Let's Talk!  >  Letters from the Executive Director

Letter From The Executive Director

Executive Director's Annual Report to Council and Members

Lowell Peterson recaps the past year's activities in his annual report to the WGAE Council and membership.

May 7, 2010

Report to Council and Members, May 2010

I have been Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO since May 2008.  I presented some thoughts about the Guild on my first anniversary.  Let me describe some of the union’s activities in the last twelve months. We all observe the unprecedented changes in the entertainment and news world.  Business models, career paths, content distribution methods, everything is in flux.  The WGAE must reexamine its own practices to make sure we can provide effective representation to writers now and in the future.

It is very important to do the basic work of negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements; administering residuals and credits; and presenting seminars, screenings, and other events on the art and craft of writing.  We also must expand the union’s reach into areas where some work (and sometimes a lot of work) is done non-Guild – digital, basic cable, animation, independent film.  More broadly, we must ensure that the WGAE remains relevant to writers, that the Guild continues to be a community of creators who come together for mutual economic gain and for professional and artistic growth and, well, fun.

Moving

After decades on midtown Manhattan’s far west side, the WGAE is moving downtown.  Our lease expires at the end of June 2010 and, after a lengthy and exhaustive search, we selected a new space at 250 Hudson Street, near Soho and Tribeca.  The severe downturn in the commercial real estate market gave us a unique opportunity to afford a space that members will want to come to, that will enable us to hold events, and that will permit an open and appealing work environment.  The office will have an open, inviting feel, with a lot of natural light.  Staff will work mostly in open spaces, grouped according to their area of focus.  New space for a revitalized WGAE.

A huge number of details are involved in a build-out and a move.  Assistant Executive Director Marsha Seeman has headed this project, devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to matters as small as selecting the color of the fabric on chairs and as enormous as engaging a general contractor.  

Writers Guild 2.0

In September 2009 we announced the Writers Guild 2.0 initiative.  We think it is vital that writers in general, and the Guild in particular, help shape the digital world.  Although that world is not really new, it is still very much in formation, economically and creatively.

Writers Guild 2.0 includes seminars and other events to explore the financial, technological, and artistic dynamics of new media; a digital media training program; a strong and successful organizing campaign; and (at last) a completely redesigned web site.

We have gathered people with broad and deep experience to work with us.  In September 2009 at the Paley Center for Media we presented a panel of writer/creators who write or produce programs for the web and mobile devices. The panelists showed excerpts of their work, discussed why they chose to make content directly for the Internet, and described how they pulled their productions together. They talked about their creative and economic visions, developed through direct experience.

In February we presented another program at the Paley Center, on the economics of digital media.  Three experts offered fascinating analyses of transmedia production; the profound dislocation the Internet has caused in traditional media and what that means for creators; and the effect of the Internet on the broadcast news business.  Each presenter spoke from long and deep experience, and none shied from challenging our views.

This second Paley event was the kick-off to our first-ever digital media educational program.  The next event in this program was a well-attended workshop on digital storytelling led by Tom Fontana.  Coming up are a panel discussion/networking event on branded content, a presentation on animation for the web, and a three-day intensive training session on Final Cut Pro.  We put as many of these sessions as possible on the web so non-New York members could benefit. We obtained funding for this training from the Consortium for Worker Education, and we hope to repeat some of these sessions and to expand the program beginning in September.  We intend to present a panel in Washington, D.C. in October or November.

As we integrate digital media writers into the union, we realize we have as much to learn as to teach.  We recognize that many digital creators own their own production entities (mostly small) and do more than write; they direct, they act, they edit, they market.  And they typically retain the intellectual property rights in their material.  This means we must develop new models of representation to be effective in this very different environment.  Our basic goal is to give writers a seat at the table as the important economic and creative decisions are made in the next few years.

Digital media are not just another distribution system to supplement or replace the airwaves or cable TV.  Digital programs are inherently non-linear.  They are interactive and they are not anchored in time, and this is a profound change.  I think this will lead to a new form of story-telling (hence our programs on digital style).  It already has done so in the news, where video clips are integrated into text and links to other material are routinely included in most stories.  Digital media are in the early stages of a period of experimentation, of fits and starts, of surprising successes and stunning failures.  I don’t think this new, digitized form of communicating will supplant the more linear structures now used in film, television, and radio.  But new forms are being born.

The WGAE can foster environments in which people work out how to create in this new world.  We can contribute a lot by bringing creators together to share ideas and projects and by helping members acquire the necessary skills.  While we must be vigilant to ensure that writers get paid when their material is streamed or downloaded, we must also pay close attention to the new forms of producing, distributing, and consuming content, and we must be creative in fashioning new ways to represent the financial and creative interests of the people working with those new forms. 

Organizing

Organizing is the core mission of every union.  A union advances the interests of its members only by bringing them together to work for common gains.  Therefore, the classic distinction between the “servicing model”, in which the union functions mostly to file grievances and negotiate contracts, and the “organizing model”, which emphasizes collective action, misses the point.  There is nothing to service if people are not organized.  At the same time, people are organized for a purpose, and collective bargaining – which encompasses both negotiating and enforcing contracts - is a central mission of any union.          

How does this apply to the WGAE?  We do a lot of servicing – making sure members are paid correctly, collecting and distributing residuals, negotiating collective bargaining agreements, and so forth.  But we also organize relentlessly.  We are ramping up our internal organizing efforts, trying to get as many members as possible involved in various union activities and generating stronger grass roots leadership.  We need to continue to improve in this area, but we made a lot of progress in the last year.

But we have also focused a lot of the Guild’s resources on organizing where the Guild does not yet represent the majority of writers. Director of Organizing Justin Molito runs the largest department in the union.  In addition to Justin, we have a lead organizer, an organizer, a strategic campaign researcher, and various interns.  These employees work closely with caucuses and committees that focus on building Guild strength in digital media, nonfiction TV, independent film, and animation.  It is not unusual for dozens – sometimes many dozens - of current and potential members to attend these caucus and committee meetings, and to participate actively in the work.

In the last year we have signed more than forty digital media companies, most of which produce web TV series.  The writers are eager to be part of the WGAE, to join our creative community and to share their insights about the digital world while learning from current members about television and film.  It has been remarkable to witness the shared passion for creating stories that move and inform, that reveal the truth or make people laugh.  The Guild and its organizing department are now at the place where old and new media converge.

The Guild has also paid close attention to the growing ranks of people who write, produce, and “repurpose” news content for the Internet.  Sometimes these folks work closely with our members in news; sometimes they are walled off by management.  As broadcast news continues to shift towards multiple-platform distribution, we will redouble our efforts to find common ground with the non-Guild employees, and to ensure that members have the skills and the opportunity to perform this work.

We have launched a campaign to organize writers in the non-fiction realm, particularly in basic cable.  Our members have a lot of experience creating non-fiction television shows and films; those who  work under WGA contracts have less experience with the sometimes brutal working conditions in the non-union world.  Literally hundreds of writers and writer-producers create thousands of hours of non-fiction programming in New York and other cities in the East.  They work incredibly long hours under tremendous pressure for low pay and, typically, no benefits.  When U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand heard some of the writers describe their work lives during a meeting at the Guild, she literally gasped and she pledged to do what she could to help.  This is a very exciting campaign and we hope to achieve real gains for the people who create this kind of programming.  We have communicated closely with hundreds of writers and writer-producers in non-fiction.

We continue to sign independent films. We learn of those productions from colleagues at the Writers Guild of America, West, from research, and from word of mouth.  Some productions are eligible to sign our low-budget agreement; others agree to the full MBA.  We will be expanding our efforts in independent film over the next six months.

Negotiations

Several collective bargaining agreements expired in the last year, and we have devoted a lot of time and energy to negotiating successor agreements.  Our twin goals have been to protect members’ economic rights now, and to ensure that the Guild and its members remain essential as distribution and production models are transformed.     

ABC

Thanks to the efforts of a skilled, committed bargaining committee and staff we reached tentative agreement on a new three-year contract with ABC, Inc., covering newswriters, graphic artists, desk assistants, production assistants, and researchers in New York and Washington, D.C.  Members will vote shortly whether to ratify the contract. At the outset we knew that the members at ABC would not be happy if negotiations dragged on for several years and that the difficult national economy and troubled broadcast news business would present real challenges.  I spent a lot of time talking with the company’s chief negotiator, Sean Quinn, about what the company thought it needed to accomplish and what we needed for our members.  I think these conversations were productive, and there are some innovative elements in the new contract. The company sought more flexibility in how work was assigned, and we agreed that others could do some of our work in carefully-defined, narrow instances; in exchange, we won significant job protections for the affected members, including a no-layoff pledge at Good Morning America and an unprecedented guarantee that the company would maintain the current percentage of Guild-covered employment on the network assignment desks, plus training and other opportunities for Guild members to expand their skills.  Our members already perform multiple tasks in addition to writing – editing, producing, web work, graphics – and we believe they are uniquely well-positioned to remain central to ABC’s news operations in the future. 

We were pleased to win wage increases in the current climate – general increases of 2% in each of three years, plus some additional increases for specific groups of employees.  We increased one of the important fees and we preserved others.  We did agree to reduce the penalty paid by the company when an employee is assigned to work during lunch, but we preserved the one-hour paid lunch despite management’s insistence that everyone work an extra hour without additional pay.

CBS

In contrast to the productive relationship we have developed with ABC, the negotiators for CBS have decided to come at us with guns drawn.  Although we had agreed informally before bargaining started that the parties would exchange limited proposals directed at the most salient issues, the company presented twenty-five proposals. Many of the company’s demands would eliminate the Guild as an effective representative and would threaten the job security of most, if not all, Guild members.  The rest of the company’s proposals would slash members’ compensation.  The company’s negotiators have difficulty explaining some of the proposals, and they insist that they must achieve virtually unbridled discretion to restructure our members out of existence, ostensibly because the future is so uncertain. This attitude makes bargaining very difficult.

We have made it clear at the bargaining table that we are prepared to address the company’s concrete concerns with specific accommodations, but that we simply will not agree to our own destruction.  In meetings with members before the start of bargaining, most people said the Guild’s negotiators should focus on maintaining things as they are; we all recognize that the broadcast news business is not as robust as it used to be.  The company’s decision to overreach in such a dramatic, radical way has energized and mobilized the members; for better or worse, the status quo is not an option.  The battle with management might be long, but it will certainly be hard-fought. 

This is a national contract and we are joined at the table by our counterparts at the Writers Guild of America, West.  We have bargained in New York and Los Angeles, and the ideas and energy of the West’s members and staff have been very helpful.

Public television

Our negotiations with the three stations which produce most of the national content shown on PBS have been very difficult.  (These stations are WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York, and KCET in Los Angeles.)  We have a very active bargaining committee of prominent, committed members, people whose talents, ideas, and access to funding make them invaluable to the stations. From the start of negotiations, we acknowledged the severe impact of the recession on the companies’ financial status and we have offered to renegotiate a number of economic terms in the collective bargaining agreement.  The  issue that is most important to the WGA (East and West) is to ensure that WGA-represented writers continue to create programs even if those programs are first distributed on the Internet rather than on television.  After many months of arduous negotiation, we were confident the stations had agreed to our position.  Unfortunately, at the last bargaining session, it became clear that the stations were still fighting us on this issue.  Accordingly, we are bringing the message to Congress that public television refuses to give the Writers Guild and its members a future.  So far people in Washington have been very receptive, and we hope to get negotiations back on track soon.

Sesame Street

By contrast with the public TV stations, negotiations for a new agreement covering Sesame Street writers successfully concluded in April and members there have a good new contract.

Preparing for MBA Negotiations

Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo has been leading our efforts to prepare for the next round of negotiations with the AMPTP, which are scheduled to begin next year.  We are putting together meetings of screen and television writers, and we have been talking with the leadership of the WGAW for months about which issues members will want to address at the bargaining table.  Preparation and mobilization will be the keys to success this round, particularly since the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, and the Directors Guild have all announced that they will begin their negotiations this Fall. 

Political work

The WGAE has an active political program at the local, state, and federal levels.  In the past year the Guild has submitted testimony to the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the New York State Assembly and Senate, and the New York City Council.  Members have visited with elected representatives in Boston, Washington, and New York.  We work with the film offices of the state and city of New York.  We participate actively in various coalitions of entertainment and news unions and companies involved in television and film production. 

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand met with members at the WGAE offices in March.  People who write and produce non-fiction programming for basic cable described the sometimes shocking work conditions in that part of the industry.  Public television writers noted that a number of programs aired on PBS are non-Guild and that the producers seem intent to keep the Guild members out of made-for-Internet shows.  The Senator said she would work with us to address these important concerns.

The WGAE’s focus is on good public policy and on improved working conditions for our members.  We have spoken out in favor of network neutrality to ensure that content creators, including our many members who work in digital media, will continue to have direct access to audiences and will not be squeezed out by multi-national conglomerates.  We have spoken out against media consolidation; for example, we stated we oppose the Comcast/NBC Universal merger in the absence of meaningful provisions precluding the new company from restricting content. 

One of our goals is to enhance members’ opportunities to obtain Guild-covered work.  We have pressed for tax credits which would incentivize writing, and we have asked for additional funding for public television.  I will travel to Detroit to try to line up financial support for Guild-covered programs to be made in Southeast Michigan. 

International work

The WGAE is part of the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, which includes the WGAW and the guilds of Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.  In November the IAWG and the federation of European screenwriters (“FSE”) co-sponsored a world conference of screenwriters in Athens.  WGAE president Michael Winship co-chaired the conference, where writers discussed national funding arrangements, property rights in various countries, working with directors and producers, digital media, and more.  The IAWG and the FSE developed a list of projects on which to collaborate over the next year.  Many screenwriters from Europe, Israel, and elsewhere told us how important the 2007-2008 MBA strike was to their guilds, and to the improved status of writers in their own industries.

Lowell Peterson
Executive Director