Open Letter To Occupy Wall Street and the New York Police Department:

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has strongly and actively supported the Occupy Wall Street movement from its inception. Our union members and staff have participated in many OWS actions, and we have endorsed OWS’ important message that corporate greed and economic inequality are wrong.

So we were disappointed to learn that last week people associated with Occupy Wall Street disrupted the set of an episode of Law & Order: SVU, written and produced by members of the WGAE, and crewed by other entertainment industry union members. The demonstrators’ actions were as misguided and inappropriate as the City of New York’s response – revoking Law & Order’s permit for the shoot and directing the dismantling of its set. Presumably the protesters and police did not set out to achieve a common end but together they prevented the scene from being filmed and the story from being told.

Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, whether it is the OWS demonstrators’ right to peacefully assemble and protest without fear of retribution or Law & Order’s ability to film in the streets of New York and tell its stories without fear of vandalism from protesters or overreaction by the police. New York City has worked very hard to encourage television and film production, and we know it will continue to do so. Everyone who works in the industry supports this, including the Writers Guild, East.

We continue to support Occupy Wall Street’s aims and in the tradition of a city with a long history of upholding the right of free, peaceful speech for all, urge both the members of OWS and the police to treat last week’s occurrence as an isolated incident, vowing that it not be repeated. We would be happy to meet with your representatives at any time to discuss this further. Thank you for your attention.

Executive Director’s Update

As I set out to describe the state of the union, I find myself reflecting on the State of the Union, and what that means for writers.  As important as it is for the Writers Guild of America, East to do well at our basic tasks (negotiating and enforcing contracts, administering residuals and credits, collecting dues, etc.), it is increasingly clear that broader economic and political forces affect our work and our members.

I don’t think it is enough to blame President Obama or Speaker Boehner for the strange stalemate in Washington, or to wring our hands at the full-bore attacks on teachers, pensions, and unions taking place in state capitals around the country.  Even though corporate profits are up and mega-companies are sitting on huge piles of cash, unemployment remains high and that affects American politics.  What is missing is the countervailing force of people like us.  We need to put the “movement” back in the labor movement.

Which is not to say that your hard-earned dues money should be redirected to abstract or tangential causes.  It is precisely by doing our work efficiently and effectively that the WGAE can help revitalize the American conversation.  By making a real difference in the professional and creative lives of writers, we demonstrate that it is not necessary to surrender our economic and political fates to a handful of powerful financiers whose loyalty is to their own bank accounts and not to the common good.

Concretely, here are some of the things we are doing this autumn and winter:

Organizing

We have devoted a lot of effort and resources to organizing, to bringing Guild coverage to more writers and projects.  Recently, the writers at the Onion News Network stood together and won a first-ever Guild contract.  Writers and writer-producers at four nonfiction basic cable production companies voted for Guild representation, and we have started negotiations at two of those shops.  These folks have labored for years without health or pension benefits, working long hours with no protections.  The struggle to win good contracts will be long and hard, and we will call upon all Guild members to support their colleagues in this historically non-union world.  We continue to sign up digital media entities and to participate in the development of that part of the industry; at some point, perhaps very soon, significant amounts of money will flow into this space, and it is important that the Guild and its members be there when it does.

Collective bargaining

Negotiations for a new Minimum Basic Agreement concluded in March.  The producers agreed to increase minimum compensation and to bolster the economic health of the Producers-Writers Guild of America Pension Plan by increasing the contribution rate.  We are currently negotiating agreements with Hello Doggie (producers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report), 1010 WINS, and the web operations at WBBM in Chicago.   

Training, programs, and events

We have designed another series of classes, panel discussions, and seminars on digital media, which we hope will be funded by the Consortium for Worker Education.  These programs will offer hands-on skills training in Final Cut Pro, digital journalism, transmedia production, web TV, and social media.  We continue to present screenings, screenplay readings, panel discussions, and other programs relevant to members in film, television, and broadcast news, and we are putting together a revamped WGA Awards program for February 2012.

Political work

We have mobilized members to advocate funding for public broadcasting, improved election procedures at the National Labor Relations Board, financial support for television writing, net neutrality, and other issues directly relevant to the interests of writers and other creators.  Members recently participated in rallies and protests called by the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, and other labor groups; solidarity is alive and well at the WGAE.

Finances

We continuously evaluate Guild operations to make them as efficient as possible.  The reality is that we are spending more on operations than we collect in dues.  We are fortunate to have a rainy day fund in the form of long-accumulated savings.  We believe now is the time to build and grow the union through organizing and through events and programs that bring members together and enhance their skills as our industries continue to transform.  Lowell PetersonExecutive Director

Report to Council and Members May 2011

    The last twelve months at the WGAE were extraordinary.  We negotiated three major collective bargaining agreements, moved the entire operation to new space, presented a wide range of programs for members’ education and entertainment, presented our annual Awards with panache, organized many new companies, and extended our political work.  We have worked closely with our members in feature film, prime time and comedy-variety television, and news, and have continued to strengthen ourselves in digital, cable, and public television.  

     Our aspiration is to make the Writers Guild is the center of writers’ professional and creative lives.  This means negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements that ensure good pay, benefits, residuals, and other important financial and creative terms.  It means providing opportunities for members, and potential members, to socialize and network, to learn and have fun together.  It means educating ourselves – staff, leaders, and rank and file – about the changing realities of our industries.  Increasingly, it means trying to enhance members’ employment opportunities in digital media, public media, independent film, and commercial television and film.

       This last piece (enhancing employment opportunities) has not historically been a focus of the Guild, and we are still exploring ways to accomplish it.  We have approached foundations about funding short-form public affairs programs made for the internet.  We have lobbied Congress to increase appropriations for public television programs.  We are trying to create tax incentives for writing work.  And we have presented Final Cut Pro training so members can offer more skills to potential employers.  We are still learning how to do this work, but I think it will be an important part of our efforts to ensure that the Guild remains vital to writers in the years ahead.   

The Move Downtown    One of the more concrete manifestations of the WGAE’s transformation is our move to new space on 250 Hudson Street in Manhattan.  We took advantage of a soft real estate market to negotiate a 15-year lease with reasonable rent and significant landlord contributions to the cost of a build-out.  Assistant Executive Director Marsha Seeman led this effort.  Our new offices are much more convenient to public transportation and are in a neighborhood full of media companies.  We worked closely with our architects to create a space that is open and full of light.  The layout encourages collaboration among Guild staffers, demonstrates our commitment to transparency, and invites members in.  Two of the conference rooms can be opened into a large event space, and there is a writers’ room that members can sign up to use, free of charge.  Many hundreds of members have attended seminars, committee meetings, training sessions, receptions, and social gatherings at the new location; with better weather, we will also host some events on the spectacular rooftop deck we share with other tenants.  

Political Work    Director of Communications Elana Levin implemented our first comprehensive online activism program, including online action pages to campaigns on social networking sites like twitter.  Using this new advocacy platform, we asked members and other supporters to email regulators and elected representatives about issues that are vital to writers and other creators.  Members strongly encouraged Commissioners and staffers of the Federal Communications Commission and White House executives to support net neutrality.   Approximately 600 members and supporters used our webpage to send a message to their Congress people not to reduce federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  These activities were important because they developed our capacity to communicate about substantive issues that affect Guild members and the public, they energized broad cross-sections of the membership, they developed a community of activists ready to support the Guild, and they increased our profile in our nation’s capital.  The more that elected and appointed officials hear from the Guild and its members, the more they will listen to us in the future.

    Of course, e-activism is not a substitute for in-person conversation.  Our lobbyist Richard Winsten and I held meetings with state senators and assembly persons in Albany, the Bronx, Long Island, Staten Island, and Manhattan to discuss how the state tax credits for film and television production affect writers.  Councilmember Marta Gibbons and WGAE business representative Jeff Schioppa journeyed to Albany for another round of meetings, joined by Richard and his colleague Deanne Braveman.  A contingent of public television writers went to Washington with Lead Strategic Organizer Ursula Lawrence to meet with members of the House of Representatives, encouraging them to support continued funding for public media.

Collective Bargaining Agreements        CBS News    After long and difficult negotiations and a number of shop-floor actions by members, we reached agreement with CBS on a new three-year contract covering full- and part-time news employees.  I was the lead negotiator, with enormous contributions from the East and West Guild members on the bargaining committee and from Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo and Business Agent Jeff Schioppa.  We made some major gains:  For the first time, full-time staffers participate in the WGA pension fund; there was a 2% increase in salary scales in the first year of the contract (while most other unions at CBS faced wage freezes); there is another 2% increase in April 2012;  part-time “temps” will get an additional 2 % over the life of the contract; the acting editor fee was bumped up; assistant producers and production assistants in Chicago will get an extra pay hike; and many producers will be offered significant wage increases while others will have their overscale salaries protected for two years.  We won minimum representation percentages at the local television stations.  We staved off most of the company’s proposed rollbacks, but the agreement did include concessions:  the paid lunch will be reduced from an hour to a half-hour and staffers who work between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. will lose night shift differential for those hours.

     It was a very challenging time to negotiate for broadcast news employees.  Despite that, we achieved our main goals of realizing economic gains and ensuring that the Guild and our members have a meaningful presence at CBS as the broadcast news business is transformed in coming years.  The agreement was ratified by 83% of the voting CBS members, East and West.

     Public Television     We bargained a new agreement between the WGA and the three major producers of public television programming:  WGBH, WNET, and KCET.  I was the lead negotiator, with extraordinarily helpful work by the many Guild members on the negotiating committee and by Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo and Business Agent Geoff Betts.  WGAE President Michael Winship, himself a long-time public television writer, was also an active participant.

     Negotiating this agreement was a long and difficult process.  The producers started with a very aggressive set of demands which would have gutted the entire contract.  Our members got active quickly and effectively – reaching out to their peers, meeting with members of Congress, and participating at the bargaining table.  The result was a contract that we can be proud of, particularly since public television budgets have been hard hit by declines in corporate and charitable giving.

    The agreement brought three annual increases of 2%, 2.75%, and 2.75%.  Most importantly, we achieved our main goal: to ensure that Guild members continue to be the folks who write the best public programs as distribution shifts from television to the Internet.  The new media jurisdiction provisions we gained were carefully negotiated over the course of many months and they will preserve the Guild’s place in the new world of “public media”.  We also preserved payments for digital reuse that remain significantly more generous, in practice, than those set forth in the MBA; this is because they are based on minimums, not on revenues.

     There were a number of other changes, as well, including reductions in payments for reuse of programs after the first three-year “use period.”  Our members told us they anticipated earning more money, on average, with these changes because the current rates often serve as barrier to reuse of library material. In practice, only the most popular shows have been reused while the rest remain on the shelf.  This agreement was ratified unanimously by the voting public television members, East and West.

     Minimum Basic Agreement     The collective bargaining agreement between the Writers Guild and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the “AMPTP”) was set to expire on May 1, 2011, and we negotiated a tentative agreement on new terms in mid-March.  Negotiations took place against the backdrop of the long and successful Writers Guild strike in 2007-2008 and of contracts negotiated in the Fall of 2010 by the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Radio and Television Employees, and the Directors Guild of America.  WGAW Executive Director David Young was the lead negotiator and the negotiating committee was comprised of screen and television writers from both the WGAW and the WGAE.

     The most important feature of the new contract is an increase in the rate of contributions to the Producer-Writers Guild of America Pension Plan of at least 1.5%, which became necessary to the plan’s long-term financial health after the recent meltdown in capital markets.  Most minimums (e.g., script fees) will increase by 2% in each of the contract’s three years, and we made gains in residuals for pay television programs.  We agreed to freeze network television residuals.  More details of the agreement are available to members on the WGAE web site.

     The agreement was ratified by more than 90% of the voting members, and took effect on May 1.

Nonfiction Basic Cable     For years there has been an active community of writers and writer-producers working on nonfiction basic cable programs, without Writers Guild representation.  Hundreds of talented, experienced people toil long hours for mediocre pay and no benefits, making shows for networks such as Discovery, National Geographic, The History Channel, and others.  The WGAE organizing department started meeting with these folks more than a year ago and patiently built support for Guild representation.  Rather than trying to organize one small shop at a time we decided to file election petitions at the National Labor Relations Board at a number of companies at the same time, to build a critical mass of Guild representation.  The NLRB has already certified the WGAE as the representative of employees at Atlas Media and Lion Television.  We won majority votes at ITV Studios and anticipate a majority of ballots at Optomen Productions, although those employers have tied up certification with meritless challenges and objections. 

    We expect to begin negotiations with Atlas, Lion, and the other companies soon.  We recognize the importance of improving conditions at a number of shops at the same time, and our strategy involves mobilization of employees, conversations with government agencies that enforce wage and hour laws, and other creative approaches.  Director of Organizing Justin Molito and Organizer Tim Tharp have devoted countless hours to this work.Digital Media    At this point the financial and creative models for digital media are mostly unformed.  Some money is flowing to some projects but the structure of distribution and compensation, the ways that viewers find content they enjoy and pay for it, the methods of developing programs, the career paths and narrative devices – all are in flux.  This is the opportune time for the WGAE and its members to be active, to help develop the models, and to ensure that the creators’ interests are articulated and advanced.

     We continue to organize and to educate ourselves.  As of April 2011 we had signed about 70 digital media production entities.  We inaugurated two new media awards at the 2011 Writers Guild Awards ceremony.  Our ongoing Digital Media Education Program featured more than a dozen seminars, panels, roundtables, hands-on skills courses, and so forth.  We trained many members to use Final Cut Pro and presented a Digital Day Camp at which nearly 150 members learned digital skills and discussed the business.  We presented panels and seminars on how intellectual property law works in the digital world and on branded content.   We recently received a funding commitment from the Consortium for Worker Education for more digital training programs, and we are designing the courses now.

      In January we relaunched the WGAE’s publication on the craft of writing in a new digital format; OnWriting ONLINE will be a series of interviews with prominent writers.  In the first edition Jamal Joseph interviewed Tony Gilroy and Terry George, and the result (which is viewable on our website) was informative and entertaining.

     In February we organized a Digital Roundtable at which members from both the digital and traditional worlds talked with people who commission, produce, and distribute digital content.  Members got practical advice about how to get paid for digital work, and business folks heard why it is important to use skilled story-tellers: viewers will be attracted to compelling content, which is what our members create.  In March we invited members to practice pitching their ideas for web television programs to a panel of digital media experts.

     We do not yet know exactly how digital technology will transform our industries, but we know that this future will arrive whether we are prepared for it or not.  I hope, and believe, that ten years from now members will look back on this era and conclude that the WGAE made the right moves at the right time to ensure that writers have more creative options than ever, and are fairly compensated for their work.  Lowell PetersonExecutive Director

Council Nominations Open, 2011 Annual Meeting Announced

Dear Member:The Annual Meeting and election of Council Members, including the offices of President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer, will be held on Thursday, September 15, 2011.Enclosed you will find a nomination form and directions.  Any current member is entitled to nominate candidates for the Council and for the officer positions. Nine Council seats expire this year: six freelance and three staff.  The terms of the President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer expire as well.  The terms of office will run for two years beginning September 16, 2011.  Any current member in good standing for one year preceding the election is qualified to run.The following Council members’ seats do not expire this year, so they should not be nominated for Council:Freelance:  John Auerbach, Andrew Bergman, Walter Bernstein, Terry George, Gina Gionfriddo, Jeremy PikserStaff:  Art Daley, Marta Gibbons, Ted Schreiber, Catherine TwohillIf you would like to nominate and candidates, please return your nomination form to the Guild in the enclosed envelope.  It must be received no later than May 12, 2011.  You must print and sign your name on the form in order for it to be valid.If you have any questions about the election procedures, please contact Rebecca Olerich at 212-767-7835 or Sincerely, Lowell Peterson,Executive Director

Unions Must Change as American Workers Move from the Factory to the ‘Information Economy’

Executive Director Lowell Peterson explains to Alternet how the WGAE is able to build professional and economic solidarity even in the absence of large worksites where people have daily contact with each other. Read his article.

Verizon and Google: The Deal of the Titans

The world’s biggest media companies want to define how people will get content over the Internet.  Money talks; independent content creators: take a walk.  A mega-deal is reportedly in the works in which Verizon will favor Internet content from Google because Google has the spare cash to pay for preferred access.  And this is being touted as the model for how content providers and Internet service providers will do business.  We have seen the future, and it is exactly like the past. The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO represents people who write, edit, produce, and create graphics for television, film, radio, and digital media.  Our members write television drama, comedy, news, and public interest programs; they write movies for major studios and for independents; they create original content for the web, for mobile applications, and for other digital platforms.  Our members know first-hand how an open Internet permits them to create more innovative, informative content and to distribute it directly to the public. The Internet and other digital media offer an unprecedented opportunity for creators to reach consumers and for people to watch and read what they want, when they want.  This is very different from traditional media in which major studios, distributors, and television networks control the flow of movies and programs.  Digital technology presents a vast range of possibilities to content creators and consumers alike, and it would be a tragedy to squeeze all of that into a narrow commercial band.  But that is exactly what will happen if the Federal Communications Commission and Congress permit the Verizon-Google deal to become the blueprint for the digital future.  If one of our members had written the Verizon-Google deal into a script, it would have been rejected as too obvious, too heavy-handed.  At the height of the nation’s debate about net neutrality, two of the biggest players in the industry blow the entire concept to smithereens by discriminating against certain content providers in favor of those with the deepest pockets.  Now the Internet will resemble television and the movies: completely dominated by a handful of multinational conglomerates that decide what the public will watch based, not on the quality of the programming, but on the margin of profit.  Verizon falls easily into the role of villain; Google becomes the feckless sell-out.  We could have written it ourselves, but no one would have bought the story.

And this movie has a prequel:  The proposed merger of Comcast (the other mega-ISP) and NBC Universal (quintessential television network and studio).  Comcast the content distributor will have a huge economic incentive to discriminate in favor of the content it creates as a studio and television network.  

Let’s write a different ending to this story.  The FCC and Congress can ensure that the American people have access to a wide array of independently-produced programs that entertain and enlighten, that present the whole spectrum of our diverse opinions and experiences and cultures.  We do not have to allow Verizon, Comcast, Google, and NBCU to divide up the digital pie amongst themselves.

Breaking news in court case on documentarian rights

Documentary filmmakers and journalists may breathe a partial sigh of relief today as the Court of Appeals has issued a largely positive order in the case of documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Attorney Michael C. Donaldson filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of the Writers Guild of America East, as well as 22 other industry organizations and individuals, who saw an earlier court order for Berlinger to turn over footage he filmed making CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil as a grave threat to the future of investigative documentaries. Donaldson evaluated yesterday’s ruling as “a partial victory for both sides. Chevron gets some but not all of what it wants. Berlinger has to turn over some, but not all 600 hours of footage.  The many hours of footage that Joe gathered alone with the plaintiffs and their families, friends, and neighbors has all been protected.  What is important to the documentary community is that – for the first time in this kind of case – the court is restricting Chevron on how it uses the footage.  Chevron can only use the footage for litigation, arbitration, or submission to official bodies.  Chevron can’t use the footage in publicity or promotional materials.  The documentary community is awaiting the final order of the court because it should give detailed discussion of the court’s thinking and provide guidelines to help documentary filmmakers in the future."“It is important to note that the many hours of footage that Joe gathered as he talked to the victims and their families does not have to be turned over pursuant to this order.   In terms of the trust and confidence that is at the heart of investigative filmmaking, this is a very important element of the order.”A lower court had ordered Berlinger to turn over 600 hours of raw footage he shot producing the documentary CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil to Chevron. Chevron went to court to gain access to the footage because it is defending itself against amassive Ecuadorian class action lawsuit brought by workers and residents of the Amazon who are seeking redress for years of environmental pollution.

The Independent Documentary Association explained that the earlier ruling to turn over the footage “will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand” because "If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely.”

The Amicus Brief filed on behalf of the WGAE and 22 other industry organizations and individuals was considered invaluable by Berlinger’s legal team.

The Guild is Moving Over the Weekend

As of Monday June 28th the Writers Guild of America, East will be in its new home at 250 Hudson Street in the Hudson Square area of Manhattan. We hope our new, more accessible and welcoming offices will come to feel like your home too. To facilitate the move, our email system will go down sometime on Thursday afternoon; our phone system will go down some time on Friday morning.  From 9:30am on Monday morning you will be able to reach us at the same phone numbers and email addresses.  Our offices will be open for script registration as well.

One of the benefits of our move is our new neighbors. Many media companies have offices in the neighborhood.  Edelman, the international public relations firm, Corbis Images, the Architectural League of NY and TED Conferences will also be tenants at 250 Hudson Street. We suspect you’ll find many reasons to spend time in our new neighborhood.

We will be holding an open house in our new space as soon as possible. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused by the move but we will be up and running very quickly.

Thanks for your patience and hope to see you soon, Lowell PetersonExecutive Director

We are moving over the weekend

As of Monday June 28th the Writers Guild of America, East will be in its new home at 250 Hudson Street  in the Hudson Square area of Manhattan. We hope our new, more accessible and welcoming offices will come to feel like your home too. To facilitate the move, our email system will go down sometime on Thursday afternoon; our phone system will go down some time on Friday morning.  From 9:30am on Monday morning you will be able to reach us at the same phone numbers and email addresses.  Our offices will be open for script registration as well. One of the benefits of our move is our new neighbors. Many media companies have offices in the neighborhood.  Edelman, the international public relations firm, Corbis Images, the Architectural League of NY and TED Conferences will also be tenants at 250 Hudson Street. We suspect you’ll find many reasons to spend time in our new neighborhood. We will be holding an open house in our new space as soon as possible. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused by the move but we will be up and running very quickly. Thanks for your patience and hope to see you soon,

Lowell Peterson,

Executive Director

The Guild Is Moving

Dear Writers Guild of America, East Member:

You may recall that in our New Year’s letter we mentioned that we would soon have news to share about an exciting new move for the Guild.

So here it is: the Guild really is moving. Downtown, at the end of June, construction gods willing. Our new address will be 250 Hudson Street, just above Tribeca, between Broome and Dominick.

Why? Several reasons. First, our lease at 555 West 57th was up for renewal, and with the real estate market being what it is, this seemed the perfect time for a change. Commercial rents have dropped and incentives are being offered to new tenants. We decided to take advantage of the opportunity, securing a fifteen-year lease for better space at a cost far below what it would have been just a few years ago. And we have a new landlord eager to work with us.

Also, 250 Hudson is in one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the city, especially for people in our business. Many of our new neighbors are media and entertainment companies and the area has become fertile ground for digital media and a variety of other start-ups that are so essential to our continued growth. What’s more, our new address is close to mass transit, making access to the office easier than ever.

But perhaps most important, the new office will be designed for your needs as well as those of our hard-working staff. There have been a lot of changes in the union and the business since we first moved into West 57th, and the new space will reflect that. As just one example, our organizing staff is now six strong and they will be able to work for you more collegially and effectively at 250 Hudson than in the old space.

We think you’ll find the offices more open and inviting. We’ll be able to host more events than we have been able to in the past – there’s even a rooftop deck with views of the city that we’ll be able to use for certain special occasions. And there will be a writers’ room – if you’re in the neighborhood, it will be a place where from time to time you can come to work, discuss projects with your colleagues or just take a quick break.

Work already is underway, and once it has been determined, we’ll let you know the official move date. When we’ve settled in, we hope you’ll stop by, have a quick tour, take advantage of what we have to offer and become involved in what we do.

This is your union, and this move is designed to make you more an integral part of it than ever. We look forward to seeing you downtown.