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Jim McDermottMay 04, 2023
a sign reading strike! no contract no scriptMembers of the Writers Guild of America, picket outside the Netflix, Inc., building on Sunset Blvd., in Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

This week, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for the first time in 15 years, citing the refusal of the studios and networks to offer meaningful proposals to ensure writers’ future job security.

I can understand why many people would look on all this with a certain detachment. There are so many shows these days and so much money moving through Hollywood; it doesn’t exactly look like a “bad time” to be a writer.

But when you start to dig into the facts, there are reasons for concern. Some of the biggest shows on television—“The Last of Us,” “White Lotus,” “The Mandalorian”—have eschewed writing staffs entirely in favor of having just one or two people write an entire eight- or 10-episode season. Many shows also now hire mini-rooms where a smaller group of writers work for a much shorter period of time, at lower pay, and then the showrunner is left on their own to actually manage the entire production.

I joined the guild in 2015 after I was hired to write on a TV show called “Preacher.” Honestly, I consider myself a bit of an impostor. I sold a show idea that didn’t end up getting made and was on a staff for a year—I’m hardly an expert in the experience of being a working screenwriter. But in my eight years in the guild, I have been profoundly impressed by the support it offers to younger writers, the ways it tries to help them not only financially but professionally and personally, through seminars, meet-ups, health care and mentoring.

I would like to offer instead three anecdotes from my life that I hope will speak to what the W.G.A. is fighting for and why Catholics should care.

There are lots of obvious reasons for Catholics to support the Writers Guild. For centuries, popes and bishops have insisted that the needs and lives of workers must drive the economy, not vice versa. “Workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits,” St. John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens.”

Broadly speaking, the Catholic Church has also been the world’s greatest patrons of the arts. At every level, from the Vatican to local parishes and schools to individual Catholics, the church has always offered space and money to support artists.

But if you’re reading this article, I suspect you already know those arguments, and they either speak to you or they don’t. I would like to offer instead three anecdotes from my life that I hope will speak to what the W.G.A. is fighting for and why Catholics should care.

How We Rise

When I tell people I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, I often get comments about the wealth there. I always think to myself, “No, that’s Arlington Heights.” In Mt. Prospect, where I grew up, my parents, my three siblings and I lived in a little two-story home where the basement occasionally flooded and the plumbing “had character.” My siblings and I always had what we needed, but we also wore our share of hand-me-downs and got part-time jobs to buy anything significant that we wanted.

My dad was a pipefitter and a member of the local pipefitters’ union. He was the guy on our block that all the neighbors came to when they had trouble with their furnace or air conditioning (he still is). He would come home each night in a blue workman’s jumpsuit, his face and hands smeared with oil. My mom had a special soap for his hands, but it was impossible to ever get them fully clean.

As we got older, my dad insisted that he and my mom would pay for all four of us to go to college. In retrospect, I realize that was only possible because he had a union job. It did not cover all the costs, not by a long shot. But my dad’s job gave our family a foundation we did not even know we were relying on: steady, manageable income and dependable health care. One summer as I drove a pick-up truck for the company that employed my dad, I also learned the union gave my father a community of people to lean on. They were like the behind the scenes family we didn’t even know was there, listening to my dad’s stories of us and almost certainly helping him get overtime shifts on weekends.

As we got older, my dad insisted that he and my mom would pay for all four of us to go to college. In retrospect, I realize that was only possible because he had a union job.

So much of what I do now came from the fact that I went to Marquette University. An English professor there mentored me into a graduate program at Harvard that on my own I would never have considered possible. Jesuits there gave me so much to think about in terms of my own life possibilities. Friends in a sense gave me a home of my own to build on.

Writing television might seem pretty far afield from setting up heating and air conditioning ducts. (Trust me, my dad agrees.) But both unions are fundamentally about enabling people to earn a living and provide their children with opportunities and stability that they did not have.

Some might say that is sentimental left-wing claptrap. But I would not be able to be here writing that claptrap if it weren’t for my dad’s union. And I have no doubt similar things are true of other people in all our lives.

The Little Church on Sunset Boulevard

The Writers Guild is fighting for very concrete things, most especially guarantees of employment at a fair wage. But if I can be a little priestly for a second, I think on another level the guild is fighting for a sacred space that almost no one ever gets to see, an oh-so-ordinary-looking room in which sometimes in the midst of great struggle the Holy Spirit comes unannounced, bringing gifts for us to share.

In 2015, I was hired first as a consultant and then a writer on the new AMC TV show “Preacher.” Each day, I would drive an hour north from Loyola Marymount University to our offices in Hollywood and sit in a small conference room with seven other people dreaming up crazy ideas for our show about a broken-down minister, his criminal girlfriend, God, the devil and a vampire. (If you haven’t seen “Preacher,” it is a real hoot.)

Being in a writers’ room is like being in a cocoon and doing stand-up comedy in front of the most important people in your life. On the one hand, the group of you exists in a little bubble, far from studio and network executives, trying together to midwife all our fragile ideas into something that would touch people’s hearts.

As Catholics we believe that a shared communal experience has much more to offer. And some days in a writers’ room, it feels like Easter.

At the same time, the heart of the writers’ room process is proposing ideas to the group—scenes, events, lines of dialogue. Our room was unusually collaborative; even the greenest writers were expected to be pitching all the time. When you don’t yet know how to do that (and at the same time you’re desperate to do it well), that will mean sometimes you will fall flat on your face in front of your boss and other people whose opinions mean so much to you.

And some days that writers’ room is like the bleakest and most sterile of deserts as you cast about searching for a way forward. But then something happens and suddenly that desert explodes into life. I don’t know what it felt like to watch Jesus walk on the water, but I can tell you that watching a room build a whole world from nothing—or even just one small, emotional moment—often has the feeling of witnessing the miraculous.

It’s true, I can pray alone in my room and connect with God or write a show by myself. But as Catholics we believe that a shared communal experience has much more to offer. And some days in a writers’ room, it feels like Easter.

Kingdom Building

Since I joined the Writers Guild, I’ve had the privilege to work on a number of TV sets as a consultant. From the outside, that may seem like an incredibly dull experience—you sit around as actors do take after take of the same few lines, then shift the cameras so you can get the same set of lines from a different angle.

But I have been surprised to discover just how powerful an experience it is being on a set. Some of it is the magic of watching talented actors create such fully realized performances with just a facial expression or intonation. The repetition of shots only increases the wonder of that experience, as the slightest of adjustments open up into moments of extraordinary beauty.

Watching the cast and crew work together on some shows has me wondering whether the kingdom lies not in the goal but in the action.

But behind all of that, there is also a powerful sense of support on a set. Everyone from the people who set up the snacks to the showrunner or director proceed with a shared commitment to serving the moment being shot. There are good days and bad days, good sets and bad sets, but in general I have witnessed people holding one another up in palpable ways, whether it’s getting out of the way and being quiet so that important information can be conveyed, or commiserating when it’s 2 a.m. and we’re still not done.

I have always thought of Jesus’ call to build the kingdom of God in terms of the goal. Usually, my metaphor is the banquet table: The kingdom is a place where everyone has a seat at the table, where no one is forgotten or left out.

But watching the cast and crew work together on some shows has me wondering whether the kingdom lies not in the goal but in the action. Together, everyone on set is building something. And it is the fact that they are all truly trying to do it together, supporting one another’s choices and doing their own part that ends up making it an experience of the kingdom of God.

Pretty much everyone on a set is a union employee. Today, they’re all out of work, too. Many of them are marching with the writers who create the stories that together they tell.

Though it may not be obvious from the outside, maybe that is a vision of the kingdom to which we aspire as Catholics, as well.

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