why we’re willing to use the only leverage we’ve got — our livelihoods — in such a fight.
One morning back in the summer of 2002, I was walking my dog when I got a call that my father was having a heart attack. He’d been hustled to the E.R. and I was told to get there as soon as I could. They don’t say that if they know the patient is going to make it.
Dad was a longtime Teamster, Local 340, which represents a grab-bag of freight jockeys, municipal workers and emergency services types. As a firefighter and E.M.T., he belonged to that last group — a mustachioed monolith and decorated combat veteran who worked and worked and, when he was done working, found some other work to do. He’d been at the fire station when he felt an unseen hand plunge into his chest and grip his heart, and he knew right away that he was in very serious trouble indeed.
By the time I arrived, doctors had succeeded in dissolving the clot that had been choking off one of his coronary arteries. I found him lying in the I.C.U., less than a quarter of his heart muscle still functioning. We didn’t talk about any of that, though. He had a few things at the house he’d meant to deal with that day after his shift ended, and now he wanted me to take care of them. More alarming to me than the prospect that he could easily have died was the way his mustache was twitching nervously at the corner of his mouth. He’d come real close, and Death throwing its arm around his shoulders revealed a version of my father I hadn’t thought possible: fragile, frightened, life-size and no longer a bit bigger.
His career was finished after the heart attack. Other fundamental things had changed, too. But he was alive, and the rest was just details. Besides, he’d covered his bases — he had income insurance and was eligible for early retirement with a large chunk of what his full pension would have been. The worst was over.
You know where this is going, naturally. The worst was not over.
For a man like my father there are fates worse than death, and one of those was being treated like a deadbeat because the people who were supposed to cover him in such a circumstance refused to do so. The corporate jackals who ran the income insurance program he’d paid into for decades refused to pay out because the heart attack happened at work and, in their view, was thus properly covered by workers’ compensation. At the same time, the corporate jackals who held the mortgage on the house I grew up in came calling. And they gave not one quarter of a damn that the man had been within a hair’s breadth of dying.
Dad eventually scraped together a couple of months’ worth of mortgage payments but the check came back uncashed — he couldn’t pay the full amount overdue, so the mortgage company didn’t want a penny of it. What it wanted, instead, was to take his house. And so it did.
My father, barely more than 50 years old and with only 20 percent of his heart still working, lost the modest life he’d put together through tireless labor over decades, and had to move with my mother into my aunt’s house for a time. He had, in his sudden infirmity, become an abstract problem for a business entity whose only concern was to hold onto every penny it could, decency be damned. And though his Teamster reps tried to intercede on his behalf, they were unable to convince that entity to think of my father — and treat him — like a man.
I learned two things as I helplessly watched all this going down. First, only a sucker bets on a future more distant than his next breath. And second, the difference between being shaken down illegally and being shaken down legally is that instead of going to prison, the crooks in neckties get stock bonuses and gold Rolexes and hearty pats on the back for a job well done.
None of this is unusual. It’s tragic and infuriating and grievous but it is also very, very normal. Using fine print and loopholes and the tectonic grind of the legal process to cheat working people is as American as a Norman Rockwell painting. And while superficially there might not appear to be a direct connection between my father’s losses and the W.G.A. strike, both spring directly from this time-honored exploitation of the powerless by the powerful.
Do I sound bitter? Good. I am. Still, after 20 years.
Now you know why I’m a union man myself and why I’m striking. Unions, imperfect though they might be, are the only entities that have ever provided an effective counterbalance to the corporate rapaciousness that victimized my father. A strike is not a fight at all, but rather a collective assertion of our dignity. It’s not about money — except insofar as, in America, money equals respect. For me, it’s about the look in my father’s eyes when he realized that not only was his body broken, but so were all the implicit promises that go along with being a good worker bee and paying your taxes and staying on the right side of the law.
My old man eventually got a settlement and was able to buy a little double-wide in which he would die, five years later, at 57 of lung cancer that was surely a legacy of his military service and his working life as a firefighter. It was nice, I suppose, that he was made whole and could buy another home for himself and my mother, but the truth is that, as with the heart attack itself, the damage was done. The home he’d bought with his labor, in which he had raised his children, was gone. The humiliation and frustration of losing it couldn’t be rolled back. This is another way they swindle you: making you feel that, hey, you got your money, the right thing has been done, so why are you still so unhappy?
I wonder if the people on the other side of the negotiating table will ever understand that it’s not about money and never has been. There’s an almost genetic-level memory of struggle and privation among working people, and we’re tired of having to fight like animals simply to be treated like human beings. We’re tired of entering into agreements that, one way or another, always get broken.
That’s what this strike is about, at least for me. I don’t need a cut of Netflix executives’ stock compensation. What I need — what I demand — is that they treat me and the people I love as though our lives and labor are every bit as significant as theirs.
The post I’m On Strike With the W.G.A. I Owe My Father at Least That Much. appeared first on New York Times.