WGAE Goes to Congress

WGAE newswriters had their voices heard this week in two separate meetings with key Congressional leaders. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Congressman Eliot Engel (NY) met with WGAE members and staff to discuss news quality, the working conditions inside newsrooms, and issues involved in the stalled contact negotiations with CBS and ABC.

Congresswoman Schakowsky, who is House Democrat Chief Deputy Whip and a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, toured the WBBM-TV newsroom in Chicago on Tuesday to speak with WGAE newswriters who have been working without a contract for more than two years at the CBS station.

In private meetings, WGAE-CBS employees told her of specific situations where the station's news coverage was compromised due to lack of resources and how corporate policies negatively impacted their news coverage. Members reported Schakowsky pledged her support to look into their concerns further. Schakowsky's visit to WBBM-TV came one month prior to the FCC's upcoming media ownership hearing in Chicago on September 20. WGAE membership is committed to making a strong showing at that hearing.

Today, Congressman Eliot Engel (NY) met with a contingent of WGAE members and staff in his Bronx offices. WGAE representatives included assistant executive director Ann Toback, WGAE secretary/treasurer Gail Lee, and WGAE members employed at ABC and CBS. Among the issues discussed were the deteriorating news quality, as detailed in the WGAE's recently released white paper Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality, and the stalled contract negotiations with ABC and CBS. Key in the discussion was how CBS's demand for the unrestricted right to merge or combine newsrooms and ABC's demand to remove newswriter/producers from the union would impact the quality of news in New York.

"We're pleased Congresswoman Schakowsky and Congressman Engel took the time to meet with our members and hear their concerns and insights," said Chris Albers, president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

"The ongoing support of Congressional leaders is vital to our members and demonstrates that our members voices are being heard and respected. Based on this week's meetings and the escalating dialogue our white paper on the decline in news quality is generating, we expect news quality and the issues impacting Writers Guild members to have a high priority on fall agendas."

These two Congressional meetings follow the recent release of the WGAE's white paper, Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality, and Congressman Anthony Weiner's (NY) July tour of the New York newsrooms at 1010 WINS, CBS Radio 880AM, CBS Network Radio and ABC Network Radio.

In addition, Congresswoman Schakowsky was one of three authors of a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last year expressing concern about media ownership and its impact on news quality. The letter, co-signed by Congressman Maurice Hinchey (NY) and Congresswoman Diane Watson (CA), stated "We are troubled by the effort of CBS to fundamentally alter the structure of newsrooms under its jurisdiction…It appears that CBS seeks the authority… to terminate workers in the event of mergers, and even merge the newsrooms of competing stations. If such actions proceed unchallenged, audiences will be denied the variety in news sources and local coverage necessary for an informed participatory democratic society."

News quality is a paramount concern for the Writers Guilds of America, East and West and their memberships. CBS's last proposal demands the ability to combine newsrooms in markets, such as WCBS-AM 880 and 1010-WINS in New York, KNX and KFWB in Los Angeles, and stations in Illinois. It also demands the ability to transfer current WGA responsibilities to non-WGA employees. The WGA-CBS membership rejected this offer by an overwhelming 99% vote in November 2006. ABC's last proposal maintains the company's demand to strip

newswriter/producers from their union protection, which helps them maintain their objectivity, and ultimately the quality of news, despite rising corporate pressures.

The WGA-CBS national agreement covers newswriters, editors, desk assistants, production assistants, graphic artists, promotion writers, and researchers in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles working in television and radio on the national and local levels. There are more than 500 WGA-CBS employees covered under this contract , which expired on April 1, 2005.

The WGA-ABC national agreement covers newswriters, editors, desk assistants/production assistants, graphic artists and researchers in New York and Washington, D.C. Approximately 250 people are covered under this contract , which expired on January 31, 2005.