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Picking on Scabs

Jack London once wrote, "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." That is among the nicer things that some have said about those who opt to work in defiance of a strike. As the Writers Guild strike enters its third month, with no future negotiations between the studios and the guild scheduled, and events like the Golden Globes' awards show freshly cancelled, these ignoble souls have been given more opportunities to cross picket lines. But who are they? From beneath what rock do they scuttle? And what, if any, impact will they have on the strike?

Historically, during a Writers Guild strike, there is some amount of scabbing, though less than one might expect. What there is falls into two categories. The first isthe classic example of the scab writer hired to bat out a script while the “real” writers are out walking picket lines. This has occurred most often with soap operas, since they broadcast new episodes five days a week. In '88, the show runner on a popular daytime drama declared that the strike was true agony for her. Not only had it disrupted her life--it was destroying the lives of these characters she cared about. She had carefully planned that Fred would divorce Jessica and find true love with Heather, whom he'd gotten pregnant. The scabs had Heather try to murder Fred, reveal it was Pete's baby she was carrying and run off with Sidney--or whatever it was. "When we get back, it's going to take me months to get some emotional logic back into those characters," the striking writer told me. As she put it, her "novel had been ruined."

Despite the fact that the 1988 strike--the longest ever in Hollywood history--lasted 22 weeks, there was very little scabbing apart from the soaps. "There were a lot of accusations," a Writers Guild Board Member of the time explained on the condition that his name not be used. "Most of them didn't pan out. There were a few instances of dialogue being adjusted or a scene here and there being rewritten. But apart from the soaps, I don’t think there was one TV show or movie produced because of scab writing. There was definitely less of it than there had been in the strike of 1981, even though that one only lasted three months." (The Writers Guild also struck in 1985 but that one was too brief for the issue of scabbing to arise.)

When there is scabbing, its perpetrators can come from almost anywhere, Occasionally, a rank-and-file WGA member will accept an assignment on the sly, usually with the producers’ assurance that his or her identity will be protected. (During a WGA strike in the sixties, a number of scab-written scripts, obviously composed by different hands, bore a credit for “W. Hermanos,” which challenges Michael Vick’s “Ron Mexico” for best nom de guerre ever.)

More often, scab work is done by aspiring writers who think it will be a break for them, though there seem to be no notable examples of crossing a WGA picket line helping anyone's career. Frequently, these are people who work on a TV show in some other capacity: say, a researcher or production assistant with designs on a writing career. Producers have also been known to use WGA strikes as a chance to let a friend or relative who’s always believed they “could write that stuff” prove it.

Under the rules of the Writers Guild, a member who performs scab work is subject to discipline, which can include fines, suspension from the Guild, or even outright expulsion. A non-member can be denied membership in the Guild; several people have been so denied. Some, however, have apologized and/or paid fines and been allowed to join, if and when they sold sufficient non-scab work to qualify. 

In order to discipline a scab, of course, the Guild must know who has performed scab work and it often does not require "CSI"-style detectiving to find out. Production staffers and others who work on shows or films have been known to contact the Guild, provide information, and sometimes even furnish evidence. The studios themselves sometimes identify their scabs: The Guild has occasionally been able to identify scabs because the employers attempted to make health and pension contributions in the scabs' names for work performed during a strike. (This was a lingering point of contention following the 1988 strike. The producers wanted to make such payments but insisted that the Guild first declare an amnesty for the scab writers. The Guild refused and the payments were not made, at least not through the WGA.) Often, a writer-director or writer-producer who is doing the non-writer portion of his job on a project will identify those who have done scab work. A not uncommon situation is what caused three scabs to be identified during the 1981 strike on a weekly ABC series. The show was produced by two men, one of whom was also a WGA member. He was honoring the strike by not writing, but the show elected to remain in production. Scripts were needed. The other producer hired three young writers to generate them, promising their names would be kept secret and that after the strike, they would receive non-scab assignments. Neither promise was kept. The producer who was a WGA member wanted to make sure that he was not accused of having written the scab scripts so he turned over to the Guild not only the names of the three young men, but copies of their manuscripts as well. Two of the scabs appear to have stopped writing for the industry altogether. The third one continued on, and although he was briefly denied membership in the Guild, he paid a fine and is now a full-fledged (and picketing) Hollywood writer.

The other kind of scabbing is more insidious and difficult to police. That is the situation where the star, director, or producer of a show or movie in production during the strike will write or rewrite scenes. A certain amount of “adjustment” is permissible under a section of the WGA contract that allows changes under certain circumstances. These include cutting for time, changes in technical or stage directions, assignments of lines to other existing characters occasioned by cast changes, changes necessary for Standards and Practices (i.e., censor) clearance, etc. The 2004 contract may be downloaded here; the specific exemptions can be found on page 13.

According to Variety, at this very moment, there are 54 films in production from the major studios, some under the helm of WGA members such as writer-director J.J. Abrams, who's filming the new Star Trek. You can bet that these directors are achingly familiar with the limitations on what writing services they can provide. Still, there are frequent accusations that someone has stretched the definition of some “allowed” category to the point where the supposed “minor adjustment” constitutes new writing--and therefore scabbing.

The return of several talk shows to production without their writing staffs has brought this sort of dispute particularly to the forefront.  During the strike of 1988, when Johnny Carson returned to the air during the strike, the WGA chose not to make an issue of whether Carson's actions--allegedly writing his own monologue and other material--was scabbing and a breach of Guild rules. This was Johnny Carson, after all, and the Guild’s legal resources were already being stretched with ongoing strike matters. No such blind eye has been turned toward Jay Leno. NBC, citing the precedent of Carson and a clause in the WGA Agreement that covers performers authoring their own material, argues that Leno is within his rights to write for himself.  The WGA argues back that the language in question applies to performers who are not doing work that has been done under Guild coverage. Leno, a WGA member, has been credited as a writer on the show and so, they maintain, he is required to stop doing so in observance of the strike.

Because of the ambiguity, it seems unlikely the WGA will attempt to discipline Leno. Other cases where scabbing is less arguable may not be handled so lightly. Still, even if one does not get caught or prosecuted, involvement in possible scabbing is a great way to sabotage one's own career. A career predicated on this kind of "break" usually doesn't turn out well. Even those who might be desperate enough to hire you don't have a lot of respect for you, your work or--especially--your personal integrity. And then there's the ethical stigma. Many people, for obvious reasons, prefer not to work with someone whom they think has demonstrated a willingness to sell out others to advance his own interests. Also, the fact is that writers often hire other writers, particularly in television. It’s natural then that they’re not keen on employing someone who crossed their picket line.

All in all, scabbing is a great way to make nobody like you. However long this strike lasts, hopefully we won't see much of it.

Mark Evanier has been writing TV shows, cartoons, comic books, and other things for forty years. He blogs at, and his new book, Kirby: King of Comics, comes out in February from Harry N. Abrams Publishing.

By Mark Evanier