Saturday, January 19, 2008
Strike That, Reverse It
For reasons which should be obvious, it's never a good idea to ask yourself how a situation could possibly get any worse -- and yet that's exactly what I found myself doing during my drive to work each morning.
I was a Senior Producer at KCBS, a job I had initially sought for no other reason than that it would afford me the opportunity to live in Los Angeles. I had grown up listening to the haunting harmonies of The Mamas & The Papas' California Dreamin' and the siren's song of Jim Morrison's proclamation that "The West is the best." I had been seduced by the ironic nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero. I even held close to my heart the New-York-centric Ramones' version of California Sun and the promise of West Coast punk, South Central hip-hop and Sunset Strip sleaze. I put my faith in Mr. Mojo Risin': All I had to do was get there -- they'd do the rest.
For the most part, L.A. turned out to be every adolescent fantasy I'd ever conjured come to life: I was a 25-year-old living in the Hollywood Hills. I drove a BMW and was dating a gorgeous production assistant whose very name, Nicole Doll, seemed to herald my arrival into the Promised La-La Land (despite the porn-ready moniker having been hers since birth and maybe because it gave no hint of the Mensa-level IQ lurking beneath all that blond hair). I had already had a torrid fling with a reporter who would go on to become a CNN anchor. I had a large group of guy friends and together we were well-liked regulars at the Dresden, the Viper Room, Three of Clubs and Bar Marmont. I had accepted an Emmy wearing black nail polish. I played poker with Shepard Smith once a week.
I was living the life.
I was so fucking money.
And for this world of endless possibility to open its arms and legs, all I ever had to do was leave the office -- because as grand as everything was outside the front doors of the Columbia Square building on Sunset Boulevard, it was equally abysmal inside.
Put simply, working at KCBS in the mid 90s was an experience so life-draining, so soul-crushing, so positively brutal on the human psyche that the few who managed to get out with their sanity intact, to say nothing of their careers, would go on to regard each other with the kind of reverent solidarity usually reserved for those who survived the same POW camp -- or maybe the holocaust.
My personal adventure at CBS's flagship station in Los Angeles had, since day-one, been a hallucinatory, Dali-esque landscape of seemingly inescapable absurdity. My initial meet and greet, which took place in the posh surroundings of the Ivy in Beverly Hills, left me feeling like I'd just walked into a board meeting with a "Kick Me" sign on my back -- as if everyone at the table were in on some practical joke, the butt of which was apparently me. My first official day on the job, Bill Applegate -- the general manager of the station with whom I had interviewed -- shook my hand to welcome me onboard, then was promptly shown the door by security as he had just been fired. My news director was a villainous, rodent-like son-of-a-bitch named Larry Perret who seemed to delight in toying with his subordinates and peers in an effort to make them believe they were going insane. His second-in-command, Steve Blue, was essentially aboard the sinking ship merely as a favor to his old friend Larry, as he was married to Entertainment Tonight Executive Producer Linda Bell-Blue and could easily have been the most pampered, doughy househusband in Brentwood. The station's managing editor, a gruesomely vindictive prick named Pat Casey, lorded over the newsdesk with such Nixonian paranoia that one frustrated reporter would eventually threaten to take him out into the parking lot and beat him to death. Our two executive producers were a lethal combination of stupid, mean and inept -- one, a troglodytic ex-jock whom I had watched demand that part one of an interview with a Titanic survivor be adjusted so as not to "give away the ending" of the two-part Titanic miniseries the story was being tied into; the other, so comically hapless that when she at one point asked a busy news anchor what she could do to help him, he answered, "Cease to exist."
Add to this noxious mixture, KCBS's bottom-of-the-barrel ratings -- the kind that made you wonder why you put up with any bullshit at all from your sociopathic superiors, given that their judgment obviously wasn't worth a damn -- as well as the arrogant sense of entitlement which can only come from being able to say that you work for the network of Murrow and Sevareid, and in the end you get something bordering on water-torture.
It was oppressive and punishing -- a daily gangbang of bald-faced incompetence so absolute, it made you long for a life-threatening illness that would keep you safely away from the office for six months or so.
Yet even taking into account the litany of individual offenses, there had always existed one singularly ominous specter which hung over KCBS like a black cloud; it never failed to make an already hostile environment nearly intolerable -- if only because it functioned as an exasperating obstacle in the daily struggle to get things done while also, on occasion, providing asylum to the most ineffectual of the rank and file.
I'm talking about the unions.
The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
And of course, the WGA -- the Writers Guild of America.
Having come from WSVN in Miami -- a shop that wasn't simply non-union, it was vehemently anti-union -- walking into a world where a Byzantine structure of omnipresent rules and regulations had to be navigated to get from any point-A to point-B was like falling through ice into a frigid lake. I had spent the infancy of my TV news career in a place where anything was possible and there were no rules. If you wanted something done, you just did it. If you could dream it, you could make it happen on the air. Everyone understood that; everyone was onboard. If you weren't, there were other places you could work. The pay wasn't great and, yes, the downside was that you could be worked nearly to death -- the general sentiment being that you had no job description; if you were in the office, you belonged to the station and could very well be assigned to clean toilets. What it created however was an almost ego-free environment. The station was a pirate ship and everyone behaved as such. Your victories were sweet and required celebratory drinking; your defeats were painful, and required even more anesthetic drinking. Either way, you were all in it together -- one big dysfunctional family.
But the union shop was different, and impossible for me to get my head around at first.
Here was a place where an invisible, intransigent line had long ago been drawn in the sand, one which ostensibly divided the good, hard-working folks just trying to get by from the soulless corporate taskmasters surveying their domain from the castle keep. It was a place where the accepted standard of suspicion and distrust between the two factions felt like a poison gas, choking you as soon as you walked through the door. Worst of all, the strict, Gordian knot of codes imposed by the unions seemed to me to be entirely antithetical to the job at hand: The 24/7 responsibility of covering the news required everyone to do whatever they could whenever they could. Anything that stood in the way or slowed the process down could mean the difference between being number one in the market and number four. Basically, there were rules for everything -- and I hated rules.
Rules were the archenemy of creativity.
To make matters infinitely more complicated, my specific position within the newsroom planted me directly atop the line between the two sides. In what felt like some kind of drunkenly concocted Duke-and-Duke-style social experiment, management anointed me a "Senior Producer;" it was a muscular sounding title which belied the fact that the manipulative bastards in the KCBS brain trust had basically just pulled it out of their asses. They likely considered the idea a stroke of inspired genius, probably reacting to it the way cavemen did the first time they created fire: By adding that one word, "senior," to my title, it allowed them to technically call me a manager and get around the regulation requiring all producers to join the WGA. As one would expect, the Guild saw through this bit of juvenile misdirection and filed grievance upon grievance against the station while simultaneously trying to pressure me to join up and pay them the required union dues. These efforts fell on deaf ears all the way around.
As they had no doubt intended, this clever parlor trick worked out well for the managers. For me on the other hand, it was like being locked in a permanent purgatory.
At best, I was a peculiar anomaly within the system; at worst, I was untouchable, neither a manager nor a grunt. I was exploited by both sides and trusted by neither. Since the first day I walked through the door of my new job, I had been an honest-to-god man without a country.
Under normal circumstances, this would've been exactly the kind of situation in which I'd thrive -- but unfortunately, I had to play by both teams' rules, and that left me walking an exhausting daily tightrope.
So I wondered how my situation, at work at least, could get any worse.
And then one day I heard the word that penetrated my skull like a shotgun slug.
Apparently, the Writers Guild's contract negotiations with CBS had broken down and it was about to authorize its employees to walk off the job -- that meant emptying a good portion of the newsroom and essentially grinding our already limping production to a halt. Except of course that it couldn't be allowed to do that. The show had to go on, so those who weren't union -- and this is where management could conveniently pull me off the fence and into their tent, claiming me as a proud brother in arms -- were told that, should the strike happen, our daily duties would multiply exponentially.
Things were indeed about to get much, much worse.
Upon learning of the impending strike, I began to go through something akin to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief -- although in my own interpretation, there was really only that one first stage: anger. I was furious. I was beyond furious. I was pure seething rage that a group of people I didn't know, who had never set foot in my toxic workplace and had no idea what the handful of non-union employees like myself endured on a daily basis could make a decision that would turn our lives upside down. I walked into the men's room and almost put my fist through the mirror as I counted in my head the number of times that a 62-year-old union writer who could barely see his computer screen in front of his face had dodged accountability after screwing up a script and thus screwing up my show. I thought about the arrogant swagger of some of my unionized co-workers, going about their days safe in the knowledge that no matter how incompetent or disinterested they might be, they were protected -- while I could be fired at any moment just for the hell of it. I considered how I had left a station in Miami that hired most of its writers right out of college and worked their asses off, but how those kids thought of it as a rite of passage; I also considered how I would've gladly taken just two or three of them over an entire roomful of the very highly-paid "professionals" who now surrounded me. The ones who were about to walk off the job without so much as a look back at the devastation they'd be leaving behind.
I wasn't a manager. I had always allied myself with the office infantry simply because it felt like a good fit for me and it was always a more hands-on experience. And yet there I was, saying out loud to absolutely no one, "I hate the assholes who run this place too, but I have to suffer through it -- now shut the fuck up and get back to work."
As the impending strike neared -- the storm cloud that already existed over KCBS beginning to distend and funnel into a grim downward point -- the die-hard union people increased the psychological warfare within the newsroom. They'd discuss where and when to protest and what to bring, painting the picket line as a non-stop party -- the equivalent of a Caribbean vacation when placed against the savagery that those on the other side of the fence would have to endure in their absence. They made sure to raise their voices so that their message could be heard loud and clear: Give us what we want and no one gets hurt. As far as I was concerned, I was being held hostage.
Then came the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle threats.
"I wouldn't cross the picket line if I were you," one writer, a woman with whom I was actually friends, said to me.
"If I don't show up, I don't get paid. I can't stand this place either -- but I can't afford to lose my paycheck."
"I'd never do anything to you, but sometimes things happen during a strike."
"What are you getting at, Hoffa?"
"Well," she said, demurely feigning ignorance, "I mean, sometimes people get phone calls late at night. Sometimes people leave work and find their cars keyed in the parking lot. I just want you to know about that."
And with that, suppressing an overwhelming desire to throw her through a window as an example to the others, I raised my voice to ensure that my message could be heard loud and clear.
"Writers, I need your attention for a moment," I said, trying to look each person in the eye one at a time. "Please understand something -- you are my co-workers and most of you are my friends. I respect you all a great deal. Make no mistake though -- anyone, and I mean anyone who calls me late at night, fucks with my car, my home, anything of mine for that matter; anyone who harasses me, I swear to God I will retaliate in ways you can't even fucking fathom. You'll wonder what kind of sick, sadistic bastard could dream up something so vicious and cruel. You'll be in therapy for years just to get it out of your head." I turned and headed back to my desk. "That is all," I said, with my back to the stunned staff.
It would come down to the proverbial 11th hour before the Writers Guild of America and the management of CBS had finally worked out a deal and averted the strike.
But within the newsroom, the damage was done. KCBS, already a dystopic hell-hole, had been allowed to simmer inside a pressure-cooker until it was on the verge of exploding. Relationships were strained. People were angry. The suspicion and distrust reached unthinkable levels.
It all left me wondering: If this is what happens when a strike is avoided, how does any business survive the real thing -- a long, brutal and contentious work-stoppage, the kind that rips a workplace family apart?
How does any office survive a civil war?
Next, Part 2: The New Strike