Executive Director’s Report: 2016

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.

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