Executive Director’s Report: 2011

Report to Council and Members, May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We expect to begin negotiations with Atlas, Lion, and the other companies soon.  We recognize the importance of improving conditions at a number of shops at the same time, and our strategy involves mobilization of employees, conversations with government agencies that enforce wage and hour laws, and other creative approaches.  Director of Organizing Justin Molito and Organizer Tim Tharp have devoted countless hours to this work.

Digital Media    At this point the financial and creative models for digital media are mostly unformed.  Some money is flowing to some projects but the structure of distribution and compensation, the ways that viewers find content they enjoy and pay for it, the methods of developing programs, the career paths and narrative devices – all are in flux.  This is the opportune time for the WGAE and its members to be active, to help develop the models, and to ensure that the creators’ interests are articulated and advanced.

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

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

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

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

Lowell Peterson

Executive Director

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