Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On strike in the countryside

Across the Atlantic the Writers' Guild of America is on strike in a bitter dispute over a whole bunch of issues. But like most strikes, it can be boiled down to one key issue - in this case, writers want an equitable share of revenues from use of their work over the internet. [If you want more about the strike, I recommend the blog United Hollywood.] The centrepoints for picketing strikers are Hollywood in Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, New York. Go online and you'll see plenty of footage of strikers walking the line, keeping their protest in the public eye. But what about writers who don't live in LA or NY? Where do they go to picket?

I've been on strike twice in my career, both times where I was a journalist in New Zealand. Back then union membership was compulsory in NZ [I've no idea if that's still the case], so if the leadership said you were going out on strike, out you went. The first time I was working in the Hawera branch office of The Daily Newspaper, a morning paper in the province of Taranaki. There was no picket line, and certainly no media coverage of the strike - because the news media were the ones on strike. Even if there had been coverage, it wouldn't have featured us.

Being on strike in the countryside is essentially like being unemployed. You don't go in to work, you've got nothing to do and no money to spend. We were paid weekly at the time and I didn't have any savings, so it was case of scraping by on whatever was in the cupboards and ignoring any bills that came in. We didn't have the internet, or DVDs or computer games - hell, we didn't have a computer in the house I shared. [Yes, we did have electricity and the wheel, thanks for asking.]

So we spent a lot of time listening to records or reading books, anything that didn't involve spending money. From memory, the strike was about exemptions - management wanted more senior staff to be exempt from future strikes, whereas the union didn't want that as it would make future strikes less effective. We were striking about the terms and conditions for future strikes - at least, that's how it seemed to me.

Anyways, it went on for eleven days before some kind of common sense prevailed and we went back to work. Just as well, otherwise I was faced with driving five hours - with limited cash and even less petrol - to stay with my parents until the dispute blew over. Being on strike in the countryside when you're broke? Not that much fun.

The second time I was on strike only lasted a day and a half. By then I was working at the biggest paper in New Zealand, based in the country's biggest city, Auckland. That strike was about the introduction of new technology, such as direct inputting for reporters and the adoption of desktop publishing technology. That time I got to vote at the strike meeting and learn about such arcane terms as Father of the Chapel. The strike was so short it felt more like 36 hours of unpaid leave. Most of that we spent in the pub, if memory serves.

Now I'm freelance, there's no such thing as going on strike. Membership of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain is not compulsory, so a strike to match the US dispute is unlikely ever to happen on this side of the Atlantic. Besides, the public broadcasting remit built into several of the key networks in Britain precludes the hardline negotiating tactics seen in the US. Happily for UK writers, our guild has already negotiated rights and payments regarding online usage.


Paul Scoones said...

Union membership is most definitely no longer compulsory in NZ. It hasn't been for a long time - it was voluntary by the time I graduated as a teacher in 1991.

Bingethink said...

Oh, I like the sound of "The Daily Newspaper".

(It's the sort of publication that Dennis's dad in The Beano would read, and would probably buy from a newsagents called "Newsagent". On High Street.)