WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson’s Anniversary Letter to Membership
Some Observations on My First Anniversary
I have been Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East for a year. My job has been to rebuild the union’s capacity, to adapt the union to changes in our industries, and to transform the operational culture to be more transparent and responsive. Candidly, some of these tasks have been more challenging than I anticipated, but the Guild’s spirit is strong and we are moving in a distinctly forward direction. And I confess that I am enjoying myself. The work is rewarding, professionally and emotionally, and I am enthusiastic about the WGAE’s prospects.
I believe actively engaged members are the foundation of a strong union. This is easy to say and difficult to achieve. In any labor organization there are ebbs and flows of member involvement. People unite around particular projects and participate to the extent their interests and schedules permit. A strike, if it involves compelling issues as in last year’s MBA walkout, can create enormous energy and solidarity – although after the strike participation in union affairs naturally declines as members return to their work and family routines.
I think the biggest constraint on member activism is a culture that does not foster it. In some organizations executives feel they need to retain tight control, to restrict access to information, and to be wary of new ways of thinking. It is tempting to conclude that this approach makes a union more effective – fewer mistakes, greater internal discipline, better control of message, and so forth. Unfortunately, it can also demoralize the members and make it more difficult to build support for the union’s agenda. On balance – and I speak from experience as much as from political theory – an informed and engaged membership makes a union stronger, even if it is also messier and noisier.
This is not to say that it is sufficient to throw open the office doors and wait for people to become active, spontaneously. We have to create projects and programs that people find interesting and important.
The WGAE’s operations were not in good condition when I started. Protracted internal tensions had sapped employee morale and talent, and some basic management tools had never been applied. I hired a new management team – Assistant Executive Directors Ruth Gallo and Marsha Seeman. I believe people work better when they are respected as responsible adults, and we eliminated practices that were inconsistent with that view. We declared peace with the union representing our employees, ending a long and bitter struggle. I think Guild employees are now more engaged and more productive as a result of these initiatives.
The value of our assets was reduced by the downturn in financial markets but we still have substantial savings and our dues income has been remarkably stable so far. We rationalized our banking arrangements and liquidated obsolete accounts to minimize the impact of the decline in asset values.
Perhaps more importantly, we have implemented fiscal controls and controlled spending. We created two detailed budgets, and in that process I was able to examine each category of expenditure. Our most hefty line item, after salaries, is information technology, and it became clear that we needed to improve our management in that area. I also examined our legal expenses and cut our bills by tens of thousands of dollars per year.
We have worked hard to improve the transparency of the union’s operations. President Michael Winship and the other officers and Council members have provided solid leadership and have asked good questions.
Organizing work that is not covered by Guild contracts is not optional; it is essential. Some seasoned observers roll their eyes when they hear words like “transformational” and “paradigm shift”, but there is no question the news and entertainment industries are expanding into new areas and shrinking in areas where we are strongest. For example, I predict that in five years there will be no distinction between news writing for television and radio, on the one hand, and news writing for the internet, on the other.
In fact, the phrase “new media” does not really apply to the internet, which has been around for years. Some people think the major studios will ultimately produce most of the entertainment programs that are made for the web, and that is certainly possible. Others think an entirely new business model will emerge, dominated by new companies. Either way, a lot more people will write for the internet and our job is to organize them.
And we cannot be complacent about the traditional media. Although most scripted dramas and comedy-variety shows on network and premium cable channels are Guild-covered, wide swaths of documentary and news programming on cable TV are not. Nor is a lot of children’s animation.
We have expanded the WGAE organizing department, headed by new director Justin Molito. The department has done extensive research and mapping of non-Guild work and has found, not surprisingly, that a lot of Guild members already work in those areas or know writers who do. This makes it much easier to communicate the benefits of Guild coverage.
The WGAE has been quite successful in signing shows outside the networks and major studios. The union has signed thirteen significant cable shows to the 2008 MBA – including shows on Comedy Central, VH-1, here!, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, ESPN, MTV 2, ION, and The History Channel – plus three made-for-new-media programs, seven low budget feature films, and five foreign-produced projects.
The MBA strike united the membership and put the Writers Guilds at the forefront of the new media struggle. People knew the internet and other digital technologies would reshape our industries, but no one really knew where writers would fit.
We still do not know exactly how this thing called “new media” will ultimately affect writers. More and more work that was initially presented on television or in theaters will be made available on-line – for streaming or downloading, with or without advertising. But I think the internet is more than just another type of screen. It is fundamentally a different medium. Yes, people like to watch their favorite shows on their laptops. But they also want to interact with what they see on the Web, follow links to sites offering additional information, give feedback (trenchant and otherwise), and forward material to their friends. Internet programs are often shorter, more bite-sized. They typically stream onto computer screens that simultaneously present text and static visual content. I suspect we will find that made-for-new-media programs are as different from what most of our members write as television was from the movies, perhaps even as different as TV was from radio.Our challenge is to make the Writers Guild relevant to the people who will write this new kind of program. Many of our members will do this work, but so will a lot of people who are new to the field and who will not expect to follow the traditional career paths.
To be sure, WGAE members are still writing a lot of television shows and movies. People are working, creating great stories, making people laugh, imparting news and information. Although many of the managers we see across the bargaining table don’t seem to care about quality, I think ultimately Guild members will prosper in the new environment; people want great stories, written well.The public broadcasting campaign
In addition to members who are engaged in programs they find relevant, a union should be strategic in its approach to bargaining and organizing and should operate on multiple fronts, simultaneously. Rather than attempting to define the word “strategic”, let me describe an example: our public broadcasting work.
When the public broadcasting contract expired last autumn the employers’ new counsel opened with an aggressive demand that we significantly reduce payments for new media reuse in exchange for extending the other terms for a few months. We put the word out to the affected members and they immediately became active – attending meetings, sending emails, and contacting management. Within a few weeks the companies agreed to extend the contract without touching the new media provisions.
At the same time, we recognized that simply opposing management’s proposals would not be a productive strategy. Although most financing for most programs comes from foundations and individual donors, federal funding is critical, particularly during an economic crisis in which private money becomes scarce. We focused our attention on Washington .
Getting more money for public broadcasting would take economic pressure off the employers, making it easier to negotiate a reasonable collective bargaining agreement. It would also increase employment opportunities for members. Win or lose, being active in Washington demonstrates that the Guild is a participant in the process, which is important to our long-term relationship with the public broadcasting community.
President Michael Winship and I met with members of the Obama transition team in January, I met with members of the New York delegation to Congress in February, and our D.C. lobbyist Margaret Cone communicated with a number of staffers and elected officials involved in the appropriations process. WGAE members sent hundreds of emails to their representatives in Congress asking them to support additional appropriations to public broadcasting. Most of these emails were sent by people who do not write for public TV, which is a very impressive demonstration of solidarity. On May 8, many public television writers – joined by members from comedy-variety shows – met with decision-makers on Capitol Hill and the White House to talk up the need for more appropriations to public broadcasting; we met with Senator Harry Reid, Representative David Obey (head of the House Appropriations Committee), Presidential speechwriter Jonathan Favreau, and many others. We told the boards and top officers of WGBH, WNET, KCET, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting about our efforts, mostly to demonstrate that the WGAE recognizes the relationship should not be purely adversarial but also to underscore that we are a participant in the process.
We will use a multiple-front strategy in connection with the ABC and CBS contracts, which expire early next year. We have already started to build mobilization networks at these shops. The previous negotiations took years to complete and some members remain uncertain about the Guild’s commitment and capacity. Therefore, it will be particularly important to engage members in the process. Commercial broadcasters are subject to federal regulation and we intend to communicate with the Federal Communications Commission and our contacts in Washington about the importance of skilled writers to the quality of news programs. We are also analyzing the companies’ unorganized operations to ensure that we are as strong as possible.
I have had the opportunity to meet with members at many of our news shops in New York and Washington – CBS, ABC, and the local affiliates – and I negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement at WINS. I have also begun to develop relationships with the management representatives who will sit across the table during contract talks. I anticipate difficult negotiations, as the companies plead poverty and the industry continues to focus on the short-term bottom line.
Members at CBS are finally accruing credited service for retiree medical benefits (also referred to as “certified” years). In March 2000 full-time Guild members became covered by the Writers Guild-Industry Health Fund instead of the CBS plan. The Health Fund’s rules provide that people who participate in both the Health Fund and the Producer-Writers Guild Pension Fund accrue certified years for retiree medical benefits from the Health Fund. Full-time CBS employees do not participate in the Pension Fund and they were, therefore, not accruing certified years. In the Fall of 2008 we were able to persuade the Health Fund trustees to modify the rule with respect to CBS members, retroactive to the date on which they became participants in the Health Fund.
In keeping with the concept that members are more likely to become engaged in projects they find interesting and useful, we have put together initiatives for daytime and comedy-variety writers, we have re-started the animation caucus, and we are developing programs for screenwriters, episodic television writers, non-fiction writers, and others. Our daytime committee has met a number of times to discuss the state of the industry and specific contract enforcement issues, and has produced a newsletter. We have hosted informal gatherings – well, happy hours – for daytime and comedy-variety writers to help people build social and professional relationships.
We organize screenplay readings and seminars on career development and particular genres. I want to enhance the programs we present and co-sponsor, particularly for current members and people we seek to represent. This can bring the Guild closer to the center of writers’ professional lives.
Web site and member communications
I do not think we communicate often enough or well enough with our members. We are redesigning our web site to make it easier to use and to improve its content. By the end of the year it will have a lot more information about the WGAE and its activities and (we hope) will be one of the first sites people go to for updates and inspiration about the craft and profession of writing.
We produced a newsletter last Fall, but I think we will focus more on electronic communications in the future. There is a fine line between keeping people informed and annoying them.
May 8 at the Newseum
Public television and news are not the only places where WGAE work and politics intersect.
After our public broadcasting and comedy-variety members met with decision-makers on Capitol Hill and in the White House on May 8, we staged an event at Washington ’s Newseum to emphasize that our members are deeply engaged in the public dialogue. A number of members presented stand-up comedy routines, followed by a panel discussion about the intersection of news and comedy moderated by WGAE President Michael Winship. This event worked on a number of levels. It showcased the WGAE to a large audience from the political and chattering classes in D.C. It showed that the Guild is a creative, open-minded union; we made no effort to control the content of the routines, and the member-comics enjoyed challenging the audience as much as entertaining it. The panel discussion demonstrated that our members work at the center of contemporary political discourse; members from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Best Week Ever– plus a writer from the revered West Wing – talked about the role of comedy in shaping popular views of political events. Holding the event at the Newseum reminded people that our members also write news for major television and radio networks. We received a lot of press attention, and C-Span broadcast the entire panel discussion several times.
The next year
John Maynard Keynes said he doubted anyone’s epitaph would read, “I wish I had spent more time at the office”. I feel the same way, although perhaps for different reasons. Addressing our operational issues and rebuilding our capacity took more of my time in my first year than I anticipated. Although I also devoted a lot of energy meeting with members, with elected officials and other decision-makers, and with leaders of other entertainment unions and the state and local AFL-CIO, I hope to spend more time in the coming year out in the field. I will be deeply involved in our public broadcast and news negotiations, and we have a lot of interesting projects in the works. I am looking forward to another fulfilling and productive year.
Best regards and in solidarity,