Monday, November 19, 2007

The History of Writers' Strikes

The Writers Guild of America’s current work stoppage is not the first writers’ strike. Back in 1988, the WGA went out for five months and there were strikes back in 1960 and 1973 as well. But the history of such labor disputes doesn’t end there. Writers have been striking for centuries as evidenced by these past walkouts:

London 1868
The world’s premier literary capital was in turmoil thanks to a strike by British playwrights and novelists. London theaters had no new productions and newspapers had to cease their latest serializations of popular novels. The writing community was looking to achieve at least some of the profits being realized from the translation of their works to such emerging technologies as stereoscopes and "moving pictures." With the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Edward George Bulwer-Lytton walking the picket line, well-to-do Londoners had to make do with observing everyday life for their daily entertainment, what soon came to be known as "reality shows." Attempts to bring in outside strikebreakers like Henry James and Mark Twain failed when it was discovered that they did not employ the Queen’s English.

Germany 1426
A little known labor dispute hit much of Europe almost 600 years ago. Tired of inadequate pay for repeatedly transcribing copies of the Bible, hundreds of monks participated in a three-day sit-down and work stoppage. The main point of contention was the scribes’ demand for residuals on sales of illuminated Bibles. The dispute came to a quick and unsuccessful end with the invention of movable type by noted German scab Johannes Gutenberg.

Athens 427 B.C.
The wordsmiths of ancient Athens almost brought the city state to its knees back in 427 B.C. when most toga-clad writers walked off the job for over a week. Outdoor theaters immediately went dark and early evening comedy clubs had to close with such noted authors as Aristonphanes, Sophocles and Euripides walking the line. The writers were seeking compensation for the reproduction of their works on new media such as scrolls and parchment. The strike abruptly ended when theater owners quickly realized there were not yet any copyright laws to prevent them from using existing works over and over again without compensation.

Mesopotamia 1725 B.C.
From the Code of Hammurabi to the latest standup routine at Babylon’s Catch a Rising Star comedy club, Mesopotamians relied on the stylus-formed scribblings of local writers. Much of the business and cultural life of the area briefly came to a halt in early 1725 B.C. when the scribes went on strike for more pay and a higher share of the royalties on reissued cuneiform tablets. Sadly, no progress was made as the strike ended on the second day when Hammurabi had half the writers beheaded.

The Olduvai Gorge 1,000,000 B.C.
A primitive writers’ strike seemed doomed from the start when the two local cave painters quickly realized that no one could read. Attempts to gain fair compensation for all "out-of-cave" production largely fell on deaf ears since no one knew what the "funny guys with colored sticks" were talking about. The work stoppage ceased precipitously when union local president Grok the Elder was trampled by a stampeding mastodon.

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