Thursday, January 10, 2008

Crossing The Picket Line

I have been concerned about what constitutes strike-breaking, what makes a person a scab.

I became a fan of a young musician I saw perform on the Letterman show after the Worldwide Pants agreement was signed. I had stopped watching Letterman many years ago, but decided to start tuning-in again because he became the only producer to sign an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, ending the strike against his shows.

Chicago-based Lupe Fiasco performed a duet with indie idol Matthew Santos (from Minneapolis) and it was quite lovely. The band was tight, the singers almost made me swoon, the performance - the interaction between the singers - was top-notch. I was impressed and instantly started a search of how to purchase the song. I wrote about them in my article about the Letterman return. I was really excited.

Excitement turned to agitation when I learned that they would appear on the Jimmy Kimmel show, which was a show still under picket because there was no contract with the writers. Fiasco and Santos were going to cross the picket line, and that is not acceptable to me.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the notion that young artists need to follow the trajectory designed by their agents and publishers if they hope to become stars. But sometimes we are confronted with moral issues that conflict with our professional plans and we are forced to make a decision.

I sent "webmail" to Santos saying that he should not appear and his management company sent me two different excuses about why it was acceptable for his to appear.

Sadly, for everyone involved, Fiasco and Lupe decided to cross the WGA picket line last night and appear on the Kimmel show, which is a failure to honor a very important strike. This was bad news for the writers. The bad news for Fiasco and Santos, from what I have read online, is that only about ten seconds of their performance was aired.

It is difficult to find thoughtful analysis of the strike online. It is easy to find statements from the two sides, but I've had difficulty finding details about the strike's rules. Which means, I have to draw my own conclusions about the veracity of the strike reporting and how the actions of strike-breakers like Fiasco and Santos are perceived by the WGA.

I finally found an article at The Huffington Post that addresses the issue. Jonathan Tasini, a New York labor lawyer and activist, writes about people who appear on shows that aer under strike.

I supported Tasini in his electoral campaign for Senate against Hillary Clinton, because he represents more of my beliefs than Clinton does. This article represents what I admire about him. (I reprint the article in full here, with a link to the source, hoping for forgiveness from the folks at Huffington.)

How Can LABOR People Hurt The Writers Strike?
Jonathan Tasini

Jack London wrote a famous essay about scabs -- those would be the low-lifes who break a strike. Which is what I thought about when I found out yesterday that two people linked closely to the labor movement had crossed the pickets lines of the Writers Guild of America. Follow this story and you will be, hopefully, appalled.

First, to set the tone, here is what London wrote:

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab."

"A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles."

"When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out."

"No man (or woman) has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his master, he had character enough to hang himself." A scab has not.

"Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British army." The scab sells his birthright, country, his wife, his children and his fellowmen for an unfulfilled promise from his employer.

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class."

Technically, a scab is someone who crosses a picket line to take a job from a striker. But, a scab's first-cousin is someone who crosses a picket line in defiance of the damage crossing a picket line does to the leverage workers have when they are on strike. It is as disgusting and reprehensible as literally taking someone's job because the end effect can be the loss of a striker's job.

On Monday, both Jon Stewart's Daily Show and The Colbert Report featured a discussion about the Writers Guild of America's strike against the Big Media.

The Daily Show featured Dean Ron Seeber, who is a full professor of, believe it or not, collective bargaining at Cornell's School of Industrial & Labor Relations. Despite pleas from a wide range of labor representatives, Seeber crossed the picket line; Seeber was, according to a letter circulated by Gene Carroll, Director of Cornells' Union Leadership Program (based in New York City), lobbied by "two union leaders who are Cornell trustees, Bruce Raynor, President of UNITE HERE and Denis Hughes, President of the NYS AFL-CIO, as well as the head of the NYC Central Labor Council, Ed Ott, and the head of the Writers Guild of America east, Mona Mangan." (Ott and Mangan both carry the title of executive director of their respective organizations).

Let me cut right to the chase: for his action, Seeber should be removed from his post as assistant provost of the university.

Why? People have forgotten that the The Wagner Act, which established the framework of collective bargaining, was aimed at "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection."

The law also provides for the principle of the right to strike, at least in theory. One reason that legitimate collective bargaining is dying in this country is that people really don't have the right to strike anymore. I don't want to get into a long digression here about why workers don't have a real right to strike anymore. But, undermining a strike is unconscionable.

And one way you undermine a strike is by crossing a picket line. It is a statement, not needing any verbal excuse or explanation. It speaks for itself.

Seeber represents an institution that is dedicated to advancing labor relations. By crossing the picket line, Seeber took sides: he helped undermine a strike and, thereby, undermined the fundamental principles inherent in collective bargaining. He cannot continue to serve an institution that presumes to advance labor relations and collective bargaining.

I wrote to Seeber to find out how he justified his actions. He wrote back: "will you print what I write word for word? it is complicated?" I assume he didn't mean to question whether it was complicated...I think he believes it is. I responded: "yes, within reason -- meaning not 3,000 words worth...people won't read that. But nothing to take it out context." I was writing on a Blackberry so my point was: I would represent his full position fairly. I haven't heard back.

I was drinking my morning tea yesterday morning reading The New York Times story on the return of Colbert and Stewart when I came upon this snipped referring to the Colbert Report:

Later, he did separate interviews with two authors who had crossed the picket lines (about 20 strikers gathered outside the theater on West 54th Street): Andrew Sullivan, who discussed an article about Barack Obama that he wrote for The Atlantic, and Richard B. Freeman, a scholar on labor movements who teaches at Harvard.

I understand why Sullivan has no appreciation of what he had done -- and maybe even took a secret delight in doing so -- but Richard Freeman? That had to be a mistake, I thought. His web profile tells us this about Freeman, who is a big academic presence in labor circles with many books about labor: he holds the Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University. He is currently serving as Faculty Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at the Harvard Law School. He is also director of the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Senior Research Fellow in Labour Markets at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance, and visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

I know Richard. I'm shocked that he would cross a picket line. I cannot imagine that he was unaware that the Writers Guild has been aggressively asking supporters not to cross the picket line. Lord, even celebrities who aren't always the most labor-conscious people have basically respected the picket lines. I wrote him but I have not received a response.

But, I say this with a heavy heart, too: how can Richard continue to serve as a director of a program on Labor and Worklife at Harvard Law School after he has crossed a picket line?

The line has to be drawn. Somewhere. I'd trace that line right between a picket line and the door of the employers.

Following Tasini's analysis, I can only conclude that Fiasco and Santos made a bad choice. It's unfortunate. If they are unwilling to support other workers in the entertainment industry, why should anyone support them?

Dick Mac Recommends:

Howard Zinn -
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Matt Damon, Howard Zinn

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