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Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Modern strikes spur memories of textile mill battles 

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Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Modern strikes spur memories of textile mill battles 

Sep 30, 2023 | 6:10 am ET
By Celia Rivenbark
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Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Modern strikes spur memories of textile mill battles 
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The author says recent entertainment industry strikes are reminiscent of labor battles in her childhood hometown. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

[Editor’s note: This post was written prior to the settlement of the writers’ strike. SAG-AFTRA, which represents actors and many other industry performers, remained on strike as of September 30.]

The months-long strikes by film and TV writers and actors reminds me of the time they tried to unionize the textile mill that was, by far, the biggest employer in my small hometown. The union reps “from up north” were shaggy-haired men who seemed vaguely intellectual (or it could’ve just been the elbow patches on their corduroy sport coats). They descended on our tiny town and spread out like butter on a hot biscuit, distributing flyers and arranging clandestine meet-ups with workers at kitchen tables all over town. It was all very “Norma Rae.”

Things got tense when family and friends who worked together found themselves at odds for maybe the first time ever. When all was said and done, the vote was 540 against unionizing; 404 in favor. The men with out of state license plates and John Lennon specs left in the night. Or maybe the day, but night sounds way more dramatic. (Interestingly, several years later the National Labor Relations Board reversed the defeat citing unfair labor practices at the plant.)

I remember thinking these “outside agitators” made a lot of sense. Workers couldn’t get ahead, just treading water with no hope of buying a boat. My dad, who worked at the mill before leaving for a high-paying job as a rural public schoolteacher (irony intended) often quoted a work buddy: “I don’t get it. You work 50 hours; you get paid for 50 hours. So, what have you profited?”

It’s a funny way of looking at things until you consider industries with gobsmacking profits where those at the top tier aren’t working 50 hours or maybe even 10. They profited obscenely.

The mill was our town’s lifeblood. Most of my friends had at least one parent working there, many since the day they graduated high school. It was expected, honorable work. The pay, however…

I listened to the elbow-patched “rabblerousers” and couldn’t understand how anyone could be against higher wages and safer working conditions.

As a teenager I hadn’t considered the gut-churn of being unable to pay for food, rent, even the “tab” that you could still run at the family-owned department store on Main Street because they knew you had a mill job. You were good for it.

I have a lot of respect for today’s striking writers in particular, not just because I are one (old joke) but also because they had the gumption to walk out for not just themselves but for the rights of future writers who deserve better. The actors joined them a couple of months later with their own set of legitimate needs.

Recently, when Drew Barrymore announced the return of her show, sans writers, I was disappointed but not shocked. Greed wins again. Others will likely follow and that’s a shame.

My TV writer friend in L.A. has been spending her days on the picket line instead of working in the writers’ room churning out jokes for her sitcom which had a promising start on Netflix. This was soooo not how this was supposed to go. She’s one working spouse away from eating mustard sandwiches while the Netflix CEO takes home $51 million.

The vast majority of writers and actors are far from wealthy. Nearly 90 percent of Screen Actors Guild members make less than $26,000 a year from acting. Their demands aren’t unrealistic or unfair to anyone except the studio heads who, predictably, howl the loudest about belt-tightening.

Interviewed at a Sun Valley gathering dubbed “Summer Camp for Billionaires” Disney CEO Bob Iger paused his golf game to explain in infuriatingly condescending language how this isn’t the right time to talk about wages. He makes $27 million a year. Brother can you spare a Lambo?

Bob Iger wouldn’t last a week at the mill. But I’d love to see him try.