Executive Director’s Report

WGAE Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – May 2018

Has the paradigm shifted to “tumult”?  National policy is being made on Twitter, and high school kids are taking to the streets.  The revelations about Harvey Weinstein and many other powerful men have unleashed enormous energy to rethink and remake power relationships in the entertainment industry and across the economy.  The Supreme Court is poised to cut the props out from under the labor movement in the public sector, but teachers in “red” states are fired up for action.

Despite the turbulence, the Writers Guild of America, East is in a strong position.  This is a time of unprecedented opportunity to craft scripted programming.  Although gigs on traditional long-season, network prime time shows remain the gold standard, economically, the creative possibilities offered by cable and SVOD companies have expanded enormously.  And SVOD companies – mostly Netflix and Amazon – have leapt into the world of feature films, not only as distributors but also as commissioners of original feature-length projects.  The late-night comedy/variety universe has become even more essential to making sense of the world of “politics” (or whatever it is that’s happening inside the Beltway).  Our broadcast news members have more than held their own despite the transformation of that industry, and we have organized so aggressively, and so successfully, in digital news that we now represent more than 1000 people who write, edit, and produce video content for digital-native companies.

Talent agents and conflicts of interest

The WGAE and our sister union, the Writers Guild of America, West, are the exclusive bargaining representatives of writers employed by signatory studios and networks.  That means that talent agents can represent our members only if the Guilds permit it.  For many generations, talent agents could represent our members only if they agreed to the terms of something called the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement (the “AMBA”), which was negotiated by the Guilds and by the Artists’ Managers Guild, which has morphed into the Association of Talent Agents.

The AMBA is a lengthy, detailed agreement that virtually no one has actually read, in part because it was last negotiated in 1976, despite massive changes in the television and movie business (the digital media business didn’t even exist back then), and in the structure and size and role of the talent agencies.

The Guilds negotiate minimum compensation rates, residuals, and other basic terms of employment.  It is the agents’ job to negotiate the above-minimum compensation that many members rely on.  Despite the enormous profitability of the industry, members’ quotes have been decreasing towards minimums.  The agents haven’t been very effective.  Perhaps that’s because they have no economic incentive to push aggressively for the writer-clients’ interests.

In April 2018, the WGAE Council and the WGAW Board voted unanimously to send a notice to terminate the AMBA.  Thus, in April 2019, the current AMBA will come to an end.  Our notices of termination included a set of proposals to modify the agreement, proposals we believe would be in the best interest of our members.  Members can read more about the issues, about the proposals, and about what the Guilds are doing to remake our relationship with the talent agencies on the members-only part of the WGAE website.

Diversity in the industry – sexual harassment and power in the workplace

An entertainment industry whose storytellers do not reflect the diversity of their audiences is difficult to sustain.  Writers rooms with a more complete range of views and experiences and backgrounds tend to create more compelling shows.  The WGAE’s commitment to diversity is fundamental and real and is based in the twin imperatives of social justice and of long-term sustainability.

The stakes became particularly clear when allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke the levee last autumn.  He certainly did not invent sexual harassment, and the legal and operational structures intended to prevent and punish that kind of predatory behavior have been in place for decades.  I think the powerful surge of outrage and activism demonstrates that these mechanisms, while useful, have failed to address the essential dynamic, which is the profound imbalance of power in the workplace.  Sexual harassment is, fundamentally, the sexualized expression of power, and it is imperative that efforts to make workplaces safer include the difficult work of making them more equitable.

In the meantime, of course, the union and its members must be equipped to address incidents of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct on the job as they arise.  Last year we created a resource guide for members and posted it on the union’s website.  It describes the legal definitions and potential legal claims related to sexual harassment and identifies additional resources, including employer policies and counseling options.  We have also posted a detailed set of power point slides created by the Actors Fund in close coordination with WGAE staff and members from each of our main genres.  All WGAE staffers who represent members on a day to day basis have received two rounds of training to ensure that we are equipped to respond knowledgably and sensitively to member inquiries.  We have crafted a baseline pledge which describes our commitment to members; this was distributed to members and posted on our website earlier this year.

In January and February we conducted a survey of members’ observations about sexual harassment.  (We chose not to use the survey as a means of asking people to report their own incidents of sexual misconduct on the job; our thought was that a survey would not be the most useful or attuned way to have that conversation.)  Survey respondents agreed that there are significant barriers to people reporting when they have experienced sexual harassment – fear of career damage, lack of confidence that the employer would take real action, fear of the perpetrator.  We asked a series of questions about employer policies and practices, including sexual harassment training.  Suffice it to say that respondents did not find employer-sponsored sexual harassment training to be a meaningful approach; many people didn’t even know if their employers offered this training, and many who took the training said it was not helpful.

We wanted to hear from members about continuing work to combat sexual harassment and similar sexual misconduct.  Members expressed interest in meetings and other ways to take further action.  People had a fairly broad range of views about exactly what form the ongoing work should take, so we will work carefully to put together a variety of programs.

The first round of the Made in NY Writers Room project wrapped last autumn.  Funded by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the office of Small Business Services, this program offered thirteen fellows the opportunity to deepen their TV writing skills and to learn more about the business from the inside, with a range of panel discussions and presentations and six months’ of mentorship with New York-based showrunners. Five hundred New York writers had submitted TV pilot scripts, all of which were read twice by WGAE members, who wrote detailed notes on each script.  Our goal was to deepen the pool of talented, diverse television writers and to enhance their career opportunities.  Feedback from the fellows and their mentors has been enthusiastic.

We came achingly close to winning landmark legislation to incentivize the hiring of women and people of color to write and direct television in New York.  The state Senate and Assembly approved a 30% tax credit for TV diversity, finally putting money at the point of hire.  This was made possible by months of intensive mobilization by Guild members and our allies and supporters – which included all of the entertainment unions (especially the Directors Guild of America) and advocacy organizations such as New York Women in Film and Television and even the normally-cautious New York Production Alliance.  Our principal sponsors, Marisol Alcantara in the Senate and Marcos Crespo in the Assembly, were stalwart to the end and won solid “yes” votes in their chambers towards the end of the regular session.  We continued the mobilization to encourage Governor Cuomo to sign the bill into law.

Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed the bill in December, asserting that there was insufficient evidence of discrimination in the television business.  This stunned us all, but we have continued to meet with the Governor’s top staff members to try to identify a way to get a real diversity incentive – which would be the first of its kind in the nation – approved and implemented.

Free expression in the current environment

It has been more than a year since the inauguration of a President who scores quick points with his base by slamming the “fake news” crafted by hardworking journalists, including WGAE members.  Ironically, the political Right seems to have adopted the complaints of the old Left that “corporate media” cannot be trusted to describe history-in-the-making because of inherent bias.  It is a bit counterintuitive to assert that “traditional” news outlets, which are owned by vast corporate conglomerates whose mission is to maximize return to shareholders and top executives, somehow possess an inherently progressive  bias – and our members who craft content for broadcast news companies would certainly not accept the “fake news” caricature of their own workplaces.  Some observers suggest that current attacks on the journalistic enterprise are designed to challenge the idea that any media voice could be authoritative, implying that any attempt to report on important issues – or criticize the powerful – is inherently slanted and unreliable.

Perhaps social media, which encourage direct first-person participation in the broader conversations, have made news more immediate.  In a strange melding of platforms, it turns out that more and more Americans get their news through social media – especially Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

In all, this is not an easy time to write, edit, and produce news content.  But the work our members do to investigate, analyze, and present what’s actually happening in the world is more essential than ever.

VICE TV

In September 2017 we won recognition for the television and digital-video content creators at VICE media (we already have a collective bargaining agreement for employees in the digital editorial operation).  VICE provides nightly news shows and weekly news/documentary shows to HBO, and it runs the Viceland cable channel, producing many of the channel’s shows in-house.  We have just started negotiations covering several hundred writers, producers, editors, and others, including a number of freelance employees hired on a show-by-show basis.

This organizing campaign was notable because it continued the WGAE’s expansion in nonfiction/“reality” television production and in television/online news, and also because we campaigned jointly with the Motion Picture Editors Guild, which now represents the editors, and SAG AFTRA, whose organizing efforts continue.  Building productive organizing relationships with these sister unions is an important way to increase our collective power in the news and entertainment industries.

Nonfiction television

The WGAE continues to build power in the historically non-union world of nonfiction/“reality” TV.  We are in the process of revitalizing the industry-wide network of key activists to increase our campaign for portable health benefits, reasonable pay rates, better safety on the job, scheduling standards, and paid time off.

We have spent an intensive year-plus at the bargaining table with Peacock Productions, a unit of NBU/Universal.  With an active bargaining committee of current and former writer-producers, we have faced down an employer that insists it must transition unit employees off of the current company-sponsored package of benefits.  With sufficient solidarity and pressure, we hope to get people into the Industry Flex Plan instead – which would provide significant group health and other benefits and would advance the goal of creating a truly portable benefit plan for writer-producers in nonfiction TV.

Multinational media powerhouse ITV continues to battle us fiercely at the bargaining table, adamantly refusing to enter reasonable, industry-standard collective bargaining agreements at its ITV/Kirkstall and Leftfield/Loud companies.  In addition to mobilizing support in the bargaining units themselves, we continue to ratchet up pressure externally – most recently by questioning whether a company that disrespects its own employees should get the lucrative production tax credit it seeks from the State of Connecticut.  We have enlisted support from a number of Connecticut unions and elected officials, and in March we held a spirited rally at the Stamford offices of A&E, which is one of Leftfield’s biggest customers (and which reaps millions of dollars in Connecticut tax credits itself).  Associate Producers at ITV/Kirkstall have complained of rampant discrimination on the basis of their gender and race, and we are working closely with them to fight for real change at the shop.

We have enjoyed powerful solidarity in the struggle at ITV/Leftfield from the UNI Global Union, the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, and many other unions (including our allies in Connecticut).  This is a long, difficult struggle but we are in it for the long haul.

We are returning to the bargaining table for renewal CBAs at both Sharp and Optomen.

A powerful movement in digital news

There isn’t a scientific way to determine when a “campaign” becomes a “movement”, but the wave of unionization in digital news has definitely made the transition.  In just two and a half years more than 1000 digital writers, editors, producers, and others have joined with the WGAE to bargain collectively – to make concrete improvements in wages and working conditions and to gain a voice on the job.  In just the last 12 months we have won recognition at Thrillist, MTV News, DNA/Gothamist, The Intercept, Vox Media, Slate, and Onion, Inc.

The power of this movement has been recognized by scholars and labor leaders across the globe.  We have been asked to share our observations and insights with researchers and journalists and union activists from the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and Latin America.  People are inspired by the combination of bottom-up groundswell and hard-fought organizing work, particularly because the folks who comprise this movement work in the digital economy, and they tend to be younger – “millennial”, even.

The new members and soon-to-be-members recognize the importance of solidarity and activism.  At each shop we have large, engaged bargaining committees.  At each shop we organize we receive active assistance from people in already-organized shops.  Gains we make at the bargaining table at one shop translate into energy, enthusiasm, and gains at the next shop.

Even setbacks have not deterred people from joining the movement.  The day we won recognition at DNA/Gothamist, its right-wing billionaire owner Joe Rickets announced he was shutting the whole operation down, and he strongly suggested it was precisely because of unionization (although his representatives later said he was losing money and could not figure out a way to stem the losses).  With active participation from the rank and file bargaining committee, we won good severance terms – but perhaps as important, the whole unit took to social media and urged their colleagues at other digital media companies to keep up the union fight.  We had a rally at City Hall Park in Manhattan attended by hundreds of members, leaders from other unions, and a bevy of elected officials, many of whom praised the careful, thorough journalism of the laid-off employees (even those whose work was sometimes critical of those same officials).   And the laid-off DNA/Gothamists got right to work alongside WGAE organizers, helping organize the next round of companies.    Just in case Plutocrat Joe might have thought his anti-union bloviation might dissuade people from joining our movement for collective bargaining, the WGAE won recognition at Vox, Slate, and Onion, Inc. after he shut down DNA/Gothamist.

We hope to conclude negotiations at Thrillist and The Intercept in coming weeks, and negotiations have started at Vox and Slate.

Broadcast News in the Digital Age

Last autumn we surveyed our members who work in broadcast news.  They work for ABC and CBS network news operations and for local television and radio affiliates as regular staffers and as per diems.  A wide cross-section of broadcast members participated in the survey, – newswriters, writer-producers, graphic artists, assignment editors, desk assistants, and others.   Some are relatively new to their jobs; others have worked more than 20 years.  We know that digital technology is changing the way news is produced, distributed, and consumed, but we wanted to know more about how our broadcast members experience these changes and other pressures from inside and outside the newsroom.

The current political climate is taking a toll on our broadcast members.  Although   members who took the survey were almost evenly split on the question of whether President Trump’s attacks on journalism had an impact on them (46% said “yes”; 54% said “no”), many wrote comments that suggest the environment has become more difficult.   One respondent wrote, “I’ve encountered more people that seem to act aggressively towards journalists or ‘the media’ in general.”  Another commented, “Extremely upsetting personally to be attacked in your profession. And I think at times we’re treating things a little too gingerly–trying to equalize sides when in fact at times the balance is off.”  And, “It feels like more people are quick to scrutinize how we tell the news than before, even though our decisions are unbiased and fair.”

The survey found, not surprisingly, that broadcast news is not an easy place to work:  Two-thirds of the respondents said the 24/7 news cycle creates pressure to be fast, rather than thorough, and fully 60% said they experience burnout on the job.  Nearly 73% said the rapid expansion of online news sources and new technologies have created a more demanding pace and expectations.  Less than 24% said online news and technology have had an overall positive impact on their workplace.  One respondent wrote, “It’s increasingly hard to do a thorough job on stories with small amount of time devoted to issues. 1:30, 1 minute at times to describe political stories.”  Another complained of  “increased demands, specifically on digital content, while [management is] reducing staff, without lessening existing demands for TV product.”

We asked members to describe the most negative aspects of their jobs – and the most positive.  On the negative side, we got comments like:

The constant influx of news is exhausting. The current political climate can sometimes contribute to disrespect of journalists. Not enough time to tell the whole story.

Undervalued by employer. Unreasonable deadlines due to personnel cuts. Unreasonable demands because management doesn’t understand the skill set and technological knowledge needed to complete the job well.

The constant pressure. The increased number of jobs we’re expected to perform flawlessly. The lack of appreciation for the work performed.

But members also had some good things to say about their jobs:

The people I work with, the fact that it is a union job, getting to write every day.

The work itself. The WGA health benefits. The fact that people get paid for overtime.

It’s a huge platform, well resourced (comparatively) and competitive. Great work environment, hard hitting News, free bagels on Friday.

Beginning in February 2018 we presented a five-session digital skills course for members who work in news, taught by Jeremy Caplan of CUNY.  Members learned strategies and skills to ensure that their story-telling works in the digital world.  The course was funded by the Consortium for Worker Education.

We will begin contract negotiations at ABC News and CBS News in late 2018 and early 2019.

Screenwriting in the Digital Age

In November we convened a roundtable of working screenwriters to discuss the growing prominence of subscription video on demand (SVOD) services like Netflix and Amazon in the feature film world.  SVOD companies are no longer just an ancillary market for post-theatrical distribution; increasingly these entities enter the market at the point of initial distribution and they commission original projects.  James Schamus and Ira Deutchman shared their insights into the transformation of the business and members described their experiences with all-rights deals, remarkably robust production budgets, and surprising new aspirants (e.g., Disney, which appears to be betting heavily on its own SVOD operation in coming years).  We hope to convene more roundtable conversations on this new world of screenwriting – perhaps including a discussion of whether the distinction between “series” and “features” continues to have meaning in the digital world.

Speaking of the Movement

The WGAE works within the context of a broader, global labor movement.  We are part of the AFL-CIO, affiliated through the federation’s Department for Professional Employees, together with our sister entertainment unions like SAG AFTRA and IATSE.  We are also part of the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, which comprises twelve film and TV writer organizations across the global.  And we are part of UNI Global Union, whose 900 affiliates represent twenty million working people on all five continents.

These affiliations are essential as a matter of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the battle for empowerment and economic justice, but they also bring more immediate benefits.  As described elsewhere, UNI Global Union and the IAWG (including the Writers Guild of Great Britain) have stood strongly with us in our ongoing battles with ITV/Leftfield.  We have spread the word about organizing and the effective use of social media and about the importance of engaging members in meaningful ways at the DPE, at the quadrennial convention of the AFL CIO in October 2017, at the executive committee of UNI in Switzerland the same month, and at the IAWG’s annual meeting.

  • Lowell Peterson

WGAE Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – June 2017

These are challenging times for American unions and for people who care about storytelling that brings truth and insight. We find ourselves in a world of “alternative facts”, a place where fears are stoked to confuse, divide, and demobilize. At the same time, people are fired up and they are ready to think – and act – outside the box.

The Writers Guild of America, East is committed to engaging members and potential members in concrete actions to improve the conditions of creative professionals. In the last year we negotiated and enforced many collective bargaining agreements that address our members’ needs and aspirations; supported public policies that enhance members’ ability to build sustainable careers; deepened our relationships with other unions and with the broader community. We offered members the opportunity to engage, to participate in the life of the union and our community of creative professionals, to build their skills and to have fun, to enjoy events where they can talk shop and build networks.

Since 2013 the WGAE has grown from 3700 to 4600 members. We added 500 digital news members covered by WGAE contracts, and scripted television employment has grown significantly. We are negotiating contracts covering hundreds more writers, editors, and producers as we continue to build the union in a rapidly-changing media industry.

Minimum Basic Agreement

Pundits and audiences praise the era of “peak TV”, and the six largest media companies have raked in unprecedented profits – $51 billion in 2016 alone. There are more scripted television (and high-budget online) programs than ever before, and even the feature film market is remarkably stout, especially for makers of really big movies that appeal to international markets. Nonetheless, average TV writer earnings have slipped, decreasing by about 23% from 2013 to 2015. Most of the decline can be explained by the move to shorter seasons with fewer episodes, plus a shift in reuse from the traditional network rerun to less lucrative streaming alternatives.

The Guild-sponsored health fund (which is a separate trust jointly administered by employer and union trustees) has faced significant economic headwinds in recent years as health care costs have increased at a rate far above inflation. Although the health fund is not in immediate danger, the fund’s consultants recently projected insolvency as early as 2021 if current trends continued. In other words, the health fund needs substantially more revenue in the form of employer contributions and some restructuring of benefits to address long-term deficits.

Negotiations in the entertainment industry often follow a pattern in which one of the main guilds (typically the Directors Guild in recent years) negotiates an agreement that sets the economic parameters for the unions that bargain next. In late 2016 the DGA negotiated an agreement with the employer association – the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – that made significant gains in high-budget subscription video on demand (“SVOD”) residuals and in minimum pay rates. Unfortunately, this agreement did not address the most important issues facing television writers, simply because directors’ compensation structures are different and because the DGA’s health fund is not facing big deficits.

The WGAE and its sister union, the Writers Guild of America, West, entered negotiations for a new Minimum Basic Agreement with an admittedly aggressive agenda. We crafted a set of proposals that, taken together, would have meaningfully addressed all of the pay and benefit problems our members face, while making virtually no dent in the employers’ hefty profit margins (less than 1% of 2016 profits, in fact). Of course, justice and merit are one thing; the power to accomplish these goals is another.

Thus, both the WGAE and the WGAW (which takes the lead in MBA negotiations because it has many more members actively working under the agreement) devoted enormous time and effort to meeting with affected members, talking about the critical issues we faced, and mobilizing support for our bargaining agenda.
After two weeks of formal negotiations in Los Angeles (technically, in Sherman Oaks), it became clear that the AMPTP would not address the members’ pressing needs without a fight, so the joint East-West negotiating committee voted unanimously to ask the members to authorize a strike if real progress would not be made. The WGAE Council and the WGAW Board voted unanimously in favor, and we got to work getting the word out and making sure members participated actively.

We recruited 86 “contract captains” in the East alone – members who committed themselves to calling and emailing and cajoling as many members as they could, to ensure a strong turnout and an overwhelming “yes” vote to maximize the negotiating committee’s leverage. In the end, fully 96.3% of the voting members said “yes”, a resounding statement of support and solidarity that reverberated throughout the industry and, perhaps more to the point, in the negotiating rooms in Sherman Oaks.

After months of negotiation and mobilization, we won a very solid contract. Not as much as we asked for, not as much as we deserved, but much better than what the AMPTP would have given us if the members had not been energized and engaged.

The details of the new MBA have been described in detail in contract ratification materials and on our website. In short, we won real gains in the short-season area. Article 14 writer-producers are paid on a fee-per-episode basis. Those fees developed in the era of full season network television, and were thus based on the model of two weeks’ of work per episode. With shorter seasons (and more demanding productions), many writer-producers found themselves working three or more weeks per episode, with no increase in per-episode fees. The new MBA includes an unprecedented limitation on this practice – providing a maximum of 2.4 weeks per episode for Article 14 writer-producers earning up to $350,000/year; members required to work longer get extra pay at their full rate. We also expanded the limitation first won in 2014 on the companies’ ability to hold writers past the end of a season without pay.

Most minimums will increase by 2% in the first year and 2.5% in years two and three. We won a 15% increase in pay TV residuals, and comedy/variety writers who work in pay TV will get that residual for the first time. Importantly, we won real increases in contributions to the health fund – 1% in the first year of the contract, with an additional .5% in the second year and another .5% in the third year. As part of the health fund package, we agreed to shave $7 million off of annual benefit costs, which will likely mean increased deductibles and co-pays, particularly for out-of-network services. The headline here is that the health fund should be in solid economic shape for years to come.

The powerful engagement of so many freelance members will make the WGAE a stronger, more vibrant union long past ratification of the MBA. Members have demonstrated real solidarity, have taken the time to learn the issues and stand up for one another. This bodes very well for future work.

Free expression in the current environment

Until recently, the biggest threats to independent journalism seemed to be economic (at least in the United States). Print publications suffered from profound decreases in advertising. Broadcasters found it increasingly difficult to hold onto audience share and advertiser dollars. Digital media transformed the landscape with a delivery system that made it possible to write stories and create videos at nearly real-time speeds, but with substantially less revenue to fund the hard work of investigating and analyzing complex developments.

These economic headwinds are still real, although digital media companies have become much better at monetizing their efforts. But they seem to pale before the existential threat encapsulated by the curt condemnation by the Tweeter in Chief: “Fake news! The media are the enemy of the people!”

Lambasting “the media” is kind of old hat in American politics, but until recently it has been mostly blather. And maybe the vicious attacks coming from the White House and its pals are just a cynical attempt at distraction rather than a declaration of actual policy. It seems clear that the ability to use digital media, including online news sites and social media, is not a Left/Right issue. For every Brietbart there is a HuffPost, GMG, Vice, etc.

But vigilance is the price of liberty, and WGAE members working in broadcast news, in digital news, in public affairs and documentary programs find themselves on the front lines in the battle to preserve robust, fearless exploration of real (as opposed to “alternative”) facts. And of course our members crafting comedy/variety shows prove every night that satire speaks truth. Even our members in scripted drama find themselves worrying about whether they will be able to craft compelling characters and narratives that challenge the powerful and the insecure.

I am confident this union and its members are up to the challenge. We will continue to build power in the workplace and to speak our minds to the public and to the politicos.

A powerful movement in digital news

There is a critical mass of support for collective bargaining in digital media. This movement empowers the people who write, edit, and produce content to build sustainable careers doing work they care about. More than 500 creative professionals in digital news now work under collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the WGAE. These folks are active, engaged, and willing to fight for a real voice in their workplaces, and to help us extend the movement for collective bargaining to their brothers and sisters at other digital news operations.

We started this organizing campaign at Gawker Media in the summer of 2015 and we have negotiated contracts at Gizmodo Media Group (which now includes employees at the former Gawker websites plus Fusion.net and The Root), Vice digital, The Huffington Post, and Think Progress. At all of these shops we paid close attention to what the employees themselves wanted to achieve, and our rank and file negotiating committees participated actively in shaping proposals and mobilizing members to take whatever actions were necessary to win significant gains – up to and including work stoppages (which ultimately turned out to be unnecessary).

Although the members at each company have expressed unique concerns and needs, there are some common themes across all of the shops: A strong desire for transparency in decisionmaking, pay rates that are fair and objectively-determined, editorial independence, diversity, and ongoing opportunities to participate in workplace policy-making.

A large and active bargaining committee at HuffPost identified the key goals of the negotiations: “When we decided to unionize at HuffPost, we had a lot of concerns we wanted to tackle: editorial autonomy, newsroom diversity, fair and transparent pay, and job security.” The committee devoted a lot of time and energy to keeping all members of the bargaining unit informed and active – to the point of very concrete escalations during the talks. That, plus hard work and creativity at the bargaining table, led to a deal that addressed all of these concerns, and then some.

First, the pay provisions: We won compensation terms that ensure greater transparency and fairness, and locked in real pay raises, including pay minimums based on job titles. The pay minimums increased compensation for many HuffPost employees immediately (sometimes by many thousands of dollars per year), and the minimums themselves increase by 4% in years two and three. Everyone gets at least a 3% increase each year of the agreement. Taken together, these provisions mean that some employees will see their pay increase by 15% or more over the life of the agreement.

We also won:

  • Strong language protecting the integrity of editorial work, ensuring that editorial employees cannot be assigned to work on branded content, native advertising, and content for advertisers, sponsors, and business partners – and a committee to enforce these protections;
  • Provisions to enhance newsroom diversity, including a system of job posting and an ongoing diversity committee;
  • A contract provision in which unit members will share revenues from “derivative work” based on articles and videos they create for the company;
  • A system for freelancing and outside work, establishing a process for reviewing requests to engage in outside work and setting forth the standards of review;
  • A just cause provision for terminations, and a requirement that the company provide notice and an opportunity to improve in the case of issues with editorial work product;
  • Guaranteed severance in the event of layoffs or termination for editorial issues – two months’ pay plus one week per year of service, and company-paid medical benefits for that entire period;
  • A Labor-Management committee to discuss issues that arise during the term of the contract, plus committees on editorial issues and diversity.

This prairie fire still burns, and the movement to build collective bargaining power in digital news continues: In recent months the editorial employees (including writers, editors, producers, and others – in some cases folks who do social media, distribution, and technical work) – at MTV News, Thrillist, and The Intercept have all won WGAE representation. Negotiations at those entities have already begun.

Writers, editors, and producers at Slate and DNA/Gothamist have also banded together to demand that their employers negotiate with the WGAE. Those companies have not yet agreed to recognize the union so these digital journalists are building pressure to get their employers to the bargaining table. And our talented organizers remain active. We should have hundreds more digital media story-tellers working under Guild-negotiated contracts by this time next year.

Television diversity

After nearly two years working closely with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the office of Small Business Services and others at City Hall, we announced the Made in NY Writers Room in September. Nearly 500 New York writers – most of them diverse – submitted pilot scripts, all of which were read by WGAE members who gave detailed notes. Members also rated the scripts, winnowing the field to 170 whose scripts got another reading. Thirty finalists were selected in May. The highest-rated comedy and drama scripts got dramatic readings in May.

Twelve fellows were selected in April. Each will get six months of mentoring with experienced WGAE showrunners: Robert Carlock, Lee Daniels, Anya Epstein, Julie Klausner, Brian Koppelman & David Levien, Richard LaGravenese, Michael Rauch, Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky, Norman Steinberg, Jonathan Tropper, Matt Williams, and Beau Willimon (who worked closely with us to design the program and win City support).

We are very pleased that the City funded the entire program, covering all administrative costs, paying the readers, and paying each fellow nearly $16,000 for the time they spend working on their scripts with the showrunner mentors. We are working with the City to renew the program for another year, giving more New York writers the opportunity to sharpen their skills and deepen their professional contacts. (Of course, because the program is funded by the City, all applicants must be New York residents.)

Our goal with this important program has been to broaden and deepen the base of diverse New York writers who have marketable pilot TV scripts, and who have agents and mentors who know and champion their work. More diverse storytellers mean more diverse stories, and more New York writers should mean more television employment opportunities.

Speaking of job opportunities: Year after year studies and policy broadsides say what we all know, which is that television employment simply fails to mirror the diversity of the country’s population. Conferences are convened, hashtags populated. Change, however, always seem to lag behind.

For that matter, despite the enormous amount of television and film production jobs brought to New York by the state’s tax credit, the opportunities for writers who choose to work here remain limited and unreliable. The industry does not really offer TV writers the choice of where to work. The WGAE, joined by the Directors Guild of America, supports an important piece of legislation that would amend the existing production tax credit to provide an incentive to hire women and people of color to write and direct television. The bill has broad and deep support from entertainment unions including SAG-AFTRA and key locals of IATSE and the Teamsters, the state AFL-CIO, plus advocacy groups such as New York Women in Film and Television.

Hundreds of WGAE members wrote to their legislators in May, encouraging them to support this important bill. A stellar and strong delegation of diverse WGAE members made the trip to Albany to meet with Senators and Assemblymembers. Tanya Barfield, Ashley Black, Geri Cole, Cami Delavigne, Joe Gonzalez, and Robin Thede shared their stories of the struggle to build careers writing television in New York. There are still several weeks left in the legislative calendar and we hope policy-makers will do the right thing and pass this bill.

Public broadcasting

Last summer we formed a bargaining committee of some of the WGAE members who are most actively working on public television programs to negotiate a new three-year agreement with the entities that produce major national shows (principally WGBH and WNET). We bargained a new agreement which ensures that the employers will continue to pay their share of contributions to the Guild’s health and pension funds and ties increases in minimum compensation rates to the increases negotiated in the MBA.

In his “skinny budget” President Trump proposed to zero out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In addition to the devastation this proposed defunding would visit upon American culture, it would make it substantially more difficult for WGAE members to create programs for public television. As a result of generations of official neglect and hostility at the federal level, much of the funding for shows like Frontline, NOVA, and American Experience comes from foundations and other private sources. A lot of the money also comes from the NEA and the NEH, and of course there would be no public broadcasting channels without the CPB.

The Administration’s radical proposal mobilized a lot of people – our sister unions in the AFL-CIO, advocacy organizations, and of course our own members. In early March we asked members to write to their Representatives and Senators, and hundreds did so. We joined the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and other entertainment industry unions in several public statements to support continued funding of all three essential federal programs. Now the battle will continue as Congress deliberates about a full budget over the Summer.

Nonfiction television

After many years of organizing and agitating, we are still fighting for good contracts in the nonfiction/”reality” TV part of the industry. We have solid collective bargaining agreements with Optomen Productions, Lion TV, and Sharp Entertainment. The Sharp agreement expires next year. In mid-2016 we negotiated a new three-year deal with Optomen which includes a significantly shorter waiting period to become eligible for health insurance, improvements to the health benefits themselves, more accrued paid time off, a new overtime provision, and pay increases for writer-producers earning the contractual minimum rate.

We also renewed the Lion TV agreement, winning significant increases in minimum pay rates, a shorter wait to become eligible for health benefits and a provision to clarify the start of paid time on field production days. Importantly, this agreement also provides that Associate Producers and other nonexempt employees will receive time and a half pay for all time worked after 40 hours in a week. Both Lion and Optomen agreed to continue to pay 90% of the premium for health benefits, regardless of coverage level.

Negotiations have finally begun with Peacock Productions, the nonfiction TV unit of Comcast/NBCU. The WGAE filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to represent the writer-producers there in October 2012. In June 2013 the NLRB’s New York office rejected the company’s position that the producers were “managerial” employees who had no right to bargain collectively. Apparently Comcast/NBCU prefers to spend money on lawyers rather than on its own employees, and the company’s appeal sat at the NLRB in Washington for more than three years. Finally, in August 2016 the NLRB decisively rejected the company’s arguments and issued an order directing that the ballots be opened. We were certified as the writer-producers’ collective bargaining representative in September. About 75 people work at Peacock over the course of a typical year, depending on how many shows are in production.

Leftfield Pictures continues to pose a problem at the bargaining table – agreeing to make certain important improvements but resisting an overall agreement. To increase pressure for a deal, we brought more than 50 picketers to the headquarters of A&E in November – a remarkable turnout in a torrential downpour – to demonstrate the resolve of nonfiction writer-producers and to deliver an industry-wide petition. In December we brought 50 more picketers to ITV’s U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, with support from our sister unions the WGAW and SAG-AFTRA. ITV’s response was a frantic press statement declaring that the many dozens of activists who joined the picket line should instead of gone to the nearby Cheesecake Factory “for a delicious slice of strawberry pie – yum!” Simply bizarre.

As we continued to try to negotiate reasonable compensation provisions, Leftfield made the surprising assertion that it could agree only to very low minimum rates because its customers – the cable networks – controlled the economics of production. New York City Councilmembers I. Daneek Miller, Corey Johnson, and Brad Lander wrote letters to four cable networks in December asking them to address this allegation. Although the networks’ official position is that they are arms-length customers of production companies such as Leftfield, audiences and policy-makers identify nonfiction shows with the networks. The Councilmembers’ inquiry put our collective bargaining struggle with Leftfield squarely on the networks’ map, and we will continue to escalate our efforts to take the message to the cable networks that buy the company’s shows.

We have expanded our industry-wide mobilization efforts. Last year about 800 writer producers signed a petition saying they were determined to create an industry where:

  • our work will be valued and compensated in accord with its central role in creating quality programming and profits;
  • our working conditions will sustain balanced lives and long-term careers;
  • our health and safety will be top priorities for our employers and ourselves; and
  • our rights as employees will be respected and enforced.

On April 12, hundreds of writer-producers left their production company facilities midday to meet and talk about conditions in the industry and what we can do to win improvements.

A few weeks later the WGAE and several nonfiction writer-producers testified at hearings conducted by the Mayor’s office about conditions in the freelance/gig economy, noting that conditions are very rough in the high-turnover nonfiction TV workplace. We alerted City enforcement officials that, although writer-producers are employed by nominally independent production companies, the most significant economic terms (that is, production budgets and schedules) are set by the highly profitable cable networks that air these shows. We hope the networks will begin to engage in conversations about the substandard working conditions that plague their shows; we are confident that policy-makers (and audiences) will want the networks to pay attention.

In May we presented an intensive training program on how to be a showrunner in nonfiction TV, funded by the Consortium for Worker Education. A half dozen experienced nonfiction showrunners conducted a full-day workshop attended by about 65 current and potential WGAE members who write and produce in this important part of the television industry. (In 2015 and 2016 the CWE funded two very well-received and well-attended programs aimed at experienced associate producers – teaching folks the various kinds of writing that undergirds these nominally “unscripted” shows.)

– Lowell Peterson


WGAE Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – May 2016

In the past year the Writers Guild of America, East has negotiated an unprecedented number of collective bargaining agreements, has organized widely, and has engaged our members in events and projects aimed to improve the craft and to have some fun.

Although it is a challenge to build and maintain a career in the freelance world of feature film and scripted television (including its digital/SVOD variants), the business remains extraordinarily profitable. With Business Agent Geoff Betts I visit television writers rooms on the East Coast regularly, and the talented storytellers there often have credits in the theater and the big screen as well as television. Comedy/variety is stronger than ever, and we talk and meet with more and more screenwriters who are creating features outside the studio system. Broadcast news employment is stable, even as executives insist the sky is falling.

Thus, our union’s core is solid. Which is exactly the time to prepare for the future, as WGAE President Michael Winship, Vice President Jeremy Pikser, and Secretary Treasurer Bob Schneider know well. We are working to build a more stable and diverse base of television employment, we are exploring how changes in technology and distribution models affect the movie business, we are expanding our industry-wide effort to bring collective bargaining to nonfiction television, and we have organized hundreds of people who write, edit, and create video for digital news organizations.

The transformed business of electronic news

The WGAE’s roots extend to the era when radio was the center of broadcast news, and approximately a third of our members who are actively employed at any given time work for one of the broadcast news entities in New York metropolitan area, Chicago, and the District of Columbia. Our two largest news contracts expired earlier this year. With the help of strong, engaged bargaining committees we were able to negotiate new agreements that addressed the members’ real needs.

First, some context. The broadcast news industry has undergone seismic shifts in recent decades. Technology has transformed the way news is gathered, distributed, and consumed, and the way the work gets done. Competition – first from cable news channels and more recently from digital-native entities – has undermined the major broadcast networks’ dominance. There are many alternatives to the regularly-scheduled newscast, and those alternatives have captured an ever-increasing share of audiences and advertisers.

Negotiating robust collective bargaining agreements in this context can be a challenge. We recognized several years ago that it was imperative to take steps to ensure that our members’ work remain essential to the enterprise. Our members produce and edit; they assign and they create graphics. With the Guild’s support, they have expanded their skills and their reach. The strategy has largely been a success. While many unions in broadcast news have endured significant job cuts and painful concessions, we have remained relatively strong.

Negotiations with ABC News started in late December and concluded about a month later [1]. The company insisted until the last day of bargaining on major concessions in the paid meal period – first proposing that it be eliminated altogether (which would have resulted in five extra hours of work each week without any additional compensation), then proposing to cut it in half. The bargaining committee successfully resisted these demands, and won wage increases of 2% per year in addition to 1.5% in additional contributions to the pension and health funds. The agreement was ratified by a vote of 59 to 1.

The CBS News unit is larger, encompassing shops in New York, Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles. Although the WGAE is the lead negotiator, the committee included representatives from the Writers Guild of America, West. We spent a couple of intensive weeks with our brothers and sisters from around the country, and members made compelling presentations about how various bargaining proposals would affect them. In the end, we won 2% pay hikes in addition to 1.5% more for health and pension. We also won sick days for temps, an outsized pay minimum for a new category of Special Contract News Writers, an increase in the Contract Producer rate, and – part of our central project of ensuring that our members’ work keeps pace with the transformed world of broadcast news – increased Acting Editor and network radio fees and a first-ever fee for newswriters who also produce. This agreement was ratified by a vote of 121 to 4.

Many thanks to the CBS and ABC bargaining committees and WGAE Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo and Business Agent Jeff Schioppa. Jeff is continuing to negotiate at WNYW, which has taken a somewhat resistant stance with all of its unions.

The WGAE has also radically expanded its presence in digital-only news, which is where audiences are migrating. We began our immersion in the world of digital content-creation a number of years ago, attending conferences, meeting and organizing creators, learning as much as we could. We offered skills training in digital journalism – for example, how to build a social media presence and how to use other online tools. In the spring of 2015, some writers at Gawker asked “what if we wanted to organize” so we scheduled a meeting at the Guild offices. Typically, few people show up for an initial meeting like this, but 30 people attended. The next week, 35, the organizing campaign quickly became public and the employer agreed to remain neutral. There was a robust online conversation, and an electronic ballot in which people voted by a 3 to 1 margin to join with the WGAE for collective bargaining. The unit includes writers, editors, and video producers.

In fairly rapid succession, we won recognition at four additional digital-native news organizations – VICE.com, ThinkProgress, Salon.com, and the Huffington Post. Altogether, nearly 500 digital writers, editors, social media editors, and video producers have organized into the WGAE. Digital news is not a way station, a barely-paid first job after college or J-school. People have concluded that collective bargaining with the WGAE is a central way to build sustainable careers doing this work. As the news business continues to shift in the digital direction, the Guild is already there. Many thanks to Organizing Director Justin Molito and organizers Megan McRobert and Ursula Lawrence.

It is important to remember that digital companies are almost entirely nonunion. Many of the writers, editors, and producers who were most deeply involved in the organizing process were politically or culturally progressive, but few had union roots. They concluded that becoming an active part of the labor movement would give them a real voice on the job, a concrete way to make a difference in their work lives.

Of course winning union recognition is just the first step. Next comes the hard work of actually bargaining contracts that address our new members’ real concerns.   We knew that people in these shops faced unique challenges; this, combined with their level of engagement in the organizing process, made it essential for us to build effective bargaining committees and to craft bargaining proposals based on what folks were telling us, not on some preconceived notion of what ought to be in a contract. We held many meetings, conducted surveys, and maintained maximum transparency. Our bargaining committees have been extraordinarily active, offering compelling testimony about conditions where that has been appropriate, keeping the broader bargaining units informed, and remaining involved even after negotiations have wrapped. We have gained a lot of real activists and leaders.

The first negotiations began at Gawker in September 2015. For six months we inquired and talked and pounded the table and reasoned and mobilized, and the committee got stronger and more committed. In the end we won a great contract – 3% pay hikes; minimum starting pay of $50,000 (a strong number in this historically non-union field); minimum pay for various groups of job titles; health, dental, and vision benefits locked in – with the employer absorbing any cost increases in the second and third years of the contract (up to 10% per year); significant severance pay; unlimited book rights; real gains for contractors (the right to be offered a real job after a year, plus pay equivalent to that given to employees doing the same work, for night and weekend shifts); provisions to protect editorial independence. At the outset of the process employees said they wanted to preserve the good things at Gawker, to establish clear and understandable rules for pay and benefits, to improve transparency, and to address concerns about editorial independence. We accomplished all of this, and more. The contract was ratified in January 2016 by a vote of 88 to 2.

VICE negotiations started in the November 2015. Conditions at each of the digital shops are different, and for people in the VICE unit pay was a principal concern. Committee members talked eloquently at the table about the difficulties of making ends meet in New York on current salaries, and about the value their work added to the entire VICE operation. Like their counterparts at Gawker, the VICE unit members were prepared to take real action to make real gains.

We reached an agreement in mid-April that provides truly unprecedented economic gains. Minimum pay is now $45,000 (a real improvement for a number of employees). The first pay increase – which was retroactive to January 1 – is 14% across the board, with a minimum increase of $8000 for full-time employees (which amounts to nearly 20% for a number of people). There are increases of 5% in years two and three. We gained a one-to-one company match of 401(k) contributions up to 3%; no reduction in health benefits for the year (and a negotiation if the company seeks to make changes later); language protecting employees’ right to do non-VICE work and governing reuse of employees’ work for the company; a formal commitment to editorial independence; comp time; severance pay; and monthly meetings to discuss diversity, work load, business/editorial issues, and more. This agreement was ratified by a vote of 73 to 2.

Negotiations are still underway at ThinkProgress, an important policy site based in Washington, and Salon, one of the original digital media sites. Business Agent Jeff Schioppa is leading those negotiations, joined by Director of Legal Services Ann Burdick (and in her absence by Acting Director Michael Isaac).

In late April, we started negotiations with The Huffington Post. This is the largest of the digital media companies we organized in the past year, with about 270 writers, editors, and video content producers. Unit members work at various locations, with the largest concentrations in New York and D.C. As with the other shops, we took the time with the large and active bargaining committee to craft proposals that reflected the particular concerns of the HuffPost workforce. So far the bargaining sessions have been respectful and productive.

Television diversity

Scripted television is booming. More shows than ever and more production in the East because of tax credits (especially in New York, which has the most successful production tax credit in the nation). This abundance has not extended to writers who are women or people of color, however.

Year after year studies and policy broadsides say what we all know, which is that television employment simply fails to mirror the diversity of the country’s population. Conferences are convened, hashtags populated. Change, however, always seem to lag behind.

For that matter, despite the enormous amount of television and film production jobs brought to New York by the state’s tax credit, the opportunities for writers who choose to work here remain limited and unreliable. The industry does not really offer TV writers the choice of where to work.

The WGAE, joined by the Directors Guild of America, supports an important piece of legislation that would amend the existing production tax credit to provide an incentive to hire women and people of color to write and direct television. The bill has broad and deep support from entertainment unions including SAG-AFTRA and key locals of the Teamsters and IATSE, plus advocacy groups such as New York Women in Film and Television. A version of the bill passed the New York Assembly in June 2015 by an overwhelming margin but circumstances precluded a vote in the state Senate (e.g., the arrest and subsequent conviction of the Senate Majority Leader on corruption charges).

Nearly 500 members wrote letters to Governor Cuomo in April urging him to support the bill, and a sizeable and vocal contingent of members traveled to Albany in May for a press conference at the Capitol and a day of meetings with key policy-makers. Our message: the time for talk has passed; now is the time to act. Many thanks to Communications Director Jason Gordon for getting superb coverage of these issues and Business Agent Geoff Betts for logistics (and to Director of Programs Dana Weissman for her work with the Guild’s Diversity Coalition).

The WGAE has also worked closely with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment to develop a City-funded mentorship program for television writers, with a particular focus on diversity. We have spent nearly two years talking through details with MOME and others at City Hall, and are very close to rolling out a program in which hundreds of people would submit pilot scripts to be read – and commented upon, in detail – by Guild members. Finalists would get another reading, and a total of 12 fellows would be selected for six months of work with New York-based showrunners. These fellows would receive pay, intensive one-on-one feedback from showrunners, valuable exposure to the business, and (we hope) the opportunity to submit finely-crafted pilot scripts for possible production. Many thanks to Assistant Executive Director Marsha Seeman, and to Councilmember Beau Willimon who is rounding up the showrunner mentors.

The high cost of health care

As we approach negotiations for a 2017 Minimum Basic Agreement (the main national contract covering film and television writers), two things have become clear:

  1. The Producer-Writers Guild Health Fund’s expenditures are rising far more quickly than employer contributions, so we now face large operating deficits.
  2. The producers are making money hand over fist. $47 billion in television profits in 2014. Feature film box office receipts reached record levels in 2015 – more than $11 billion in the U.S. and Canada alone, with China and other overseas markets expanding even more rapidly.

Taken together, these suggest that we should insist on significantly increased employer contributions to the health fund during MBA negotiations next year. I think it is a safe bet that the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the companies’ collective bargaining association) anticipates exactly that. But of course winning significant amounts at the bargaining table requires members to make real commitments to action away from the table. And we can anticipate that the companies will insist, as a condition of paying more, that the union trustees (appointed by the WGAE and by the WGAW) agree to cuts in benefits at the same time.

These negotiations are still many months away, and both the WGAE and the WGAW have a lot of preparation ahead. But we want the members to know what is coming up, and what the stakes are likely to be. The WGAE’s health fund trustees are Bob Schneider, Melissa Salmons, John Auerbach, and me. Our negotiating committee will be appointed later this year or in early 2017.

Nonfiction television

The WGAE broadened and deepened its approach to writer-producers in nonfiction television in the last year, winning the largest NLRB election to date, offering in-depth training to hundreds of members and potential members, and launching a new industry-wide contract mobilization campaign.

Leftfield Pictures is the largest nonfiction production company in the East, by a large measure. At any given time it employs approximately 125 writer-producers working on a dozen or more shows for a wide variety of cable networks. Several years ago ITV, the expansionist television distributor and producer, continued its expansion outside of the UK by paying hundreds of millions of dollars for Leftfield. This was perhaps the most dramatic instance of the massive consolidation of nonfiction TV production in the US. Partly to bolster their negotiating leverage with cable networks, partly to tap into larger international markets, and partly to capture the growing profits in this sector, major investors and multinational media corporations have been gobbling up production companies.

After a year of intensive organizing, the writer-producers at Leftfield voted by a 2 to 1 margin for WGAE representation. Many thanks to organizer Isham Christie who led the organizing team with Justin Molito. Negotiations started in April, and will be powered by industry-wide initiative we started to build in the second half of 2015. This campaign is led by a committee of writer-producers, many of whom have been part of our nonfiction organizing drive from the beginning. It represents a pivot of sorts – a recognition that, although NLRB-based organizing requires intensive focus on particular shops at which representation elections are held, the constant movement of creative professionals from company to company requires us to cultivate support and activists across shop boundaries. The campaign’s first project is to gather many hundreds of signatures on a petition that calls on the nonfiction industry to address five critical issues: Affordable, portable health benefits; safety; standards for hours and scheduling; minimum pay rates defined by standardized titles; and paid time off. While we are certainly not disregarding the need to mobilize narrower groups of employees in connection with shop-based elections, with this industry-wide campaign we are mobilizing the broadest possible base around core issues common to all of the men and women who craft stories and programs in nonfiction television.

Leftfield, being the largest shop with Guild representation (a market maker of sorts), will of course be an important focus of industry-wide attention. In addition to the petition, the industry-wide campaign will be able to mobilize large numbers of writer-producers for action in the political world, for rallies and other manifestations, and for additional organizing.

In October and November we presented an intensive, multiple-day training program funded by the Consortium for Worker Education. A dozen talented, experienced writerproducers from nonfiction and from public TV crafted a detailed curriculum for two full-day skills workshops. They taught more than 50 associate producers how to write treatments and interview questions, how to prepare scripts for shooting and for post-production, how to produce in the field, and more. The program also included two large panel presentations attended by hundreds of APs, producers, and others. The first addressed the challenges and opportunities of working in various nonfiction genres. The second analyzed the business itself – consolidation, relationships between production companies and networks, the effect of digital distribution, and more. We will present a second round of this extraordinarily rigorous and successful training program in June 2016.

In addition to these broader initiatives, we continued the hard work of bargaining and representing writer-producers at shops where we have already won NLRB elections. We negotiated a renewal agreement with the first shop to sign a WGAE contract – Optomen Productions. Both Original Media and ITV/Kirkstall committed unfair labor practices during our negotiations there, and we successfully prosecuted and settled charges against both shops at the NLRB. We will begin negotiation a renewal agreement at Lion TV in June.

WGAE staff negotiations

The union’s staff is itself unionized – represented by The News Guild. We negotiated a new three-year agreement with TNG in April. It is an interesting experience to function as “management”, but thankfully our attention to detail and efficiency has put the WGAE in such solid financial shape that we were able to afford a generous agreement this time around. The bargaining unit includes the men and women who work on membership and dues and registration and events and mailings and answering the phone and residuals and organizing and all the union’s critical functions. We decided to practice what we preach, and implemented a new minimum salary and agreed to reasonable across-the-board pay increases – plus additional raises for people who have worked for the Guild and its members for 10 years or more. And speaking of building for the future, we also agreed to a more generous paid parental leave.

And etc.

In addition to this enormous amount of negotiating, organizing, and advocating, the WGAE of course continued to engage our members in actions ranging from individual contract enforcement to major events like the ever-successful Awards ceremony in February, from helping with specific benefit problems to screening new feature films, from panel discussions on craft issues to receptions for new members. We are an extraordinarily busy union, doing work we believe in.

– Lowell Peterson

__________________________

[1] I was the union’s lead negotiator in all the contracts described in this report, unless otherwise noted. Of course, having strong, active bargaining committees and able staff support is essential to success.

Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – June 2015

In the last year the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO has built upon its strengths in film, television, and digital media and has continued to reposition itself to address the challenges of a media industry in transformation.

Building and sustaining a creative community

Our work is informed by our vision of the WGAE as a community of creators, an organization that enhances the ability of professional storytellers to build sustainable careers.  This is not distinct from the more traditional concept of a labor union – one in which negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements is the central task.  Representing members in the bargaining process sustains the more comprehensive project of building a creative community, which in turn enhances our basic union work.  We are stronger at the bargaining table because we have built deep and broad connections – not only with men and women who craft and distribute stories to audiences but also with the larger worlds of organized labor and politics.  And our ability to deliver the goods at the bargaining table helps us broaden our reach to currently-unrepresented writers.

The WGAE’s membership is hardly a one-genre monolith.  Our members include comedy/variety writers; digital content creators; indie filmmakers; screenwriters on mid- to high-budget features; nonfiction writer-producers; people who craft episodic dramas for network and cable television; public TV writers and writer-producers; people who write and produce and edit TV and radio news (and create graphics for news broadcasts); daytime serial writers; and others.  As our recent surveys indicate, our members also write plays and novels and nonfiction books and articles; they direct and produce films and programs for television and for the Internet.   Some members hold staff jobs; some are long-term “per diems”; most work from gig to gig.  Some freelancer members have consistent – and consistently lucrative – careers in TV or film; others work more sporadically.

This diversity of professional experience might seem to present a challenge to building and sustaining a coherent community inside the Guild, but members actively engage in the cultural and political work we do.  We create and support tasked groups of members who focus on specific issues like the need for a more stable base of television work in the East, or diversity, or the range of issues faced by screenwriters[1].  WGAE staff regularly reaches out to members by visiting TV writers rooms and by communicating by email and phone and social media.

We spend a lot of time and energy bringing writers together to discuss the craft and the business, to network, to learn, and to have fun.  In the last year many hundreds of Guild members (and potential Guild members) have attended dozens of workshops and panel discussions on topics like making the transition from comedy sketches to screenplays; screenwriting software programs; firearms trafficking (with the ATF); pitching techniques and opportunities; late night comedy writing; writing about climate change; screenplay competitions and film festivals; characters with self-destructive inclinations; characters who perish on-screen; tax planning; video game writing; health and justice for women; creating and marketing webisodes; character development; and more.  We have offered receptions and other networking opportunities for members in Brooklyn, for East Coasters invited to participate in the Sundance Film Festival, for indie filmmakers generally, and for new members – plus, of course, the always well-attended annual holiday party.  We have presented readings of TV pilot scripts.  Guild staff and members participated actively in the Austin, Nantucket, American Black, Woodstock, and Lower East Side film festivals.  And this year’s Writers Guild Awards brought more than 450 writers and friends together to celebrate the best television, film, news, and digital writing of the year.  Many thanks to our events staff, headed by Assistant Executive Director Marsha Seeman and Director of Programs Dana Weissman.

We co-sponsor craft-oriented and social events with a variety of industry organizations such as New York Women in Film and Television; Hollywood, Health & Society; the Producers Guild of America; and Lincoln Center.

Much of our most forward-looking work is done in conjunction with caucuses that include both members and non-members.  These include the digital caucus (which recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its formation), the indie caucus, the animation caucus, and the committee of nonfiction writer-producers who work very actively in our campaign to raise standards in nonfiction/”reality” television.

The WGAE and its members are an active part of broader communities in the media industry, in labor, and in politics.  We work closely with other brothers and sisters in other entertainment and news unions and in the local, state, and national labor federations.  These include SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the DGA, NABET, the Coalition of Motion Picture and Television Unions, the New York State AFL-CIO, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the national AFL-CIO.  I meet regularly with the leaders of these unions and I am on the board of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees.  Guild members and staffers participate in labor-sponsored conferences, rallies, marches, and discussions. We are an integral part of the broader labor movement.

Thanks to Director of Communications Jason Gordon, the WGAE’s work in politics, in organizing, in the entertainment and news industry generally, has received extensive – and substantive – coverage in all major media.  This includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The New York Observer; trade publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline; broadcast and cable networks such as NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and Fox; and blogs such as Politico, Capital New York, Jezebel, and many others.

Diversity

To broaden our creative community and to prod the entertainment industry to pay closer attention to its actual audience and its long-term interests, we have expanded the WGAE’s diversity efforts.  Council created a diversity committee, which recently renamed and re-formed itself into the WGAE Diversity Coalition, to listen to the concerns and needs of diverse writers and to discuss how the Guild can address these concerns and make the profession more inclusive.  In the last year the Guild co-sponsored panel discussions, receptions, screenings, and informal meetings with New York Women in Film and Television, the Minority Independent Producers Summit, the Hollywood Creative Forum East (with the Walter Kaitz Foundation), the American Black Film Festival, the Blackhouse Foundation, Women in the Arts and Media Coalition, and Women Make Movies.   These partnerships expanded the Guild’s presence in the movement to make television and film more diverse, and gave us the opportunity to listen and learn more about what remains to be done.

The WGAE continues its partnership with Franklin Leonard and the Black List, an online compendium of unproduced scripts.  The Black List initially focused on feature film scripts but now includes TV screenplays, especially pilot scripts.  WGAE members can list their scripts in the database for free and get a 20% discount on hosting and evaluation services.

The New York State Assembly and Senate are considering legislation strongly supported by the WGAE that would modify the state’s very successful production tax credit slightly to include an incentive to employers that hire writers who are women or people of color.  This legislation has solid support from the labor movement, including the state AFL-CIO and the unions representing crews, drivers, and directors, and from a variety of organizations working to diversify the entertainment industry.

Many people have talked the talk about diversity; we aim to walk the walk.

Transformed technology of distribution

Distinctions between live network television, video on demand from the cable TV company, video on demand from a purely Internet entity like Netflix, day-and-date release of theatrical feature films, and so forth are meaningful when figuring out pay levels (both initial compensation and residuals), but consumers seem to pay less and less attention to the difference.  Or, more precisely, consumers increasingly expect to be able to view what they want, when they want, on the device they want.  This suggests a continuing convergence of distribution systems.

We have talked a great deal about the advent of this era in which content is distributed mostly through a single pipe – the wire or cable connection between people’s homes and their cable or telecommunications providers.  It has enormous implications for content creators and distributors, and heightens the importance of meaningful, enforceable net neutrality rules and limits on further consolidation of powerful media corporations.  It also confirms the value of the WGAE’s long-term commitment to engage with digital content creators; to offer training programs where members can think through the industry’s transformation and can learn new skills; and to organize writers and writer-producers outside the traditional core jurisdiction.  No one knows exactly where the industry is headed – how many feature films will be funded, at what levels; how films will be distributed and marketed; whether networks and cable companies will have to reinvent themselves for on-demand, over-the-top consumers; whether broadcast news will continue to adapt to changed demographics and heightened competition.  What we do know is that the WGAE and its members must learn and adapt to the digital transformation.

Even the once-disruptive cable TV industry might find itself eclipsed by digital technology.  Although the actual number of Americans who have rejected cable TV bundles in favor of over-the-top, purely Internet-streamed programs is still rather small, various industry players are setting themselves up for a more-digital, less-bundled future.  HBO and Cablevision recently rolled out HBO Now, which does not require a cable subscription.  HBO also plans to offer the service via Apple devices.  Sony continues to expand its offerings via Playstation Vue (yes, people watch shows between sessions of zapping alien robots).  Apple announced another iteration of its so-far-stalled Apple TV, which would offer a robust set of television network offerings online,    CBS rolled out its own digital network called “CBS All Access”, Dish TV is offering “Sling TV”, and Hulu Plus still survives.  Among the bigger players are, of course, Netflix and Amazon Prime, which offer television shows and feature films online.  This digital distribution marketplace remains chaotic, and it seems likely that audiences will mostly compromise the most tech-savvy – at least until someone figures out how to unify the market with devices and distribution channels that are significantly less clunky.  At this point, no single service has sufficient depth of content or ease of use to aggregate the kinds of audiences created by the major television networks and theater chains in generations past.  But the smart money (including huge amounts of investment capital) is on some kind of fundamental digital reconfiguration.

Of course, in addition to the multiplicity of reuse outlets available online, the biggest and most aggressive companies have decided to spend major amounts to create their own original programming.  Netflix and Amazon Prime are willing to devote network TV-like budgets to major shows like House of Cards.  In the 2014 MBA negotiations, the Guilds were able to negotiate commensurate compensation minimums for writers who work on these big-budget “made for new media” shows.

When the WGAE rolled out its “Writers Guild 2.0” initiative several years ago we chose the term “digital media” over “new media” on the theory that this world was no longer really new.  The development of so many production and distribution alternatives supports the view that digital is rapidly becoming the media, not the “new” media.

Television work in the East

Television production is booming on the East Coast, particularly in New York, which offers a 30% tax credit for below-the-line expenditures.  Unfortunately, television writing employment remains sporadic, with most rooms located west of the Mississippi.  The exception is comedy-variety; most of the major late night shows are produced in New York, and of course the writers rooms for those shows are here as well.

The WGAE has worked hard to address the problems created by the lack of reliable television employment in the East[2].  We want to ensure that members who prefer to live here can build sustainable television careers; to provide opportunities to playwrights and others who depend on TV employment to realize their ideas and to pay the bills; and to help maintain the East as a vital center of American and international culture.   We are also committed to improving the diversity of television writing, both as a matter of social justice and as a way of keeping TV relevant to increasingly diverse audiences.

Of course, there is only so much a union can do to affect decisions about who gets hired, and where they will work.  Still, we have pursued several initiatives to build a more stable and more diverse base of television employment in the East.  We have tried to learn as much as possible about the issue and how it affects our members.  We track which shows are produced in New York and explore why many (or most) of their writers rooms are located elsewhere.

Several months ago we surveyed members who have reported TV earnings in the past five years to learn more about their experiences trying to make a living in the most dynamic sector of the entertainment industry.  More than 250 members responded.

About 44% of the respondents reported that they had been paid to write for a broadcast network series or mini-series in the past five years.  About half of those worked on one series; 47% worked on between two and five series.  Consistent with the rise in scripted cable television generally, fully sixty percent of the respondents were paid to write for a cable network series or miniseries.  About 47% worked on one such series; about half worked on two to five.  Forty respondents reported they were paid to write for a digital series or miniseries (e.g., Netflix or Amazon).

We know that more and more screenwriters are turning to television as a way to craft compelling stories and to get their work made and seen.  About a quarter of survey respondents said they had also been paid to write or rewrite a feature film (and remember that these were all folks who reported TV earnings).  About 47% of these members wrote two to five features.  In other words, the survey confirms that a lot of people had careers in both film and television.

More broadly speaking, cultural work on the East Coast has historically been less film-and-TV-centric than in the West.  Television gigs offer playwrights the opportunity to earn a living here.  Twenty percent of the members who answered the TV survey said they had also been paid to write for the theater in the last five years.  More than a third reported having been paid to write a book or to write for a print publication in this period.

It is important to remember that not all television work is in Los Angeles and New York.  There are active WGAE members in Atlanta, New Orleans, Toronto, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, London, and elsewhere.  Still, the gravitational centers of television writing (or at least the centers of employment) are on the coasts, in particular the West.

Our survey confirmed that many writers who start out in the East find they must move to find work in TV.  Forty-two percent of respondents said they have been paid to write for a series whose writers room was located outside of New York in the last five years – and thirty percent said they had to move outside the East Coast in order to obtain or maintain employment writing for television.  Not surprisingly, respondents reported that the vast majority of their non-New York writing rooms were in Los Angeles – 80, with a handful in Atlanta, New Orleans, Connecticut, and Canada, plus one in Baltimore, one in New Jersey, and one in London.

New York State’s production tax credit, which was significantly expanded several years ago, has been resoundingly successful in drawing productions to the state. Literally billions of dollars have been spent on television and film production in recent years, employing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.  This boom has largely passed writers by.  More than 70% of the survey respondents said they thought there were about the same number of opportunities – or fewer opportunities – to obtain work writing for television on the East Coast over the last five years.  Considering the explosion of jobs created by the New York State production tax credit in recent years, this is a very disappointing insight.

Members do not believe the lack of TV writing work in the East results from a shallow bench of talent.  About 74% of survey respondents said they thought there are enough experienced, talented television writers on the East Coast to staff writers rooms here.

This insight informs one of our most recent TV-work initiatives.  To kick off what we referred to informally as the “TV Deep Bench Project”, we invited a few dozen of the most experienced TV writers and showrunners to a meeting at the Guild’s office to discuss the (mis)perception that there just are not enough writers in the East to staff shows, and to think more about what the Guild can do.  Attendees generated a lot of great ideas, most of which we have already begun to execute.  We have expanded what we call our “early warning system”, in which we research all TV pilots as soon as we learn they have been ordered; we try to determine whether production might take place in the East and, if so, whether the writers room might appropriately be located here.  We will soon be publicizing a feature of Franklin Leonard’s Black List database which will enable writers – and producers – to learn a lot more about potential pilot scripts.  Finally, Beau Willimon has been gathering more than a dozen prominent East showrunners to discuss longer-term ideas to strengthen television writing.

The fact is that even if all of these initiatives are successful beyond our fondest hopes, there will still be far more TV rooms in Los Angeles than in New York or Atlanta or Chicago. But we hope the union’s efforts will help create a foundation of writing work so people will have a real choice of where to build their careers, and raise their families.

Organizing the unorganized

Returning to the theme of broadening and deepening our community of professional creators, the WGAE is an organizing union.  Under the leadership of Director of Organizing Justin Molito, organizing department staffers and committed members (and potential members) work very hard to bring more writers and more types of work into the Guild, under Guild-negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

We actively recruit writers who create their own projects for the Internet, indie filmmakers, and others who work outside the Hollywood system.  We explore organizing targets in news and in other online work – most recently at the all-digital, text-and-video Gawker websites.  And we strengthen our industry-wide campaign to improve standards in nonfiction/”reality” television as production continues to expand in New York and elsewhere in the East.

In the last year we won two National Labor Relations Board-sponsored elections by huge margins – one at Original Media, which is owned by the multinational conglomerate Endemol/Shine, and one at independently-owned Jane Street.  Our efforts to negotiate a first contract at Original have been frustrating but we have made progress on a number of issues; negotiations have just begun at Jane Street.

The NLRB is actively investigating our unfair labor practice charges against Original and against ITV (where we have been negotiating for several years).  Both companies unilaterally implemented group health plans without first reaching agreement on all terms with the Guild, in violation of federal labor law.  We anticipate the NLRB will issue complaints against both companies shortly.

Nonfiction writer-producers and WGAE “scripted” members have escalated their involvement in these important organizing activities.  For example, more than 175 comedy/variety members signed a petition demanding that ITV enter an agreement with the WGAE.  ITV intends to produce a new comedy show on NBC starring Neil Patrick Harris, which would be impossible without the talent and experience of Guild members.  The petition said, “We are one Guild – not separate unions based on genre or TV network.  There is not a Guild for people who write comedy/variety, a separate Guild for daytime serial writers, a separate Guild for news writers and producers, a separate Guild for feature film writers, a separate Guild for nonfiction writers and producers.  ITV cannot expect to take advantage of the talent and experience of Writers Guild members who do comedy/variety while disrespecting the talent and experience of its nonfiction writer-producers.”

In June 2014 the New York City Council conducted a hearing into working conditions in nonfiction television, chaired by Councilmember I. Daneek Miller.  Industry experts, nonfiction writer-producers, Guild Vice President Jeremy Pikser, and I testified about long hours without extra pay, about unsafe work conditions, about the lack of even the most basic health and pension benefits, and about the enormous profitability of nonfiction TV shows.  The hearing, and our white paper detailing these conditions, got an enormous amount of attention in the mainstream and trade press.  It also seems to have inspired a coalition of a dozen or so nonfiction production companies to form the Nonfiction Producers Alliance, whose main activities to date include issuing a couple of press releases and hiring a lobbyist to tell people how committed the industry is to improving work conditions.  Perhaps this counts as progress.

Political work

In addition to its work to get a diversity tax credit adopted by the legislature in Albany, the WGAE has pressed lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to maintain funding for public television. The Guild submitted detailed comments to the Federal Communications Commission in connection with several decisions that, taken together, could shape the media for a generation to come.  The popular backlash against media consolidation achieved remarkable victories in 2015.

For years the WGAE urged the FCC to adopt substantive, enforceable regulations to ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible.  Guild President Michael Winship worked closely with various public interest groups to expand the American people’s involvement in this critical issue.  Earlier this year, the Commission finalized rules under Title II of the underlying statute (as suggested by the federal courts) which impose clear nondiscrimination rules on Internet Service Providers and prohibit pay-for-fastlane-access arrangements.  This cheered the millions of Americans, including individual Guild members, who had also filed comments insisting on real net neutrality.  Of course, the affected mega-corporations have already sued to block implementation; we think the rules were crafted carefully enough to withstand this challenge.

We also urged the Commission to reject two pending mega-mergers – one between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the other between AT&T and DirecTV.  By further consolidating the distribution side of the media business (and, of course, Comcast is also deeply involved on content creation side), these mergers would continue to tilt the balance of power away from content creators.  The merged corporations would control access to audiences in most of the United States by controlling the electronic connection that consumers use to watch television and to stream and download shows and films.  As we wrote to the FCC, “there is one pipe into American living rooms, and in most places one company controls that pipe – the cable company.  Multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are also internet service providers (ISPs), and online video distributors (OVDs) depend on the distribution networks that are controlled by the MVPDs/ISPs . . . Comcast/NBCU/TWC would be an extraordinarily-powerful, vertically- and horizontally-integrated behemoth with significant pricing power and built-in incentives to favor its own content over that created by others.”

Because of cogent arguments presented to the FCC and because of massive public mobilization (including our own), the FCC and the Department of Justice started expressing profound reservations about the proposed Comcast/TWC merger.  Faced with probable rejection by federal regulators, Comcast pulled the plug on the deal in late April.  (The AT&T/DirecTV merger is still under review.)

Throughout the last year we met and communicated regularly with the New York State and New York City offices of film and television.  In September 2014 Cynthia Lopez, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Television, invited me to speak about the WGAE’s diversity efforts at Unidad Latina, a conference presented by the Republic caucus of the New York State Senate.  In February I met with the U.S. Department of Labor to discuss working conditions in nonfiction television and ways the Department might work with the WGAE to mentor and support women and people of color who want to create television pilots.

Contract negotiations

Since May 2014 the WGAE has successfully concluded negotiations with the producers of national television programs (mostly WGBH and WNET), with Hello Doggie (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore), with NBC (covering promo writers), with WNET (also covering promo writers), and with Total Traffic Network (formerly Shadow Traffic).  These successes were the product of hard work by WGAE staff (including Assistant Executive Director Ruth Gallo, Senior Council Ann Burdick, and Business Agents Jeff Schioppa and Geoff Betts) and effective mobilization and participation by the affected members.

The public TV agreement provided for a 2% increase in minimums effective July 1, 2014, plus an increase in the pension contribution rate of .5%, and another 2.5% increase in minimums effective July 1, 2015.  We had a strong, active bargaining committee and the members ratified the agreement unanimously.

The writers employed by Hello Doggie (and in particular the Daily Show staff, who appeared in force at every session) stood firm and won increases in residual rates of approximately 20%, retroactive to November 1, 2014.  Their solidarity also enabled us to bring the Nightly Show writers under the Hello Doggie agreement.

NBC promo writers won 2% increases in 2015, 2016, and 2017.  Importantly, these increases will apply to people earning above minimum – which is essentially everyone in the shop.  Promo and pledge writers at Channel 13 won 2% increases for 2014, 2015, and 2016; these increases also apply to overscale employees.

Total Traffic Network, a company that endured wrenching corporate changes, agreed to increase its writers’ pay by 1.5% per year, with full retroactivity; this also applied to overscale employees.

A final note on finances

Although the WGAE is very much an activist union, with staff, officers, Councilmembers, and members engaged in a wide range of important and innovative tasks, we are also fiscally responsible.  Our mission is to represent members and build the organization, which requires the expenditure of resources as well as time, but we are also careful with the members’ money.  Secretary-Treasurer Bob Schneider keeps a watchful eye on the books, and we have managed to bring in balanced budgets and operating surpluses.  Should the economy or the industry weaken in coming years, the WGAE will have the assets to remain strong.


Lowell Peterson
Executive Director

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[1] My experience is that people engage in projects that are interesting or important to them.  Simply exhorting members to pay attention to what their union is doing is rarely adequate.  This is why we create the tasked groups – committees, caucuses, working groups, and less formal forums for members to engage in substantive discussions of specific matters of concern.  It is also why we present so many educational and social events.

[2] Membership in the WGAE and the WGAW is based on where the writer lived when first hired to write for a Guild signatory.  There are many WGAE members living and working in LA, and many WGAW members living and working in New York.

Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – May 2014

In the last twelve months we have made substantial gains in both our core jurisdiction and in areas that have not historically been Guild-covered, and we continue the hard but necessary work to improve conditions for writers in the television, film, and digital media world.

MBA negotiations

In April a joint WGAE-WGAW negotiating committee reached agreement with the AMPTP on the terms of a new Minimum Basic Agreement, effective May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2017. The WGAE was represented at the table by executive staff, officers, and negotiating committee members (many thanks to Adam Brooks, Terry George, Jenny Lumet, Jason Ross, Bill Scheft, and Stephen Schiff), although the negotiations were led by the WGAW because of its larger freelance membership. The terms resembled those negotiated several months earlier by the Directors Guild of America, adapted and expanded to address several important writer-specific concerns.

The terms of the new MBA are described at greater length on our website, but in summary they include increases in minimum compensation rates (in most instances 2.5% in the first year and 3% in each of the second and third years), higher increases in initial compensation rates for one-hour dramatic programs for basic cable, an additional .5% contribution to the pension fund, TV-level compensation for high-budget made-for-SVOD programs, and improved digital streaming provisions (a shorter free-streaming window and increased residual rates). Some of the biggest news was in the writer-specific provisions, including a doubling of the script publication fee for screenwriters and groundbreaking protections against oppressive option and exclusivity provisions for TV writers.

Eligible freelance members welcomed these important gains by ratifying the new MBA by an overwhelming margin.

Public television negotiations

The WGAE represents the people who write some of the best-known and most compelling programs broadcast on public television – Frontline, American Experience, NOVA, Nature, American Masters and more. The Guild collective bargaining agreement with WGBH, WNET, and other producers of national programs broadcast on PBS expires on June 30, 2014.

In 2013 we surveyed our public broadcast members to learn more about their experience creating these important shows in recent years, when resources have been pressed by decreases in charitable and corporate giving and by continued uncertainty in public funding. Most of the members who took the survey said they worked on three or more programs in the last five years. Nearly two thirds said they had worked on the same number of programs – or more – in the last year than in the past, and two-thirds said their earnings from public television (including initial compensation and residuals) stayed the same or increased in the past year. However, about 44% reported a decrease in earnings over the past five years, which presumably reflects the impact of the Great Recession during that period. (42% said their earnings stayed the same.)

The Guild contract sets the compensation and other terms governing the writing done on covered programs, but more than 70% of the members said they also perform additional duties on the shows, in particular producing and directing. About 25% also raise money through grants and other sources to cover production costs. In other words, Guild members are utterly essential to the creation of the public affairs and cultural programs that public television viewers enjoy and rely on for thoughtful, informed perspectives on the critical issues of our time. Without our members’ skill, dedication, and experience, the must-see shows on PBS would not get on the air. This is the message we will bring to the bargaining table as negotiations for a new agreement begin.

We have already met with many members who create programs for PBS, in Cambridge and in New York. They are active, engaged, and mobilized. In further preparation for the talks, Guild members have been meeting with elected officials to encourage them to support continued federal funding for public broadcasting. In January 2014, for example, a delegation of Boston-area members met with senior staffers for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Additional meetings are being scheduled.

Diversity

The WGAE Council has created a Diversity Committee comprised initially of members of the Council. Its first efforts will be directed at enhancing the opportunities of women and people of color to make a living writing for television, film, and new media. The committee’s activities will include panel discussions and seminars, continued work with a number of other organizations dedicated to the same goals, and perhaps member surveys.

The WGAE has been fighting for a program to diversify writers rooms in New York. It is difficult to build and sustain a career in TV writing because employment is sporadic, and the challenges faced by women and people of color are particularly acute. We have pressed for legislation in the state Assembly and Senate which would create an incentive within the current production tax credit to hire women and minorities. Guild members have made hundreds of phone calls and have sent hundreds of emails to state representatives urging adoption of this historic proposal, which has broad support from organizations such as the state AFL-CIO and New York Women in Film and Television.

The cultural breadth of the East Coast

The culture and economy in the East is less dominated by the major TV and film studios based in Los Angeles. Our mid-2013 survey of WGAE freelance members demonstrated the breadth of our members’ skills and experiences. In addition to their film, TV, and digital media writing:

– Nearly 20% of the survey respondents are also playwrights;

– 20% write novels and short stories;

– 16% write nonfiction books and articles; and

– 10% write in nonfiction television.

Most of the writers who answered the survey also performed other work in the entertainment industry in the last five years. About 45% said they have produced; nearly 30% have directed; and about 18% have acted.

Many members view television as a more writer-driven medium than feature film, and a growing slate of compelling, creatively satisfying shows is being produced for the small screen. The appeal of this work is reflected in the survey results. Although more than half of the respondents said they wrote features in the last five years, nearly 90% said they intend to seek Guild-covered work in television in the next year.

Nonfiction basic cable television

For a number of years, the WGAE has been working with writers and producers to improve conditions in nonfiction basic cable television.

Although nonfiction shows constitute the majority of programming shown on cable television, this is a part of the industry that historically has been non-union. We have won five representation elections at the National Labor Relations Board and are waiting for an NLRB ruling in a sixth, and we have communicated with well over a thousand writers, producers, and associate producers about working conditions and the difficulties of sustaining meaningful careers without employer-paid benefits.

In late January and early February 2014 nearly 175 writer-producers at Sharp Entertainment voted overwhelmingly for WGAE representation, and we entered a collective bargaining agreement with that employer in April. These hardworking men and women won employer-paid health insurance, compensation minimums, paid time off provisions, union security, and a grievance and arbitration provision.

Not all employers play by the rules, however. In November the WGAE issued a White Paper detailing the results of our industry-wide survey, which found widespread violations of wage and hour laws. At our press conference, U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, and writer-producer David Van Taylor spoke articulately about the difficult working conditions that prevail in many nonfiction shops and the importance of ensuring that companies not race each other to the bottom by demanding enormous amounts of extra work without paying any overtime.

The writer-producers at Peacock Productions, owned by Comcast/NBCUniversal, began organizing with the WGAE in 2012. In October of that year, the union filed for an NLRB election. Comcast / NBCU lawyers claimed that half of the hard-working television professionals deserved no protection at all under the National Labor Relations Act and had no right to representation— a claim the NLRB rejected. In June 2013 a secret ballot election was held. But because of even more legal maneuvering by the company’s attorneys, those ballots are still sitting in a box, uncounted – fully a year and a half after the process began.

To call attention to this injustice and to pressure management, nearly 60 WGAE members writing for more than a dozen NBCU shows like SNL; Law & Order, SVU; Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; 30 Rock; Homicide; and Smash wrote to NBCU CEO Steve Burke saying the Peacock writer-producers deserved union protections enjoyed by all WGAE members and urging him to count the ballots. A few months later the Peacock writer-producers, the WGAE, and the AFL-CIO circulated petitions calling on the progressive hosts on MSNBC to meet with Peacock employees to discuss conditions at the shop. In February we presented more than 10,000 signatures at NBCU headquarters. Of course, our ultimate target is management at NBCU/Comcast. The company can’t have it both ways – profiting from the progressive voices of the MSNBC hosts while at the same time depriving the Peacock employees of their own voice on the job.

Our negotiations with ITV Studios’ nonfiction entity in New York continue.

With active participation from the writer-producers we have made considerable progress but have not been able to reach agreement on a contract. Management has received sternly-worded letters from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Public Advocate James. We have obtained support from the Writers Guild of Great Britain (the company is owned by the British television network ITV) and all of the other unions that are part of the International Affiliation of Writers Guild, and the press has reported extensively about wage and hour violations at the company. In fact, WGAE pressure forced ITV to completely revamp its compensation policy for associate producers, who now receive time and a half for all hours they work over 40 in a week; some APs had worked 60 and 70 hours a week without a dime in additional pay.

Digital media

When the WGAE started exploring the world of made-for-digital programs several years ago, most people were earning little or nothing.

Although they were creating compelling short projects with innovative narrative structures, moments of great comedy, and new forms of audience interaction, most of the money came from their day jobs and not from advertisers, subscribers, or studios. No one knew when real money would begin to flow to creators into this space.

We recently studied our earnings database and contracts files and found that the digital media are indeed becoming a place where writers might earn a living. Reported earnings increased more than 25-fold from 2008 to 2013. Even from a very low starting point, that is an astounding multiple. It is mostly attributable to high-budget shows on Netflix and Amazon (e.g., House of Cards and Alpha House) but even taking those earnings out of the equation, we found more and more made-for-new-media projects on which members were paid $20,000 and $33,000 and $75,000, and sometimes more – and in at least one case weekly rates comparable to what staff writers earn under Appendix A of the MBA. This is a long way from the $500 or so that was more common several years ago. Some of these better-funded projects are commissioned by brands seeking greater engagement with potential customers, but there is a growing demand for well-crafted work distributed on web “channels” hosted by You Tube and others. And, as the Netflix and Amazon projects demonstrate, producers have come to recognize the value of stories written by skilled, dedicated professional writers.

That is, by members of the Writers Guild. In our survey of WGAE freelance, 17% of the respondents reported that they had been paid to write for digital media. Moreover, as noted above, the new MBA includes TV-level compensation for high-budget programs made for subscription video on demand entities like Netflix.

By winning jurisdiction in the 2007-2008 strike, by immersing ourselves in the business and creative developments as they are being formed, and by negotiating new compensation minimums and reuse payments for higher-budget projects in the most recent MBA, the Guild has moved decisively to build an economic foundation for writers working in new media.

Lowell Peterson
Executive Director

Executive Director’s Report to Council and Members – May 2012

As the global economy has stumbled through the worst recession since before World War II, the Writers Guild of America, East and its members have, for the most part, remained strong and steady. Some members have done very well, others not so much. The WGAE’s revenues have grown while we have made the operations more efficient and productive. Throughout this period, we have worked to position the Guild and its members for the future, as technology transforms production and distribution; as financial models shift, crumble and are rebuilt. We have created programs to prepare members for new opportunities, and we’ve continued to make the Guild a place that writers can experience as the center of their creative and professional lives.

Events and programs

The WGAE’s core mission includes negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements and organizing to bring more work into Guild coverage. But we also offer opportunities for professional development and fun. I think these are integrated parts of the same project, which is to enhance the lives of people who write for a living. We recently looked back at attendance records to determine just how popular our programs have been and found that we filled literally thousands of seats in the last two years. I use that awkward phrase (“filled seats”) because a number of members took more than one course. (Note to members who do not live in metro New York: We know it is very difficult to attend programs in the city, so we created a series of online videos you can view on our Web site. This includes a comprehensive set of clips on digital media and the OnWriting Online series of conversations with prominent Writers Guild members who work in film and television.)

  • Skills training and professional development

I will describe the WGAE’s digital media education program later in this report, but I am pleased to note that we filled approximately 750 seats in two years. This means that several hundred members have learned about how to understand and create digital media. We also presented a number of non-digital programs (would those be “analog”?) on screenwriting, pitching, writing in various genres and many other aspects of creative and professional development. More than 250 members participated in these sessions in the last two years.

  • Screenings

All members get DVD screeners from the studios at Awards time, but we also sponsor or co-sponsor screenings in theaters, often followed by question-and-answer sessions with the films’ writers. As one might imagine, these are hugely popular, often oversubscribed with long waiting lists. Indeed, we received approximately 4,000 RSVPs to our screenings in the last two years.

  • Social events

Solidarity is not built by workshop alone, and we have hosted many social events, including receptions for new members, for people with films at Sundance, and for elected officials; and the annual holiday party, which typically draws about 250 members.

We tried something new with the 2012 Writers Guild Awards. People often approach these ceremonies with feelings of obligation and dread; this year, we wanted folks to have fun while they celebrated writers’ accomplishments. We cut the ticket price for members in half, and nearly twice as many members attended. We changed the venue from a traditional theatre with rows of seats to B.B. King Blues Club, with tables—and table service. Our M.C., Rachel Dratch, and our presenters were, well, hilarious.

Nonfiction basic cable

The WGAE has made enormous progress in the formerly nonunion world of nonfiction basic cable television. The National Labor Relations Board certified the Guild as the collective-bargaining representative of writer/producers at Atlas Media, Lion TV, and Optomen Television. We have spent months at the bargaining table with these employers, and we might be on the verge of an historic achievement—winning employer-paid health benefits, which have been virtually nonexistent in this part of the industry.

The Guild also won an NLRB election at ITV Studios. Rather than honor the results of this election, however, the company has engaged in protracted legal maneuvering, including one last, desperate appeal to the NLRB in Washington. We are confident we will prevail, but presumably this employer hopes our case remain caught in the partisan wrangling over the future of that agency. ITV’s writers and other employees are union-represented in its headquarters nation, the U.K. When the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds met at our offices in November, the representatives of the affiliated guilds were so outraged by ITV’s hypocrisy that they marched to ITV’s New York offices and chanted in a half-dozen languages for the company to come to the bargaining table. (Represented were the writers guilds of the U.K., Ireland, France, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, India, Anglophone Canada, Quebec and South Africa, as were the Writers Guild of America, West and the Federation of European Screenwriters.)

More recently, more than 100 members and activists from the WGAE and a number of other unions rallied in front of Atlas Media with AFL–CIO President Richard Trumka. We hope this display of solidarity will help us win health benefits for Guild-represented employees.

Our work representing people in nonfiction basic cable brings to mind some labor movement fundamentals. One is that, with low union density, people get significantly lower pay and virtually no health benefits—and forget about pensions. Another is that leverage is the key to improving conditions. At every step of negotiations we analyze pressure points, areas of strength and weakness, opportunities to mobilize members and public opinion. Otherwise, winning NLRB elections would do very little for the people who join with the Guild to improve their lives and to gain a voice on the job.

Screenwriters

We have been thinking through how the WGAE can better represent screenwriters as the film industry continues to reshape itself. Members have complained about free prewrites and free rewrites, and about decreased opportunities to get hired and to get movies made. In November, members answered a questionnaire, and we convened several meetings to talk about what they have encountered and what we can do about it. As a result of these conversations, we put together a high-level seminar on how to get one’s film financed and distributed, and in the fall we will present a panel to discuss how screenwriters can get work in television. We will continue to think and talk about what the Guild can do at the bargaining table; MBA negotiations are only two years away.

In conjunction with the WGAW, we sent a more detailed survey to screenwriter members to gather more detailed data and to prepare a report on which studios engage in which unfortunate practices. The results are still being analyzed and will be presented to the membership soon.

News

As audiences fragment and technology transforms the ways in which news is gathered and disseminated, the broadcast-news business is a decade or two into a fundamental realignment. Some observers think the news will become platform-neutral—that is, stories will appear variously on broadcast television, radio, Web sites and mobile devices. Researchers at Pew and elsewhere find that more and more people get news from the Internet. At the same time, television news broadcasts still aggregate the largest audiences.

The expansion of news into the digital world has not resulted in greater commitment of resources to writing, producing, and reporting. As Steve Waldman and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities reported to the Federal Communications Commission, last year, “Television network news staffs have declined by half from the late 1980s.” And “most local TV stations have increased the volume of news production, while reducing staff—which generally weakens a station’s capacity for depth.”

As the WGAE stated in its January 2012 comments to the FCC, “Fewer newswriters, editors, reporters, camera crews, and producers means fewer independent voices; less time and effort devoted to investigation and production of quality pieces; fewer opportunities to explore contrary points of few or overlooked facts; and less time and energy to sharpen questions and make stories more compelling to the viewer.”

In January, we asked our news members to answer some questions about the underlying trends in broadcast news, how those trends affect them and how the Guild should respond. Although the people who responded believe their employers will remain in the news business for the indefinite future, they report that their workloads have increased and their job security has decreased.

In the questionnaire, we asked members to rank a number of actions the Guild and its members might take to address the changing reality of the news business. The two top-rated action items— enhancing members’ skills and encouraging the companies to broaden members’ work— are in a sense two sides of one coin. As the technology and economics of news are transformed, the duties to be performed are also changing. The ratings suggest that members believe the best way for them, and thus the Guild, to maintain their key positions in the industry is to adapt to these changes by learning new skills and taking on new tasks.

Our collective bargaining agreements with CBS and ABC will be renegotiated next year, and we have already begun to prepare. We are meeting with members and activists in the shops, and we will distribute surveys about particular workplace issues in coming months, both to solicit members’ views and to get people mobilized.

Digital media

In the last year, we presented the most ambitious digital-media training program yet, funded mostly by the Consortium for Worker Education. This included a five-session Master Class in Digital Journalism; two separate workshops on transmedia (including a full-day session with Lance Weiler); a full-day web TV intensive program; a number of hands-on Final Cut Pro skills training classes; and seminars on social media and legal issues. We also created nearly two dozen video clips with insights from eight digital-media creators and experts and posted them on the WGAE website. Those videos will soon be offered through iTunes University, as well, together with the well-crafted OnWriting Online discussions.

Our large and active digital caucus consists mostly of people who create and distribute their own content. Money is only starting to flow into projects funded by brands and other entities. Our goal is to ensure that Writers Guild members are hired for these projects. Our message is simple: If sponsors and distributors (e.g., the premium channels on YouTube) want to attract audiences to view their content, they need compelling stories, and our members offer both the skill and experience to do that work.

Other organizing

The WGAE Animation Caucus has been reborn, announcing itself with a well-attended kick-off reception for current and potential members. The Caucus’ immediate goal is to provide a forum for conversation and learning, but of course will keep its eyes open for potential organizing opportunities. We have quietly begun discussions with people who write and produce news for the Internet, and we continue our outreach to people who write comedy for the Web and elsewhere.

Other collective bargaining agreements

We negotiated a new sideletter with Hello Doggie, which produces The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. The agreement significantly increases residuals paid to the members who write these popular and important shows. We negotiated a first-ever agreement covering The Onion News Network and a new sideletter covering Tyler Perry’s House of Payne which increased minimums and residuals by 15–20%. We also negotiated renewal agreements covering promo writers at WNET and writer-producers at Phoenix Communications.

Political work

In June 2011, a dozen WGAE members and staffers conducted a briefing for elected officials and staff people in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee conference room. (Many thanks to Sen. Leahy and his staff.) We were told by our friends at the AFL–CIO, who helped us set up the briefing, that attendance was truly remarkable. The message we delivered was straightforward: Creators support net neutrality, and they do not want the content they create to be stolen.

As we said at the briefing, the Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for creators to reach consumers directly 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. We believe that the public and the economy benefit from an Internet that offers a greater variety of options than what is currently available on television, radio and in movie theaters. 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.

As a practical matter, major entities can easily outbid independent creators of digital content for preferred access to audiences. Therefore, service-access providers should be precluded from charging for enhanced or prioritized access. Otherwise, it is almost certain that most of the content consumers view will be produced by a relative handful of major entities–just as it is now in television and film.

We also believe that an open Internet does not promote digital piracy. The WGAE strongly opposes piracy; our members lose when their work is unlawfully copied and distributed. However, we do not think permitting major commercial entities to control the flow of data and to restrict access to certain programming is an appropriate or effective method of controlling piracy. Everyone opposes car theft, but no one suggests that we permit powerful corporations to restrict access to the highways.

Lowell Peterson,
Executive Director