Jessica Queller, author of Pretty Is What Changes, files a report from the WGA picket line in Los AngelesDecember 1, 2007
After a year spent writing a memoir about cancer and genetics, I welcomed the offer to fly to Hollywood and join the writing staff of the frothy new TV show Gossip Girl. Chronicling the antics of rich and racy Upper East Side girls seemed the perfect antidote to the months I’d spent chronicling illness. I’d previously written for shows like Felicity and The Gilmore Girls so I knew the ropes—I expected to be cooped up in a writers’ room day and night, inventing stories about cotillions and cat fights, boyfriends and Barneys shopping sprees. For five months, life went as expected. Then on November 5, 2007, I found myself carrying a picket sign under the hot sun, chanting, “We are the Union, the mighty, mighty Union,” like a regular Norma Rae.
I am not a group person, and I do not an allegiance toward any institution I’ve been a part of, such as my high school or college. However, I do have a passion for justice and a very loud, theater-trained voice. And I do—I discovered—feel immense pride in being a member of the Writers Guild of America. To my utter surprise, I’ve been like head-cheerleader on the picket line – jumping up and down, shouting at traffic, “Honk if you support the writers!” I’ve been flashing my biggest smile and waving like I’m Homecoming Queen at the cars and trucks as they honk and drive by. I’ve been expending all my charms to stir my fellow hot, tired writers into chanting, “Hey ho, hey ho, without the writers there ain’t no show!” rather than limply walking back and forth in silence. I never dreamed I’d be marching and picketing and chanting for any cause. And yet here I am—the picketing poster-girl.
The main issue at stake is a writer’s right to be compensated for the reuse of her work, whether it’s sold as a DVD or streamed from the Internet. Imagine writing a book and being told you will not be compensated when it is released in paperback. This month alone, Gossip Girl episodes have been streamed 1.2 million times from the CW network’s website. Victoria’s Secret handsomely pays the CW for ad space, but the writers do not get a cent.
The night the WGA contract expired, three thousand writers filled a hall in downtown L.A. to get briefed by our leaders on what was to come. The energy was electric. Gossip Girl writers sat in a row behind Bionic Woman writers and in front of the writers of Chuck. From Mad Men to Men in Trees, every television writing staff was present. Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of the film Traffic sat on the dais representing feature film writers. In my experience this coming together was unparalleled; all of us amassed in one room made it abundantly clear that, though the work of a writer is often solitary and lonely, we are all a part of a collective enterprise, something much bigger. There was also the feeling that we were on the precipice of something historic. A veteran British film writer took the microphone, warned that strikes are ugly and that we should “gird our loins.” We laughed at the biblical invocation, but our applause was thunderous—we were united and ready for battle.
The first few days of the strike, we came out in droves, passions high. On day two, I joined a massive group of writers on a suburban street where Desperate Housewives was shooting. We marched in circles, shouting “Eva Longoria, who’s gonna write your storia?” until our voices grew hoarse. The racket finally forced production to shut down. Though we were steadfast in our cause, this demonstration felt counterintuitive. A lifetime of obeying, “Quiet on the set!” and suddenly you’re told to make as much noise as you possibly can to disrupt filming? It was like entering an upscale china shop and being told to grab Limoges plates and smash them on the floor.
Near the end of week two, the reality of a long strike began to set in. The writers at my location outside of Warner Brothers loyally held up their signs and ambled up and down the street, but the chanting had died down. The euphoria of battle had already turned into the drudgery of manning one’s post. Then on Friday John Edwards marched with the writers, cheering us on in our fight against the goliath corporate conglomerates, and by the end of the day the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers agreed to resume negotiations. With that little bit of progress, our spirits rose.
Tomorrow we march en masse on Hollywood Boulevard. Nobody knows whether we’ll be marching for another seven days or seven months. My friend Rebecca made T-shirts for us to wear that read, “I’m a striking writer.” We’re planning picketing performance art for week three to spice things up and entertain our comrades. But mostly, we members of the WGA will be girding our loins.