The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild

By Forsyth, Scott | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild


Forsyth, Scott, Labour/Le Travail


Miranda J. Banks, The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2015)

THIS BOOK ADDS to the growing scholarly attention paid to cultural labour, to understanding creative artistic work as work, as well as art. This history of one union over more than eight decades chronicles the Screenwriters Guild, later the Writers Guild of America, the union of the Hollywood screenwriters, and, through difficult ups and downs, still one of the most important unions in the American and global media industries. It is a dramatic, even tumultuous, story, with a leadership that was often courageous and daring but also strategically wrong repeatedly and, for a long period, politically compromised and threatening to its own members. That membership was often fractious and divided, its collective interests not always clear or achievable.

As workers, the writers have been continually faced with aggressive corporate antagonists, drastic corporate re-organization, and constant innovation in media technology. The terrain the union had to contest and occupy has been constantly changing and continues to do so. These features might be described for any category of worker in modern capitalism. But the writers' status as both artists and employees leads Banks to find three themes that recur, unresolved, over the decades. First, under American copyright law, ownership of work for hire resides with the corporation, not the writer, unlike for the novelist or playwright. The control of the author's work is continually a struggle. Second, this gives unusual importance to the credit on a film--who is named as author and who controls that naming is still an issue of complex negotiation. It remains as an indicator of the precarious status of the writer. Third, writers' status can constantly shift. Writers were sometimes well paid insiders, close to particular producers, or even became producers. Or writers could be victimized by power or, for women and minorities, marginalized almost completely.

Banks' historically ordered account covers the entire life of the union, drawing on scholarly sources on the diverse periods, the many memoirs, more than sixty new interviews, and the Guild's own History Project. In 1978, almost a hundred writers were recorded in extensive interviews about their lives as writers and the union. The project was largely forgotten and Banks uses this rich resource to great effect. Her narration is enlivened by the personal voices of writers--observant, articulate, and humorous--who lived this history.

The story begins in early Hollywood, marked by paternalism and the informal organization of labour in the so-called studios, ruled by despotic moguls. It is not until 1933, in the midst of the economic crisis of the Depression and a drastic drop in Hollywood theatrical revenues, that the Screenwriters Guild declared for unionization, moving beyond its role as a social club. It was prompted by the enhanced importance of writers as the studios adapted to talking pictures and provoked by an aggressive salarycutting campaign by the studio heads. The key leaders, many leftists and radicals among them, also saw themselves as part of the vast wave of unionization sweeping the United States by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, organizing workers who had not been unionized or just beginning to see themselves as workers. Despite the overwhelming support of the writers, it took almost a decade for the union to achieve recognition and a first contract. The studio heads regarded unionization as betrayal and fought it tooth and nail with vicious anti-union and anti-Red propaganda in the workplace and in the press. Company unions were formed. New Deal legislation that favoured unionization was challenged right up to the Supreme Court. It was only as the war began that the studios acquiesced and Hollywood became a union town. But the first contract only went so far--the writers secured jurisdiction, but failed to crack the owners' copyright control of the writers' work. …

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