Writers on strike? Who cares?

Once, labor negotiations were seismic events in this country — steel, coal, autos. The country held its breath when the companies and unions sat down to bargain.

But recently, when the United Auto Workers settled with GM and Chrysler after brief strikes, and with Ford with no strike at all, few noticed. It commanded little press attention.

But when a tiny 12,000-member union, nearly half of whose members are unemployed at any one time, hit the bricks in Los Angeles and New York this weekend, the press was all over it. The Writers Guild of America, which represents the scriptwriters for our movies and TV shows, was on strike.

This hits people where they live — literally. Without writers producing material on that day’s events, “Leno,” “Letterman,” “Ellen,” “The Daily Show” went into reruns. The prime-time sitcoms and dramas are said to have enough on hand to last until early next year. Then it’s repeats for them, too. The film studios are overstocked with scripts, but the culture calls for endless rewrites.

The walkout had all the trappings of a traditional labor dispute — picket signs, picket lines, T-shirts, some discreet chanting. Expecting the picketers to sing “Solidarity Forever” or “Joe Hill” is probably a bit much.

Factory workers’ negotiations were straightforward: hourly pay, fringes. These talks are not, and in their own way they are pioneering. Writers and producers are fighting over how to divide up a digital market that barely exists and has enormous growth potential, but no one knows what it will grow into or how it will get there. Or if customers used to free stuff over the Internet will even be willing to pay.

The writers feel they were burned when VCRs first came into use for not insisting on proper compensation for work distributed on videocassettes and DVDs. They don’t want to make the same mistake again with digital distribution, whatever form it takes — to computers, cell phones or whatever the next iGizmo is.

It’s probably in the interests of both sides to settle quickly. If the writers are out on strike, the technology could change on them.