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Racial tensions boiling; immigrants thrown on the fire. Anti-Semitism on the rise. Poison in the water. Industrialists raking in billions while the working poor struggle to make even the most modest of ends meet. No discernable signs of a middle class. Yes, these are the circumstances of E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant Ragtime, but they are also the circumstances in which we find ourselves living — cycling back with a stark symmetry to the world of America almost exactly one hundred years ago — a world in crisis, a world which cannot sustain itself.
For the better part of 50 years, during the middle of the last century, we steadily repaired the damage that had been done by those seeking to enrich themselves at the cost of everyone else. We cultivated a middle class by investing in unions, by putting regulations in place to prevent the exploitation of the lower class, to prevent monopolization of industry, to even the playing field, at least a bit.
But over the last three decades we’ve seen the undermining of those safeguards (the repeal of Glass-Steagall, for example), which included the dismantling of the firewall between the networks and studios. Remember when creators truly owned their shows? When even a modest hit guaranteed a massive return to the people who actually came up with the idea for it? Those days are long gone, and anyone who doesn’t see a direct correlation between those things is being willfully ignorant.
This is not just happening in our industry. Where union membership in this country once hovered around 35 percent in the private sector, it is currently under 7 percent, a low not seen since 1932. This did not happen by accident — it is the product of a concerted effort and billions of dollars buying politicians to curry favor, and favorable laws, for corporate America. And now the agencies, our representatives, those people and organizations that built their wealth off our talents, are not only placing their bottom line above our own (packaging), but in multiple cases, they are seeking to produce content — which makes them simultaneously our owners and our advocates. Even the most defiantly obtuse have to admit that there’s no way to expect a company to negotiate in our best interests when those interests run contrary to their own.
This has to change. If the big agencies are not interested in tying their success to ours, perhaps it is time to rethink their role in our business. If they feel there is more money to be made in producing content than in representing the writers who create it, then perhaps we should let them. There is already substantial evidence that there are agents — and agencies — who understand the value of the writer and are willing to prioritize our success in their business model. And we have to remember — there is no product without a script. I’ve heard of the threat of packaging without writers involved — sure, there may be a few limited circumstances where that may happen, but the simple truth is we create the content. And we have to remind ourselves of that, and reclaim our power.
Our union exists to make sure none of us gets ground beneath the wheel of corporate greed — to make sure that the system works for all of us, not simply those with hundred-million-dollar overall deals. This fight is a good and noble one. Not just for us, not just for our vitality and longevity, but as a beacon to the rest of the country, to those in other industries, facing similar challenges.
Like many of us, I have misgivings about the way parts of this have been handled — foremost, for a union of people who create narratives for a living, we’ve done a terrible job controlling this one. And like many of us, I love my agent and I miss his counsel. But that feeling of friendship and nostalgia does not and cannot outweigh what’s at stake here. We are a union, in a good and just fight to right several wrongs. Now is not the time to doubt our mission, nor to divide and undermine our voice. Confronting systems of power is always uncomfortable, but it must be done as we continue to bend the arc of history toward justice. Do not doubt the righteousness of this fight.
Peter Paige is the co-creator and executive producer of The Fosters and Good Trouble, and a member of five unions.
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