It asks for miraculous powers of revision to not-see a show on television at night and satisfy ourselves that by abiding by the protocols of collective bargaining we are fighting for the survival of essential American rights. The law is an ass, a humbug, if it is defined by the number of people whose rights are being affirmed by neglecting them entirely. A few strikes ago I was asked if I would exchange comments on the subject with a furtive strikebreaker, who came to terms with his conscience only by getting cameramen and announcers—and me—to agree not to use his name for the duration of the broadcast, thus giving him a technical out at the union shop. I should have been witty enough to ask him on the air to refer to me as Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The strike against the television and movie producers by the writers’ union follows hard on the heels of the strike against the Broadway producers by the stagehands’ union, and raises some of the same questions. The people against whom the Broadway strike was directly aimed, the producers, suffered financially from three weeks of darkened theaters, and the producers will suffer in the Hollywood strike if viewers decline to accept the substitute entertainment being offered. But the strikes also affect many other people, directly and indirectly: the actors, singers, and television hosts; behind-the-scenes staff; advertisers in the case of Hollywood, restaurant owners and cab drivers in the case of Broadway; and, let us not forget, the audiences.
The idea in collective bargaining is that both sides should stand to lose something substantial in a strike—giving the band of brothers on each side a strong incentive to come to an agreement without a strike, and thus sparing all those who would be collaterally deprived. But this is harder to quantify when the point of contention is not merely so many dollars a week, but other issues—in the case of the stagehands, work rules; in the case of the writers, the handling of payment for Internet downloads of movies and TV shows. Whichever side comes out the winner, the public loses.
What tends to happen in those cases is that the public reaches out for some kind of force majeure. Years ago in New York they passed the Taylor Law, which forbids public employees from striking. But it is enforced only in the most obvious cases of public safety—threatened strikes by police and firemen.
Even the First Amendment, so vocally cherished by the ladies and gentlemen of the press, is not enough to trump the claims of collective bargaining. Back in 1972, when the technicians at CBS went out on strike, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) ordered its members to honor the picket lines, and they did so, even though many of them agreed with the ringing statement made by Eric Sevareid: “Union loyalty is made to supersede a journalist’s loyalty to his employers, his profession, and his concept of his duties to the public.” A few years earlier, New York was deprived of newspapers for nearly four months because the courts failed to place the freedom of the press over the National Labor Relations Act.
What’s not about to happen in the present case is the crystallization of the kind of vision necessary to discover and then to assert the right of the public to figure in these internecine pursuits. Perhaps that will only happen when the quarrels become truly asphyxiative and we are driven to our own uninformed resources to attempt to sing like Pavarotti, fiddle like Perlman, and amuse like David Letterman. But that isn’t happening, and our consciences grow more leaden by the day.