Executive Director’s Report: 2017

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 decision making, 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

Back to top