WGA East Executive Director Lowell Peterson Sets Stage For Showdown With Studios Next Year
The WGA is gearing up for a showdown with the major companies next year. In his annual report, WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson told his members that the WGA East and West “have a lot of work to do at the bargaining table next year … to ensure that our members can sustain meaningful careers as the industry continues its transformation.”
The WGA’s current film and TV contract expires May 1, 2023. Two years ago, when the WGA’s previous contract was set to expire, a strike was all but out of the question because the industry already was shut down by the initial wave of the Covid pandemic.
“Although we will not sit across the bargaining table from the producers to negotiate a new MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement) until 2023, we started preparing in earnest last summer,” Peterson said in his report, which was sent to members Friday. “We had an appropriately ambitious bargaining agenda for the 2020 negotiations, but the Covid-19 pandemic shut down production and made a strike threat improbable. Now, as streaming continues to upend both television and theatrical production and distribution, both the WGAE and the WGAW recognize we have a lot of work to do at the bargaining table next year.
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Citing just a few examples of what needs to be done to reach a fair deal, he noted that the current contract “has no minimum-compensation terms for comedy/variety shows made for streaming video on demand (SVOD), and the residuals for those shows are puny. Features writers face continued challenges; TV mini-rooms undermine employment patterns and members’ ability to ‘make their year,’ and the industry has a long way to go to become truly equitable and inclusive.”
“We are preparing actively for next year’s negotiations for a new Minimum Basic Agreement covering TV, film, and streaming video writers. We will have an ambitious agenda because the challenges to our members are enormous. Of course, success at the bargaining table requires more than presenting a strong economic and moral case: it requires leverage. Member engagement and mobilization are the essential components of our leverage, and our campaign to build member knowledge about the issues and support for our negotiators has already begun. In recent years, we have substantially increased the resources we devote to engaging our TV, SVOD, and feature members and to ensuring that we help them build meaningful careers.
“We have spent many months broadening and deepening our network of contract captains. We have designed a comprehensive program of member education about what’s at stake in these negotiations – opportunities to discuss and learn about the issues members face; what’s happening in the industry, what the guild can do about it. We are building member solidarity – and ensuring that this solidarity is founded in an informed membership.”
He added that better contract terms for comedy/variety writers “will be a critical priority for the union in next year’s negotiations, and we know all of the guild’s members will stand in solidarity. Hundreds of WGAE members write comedy/variety shows. They form an activist core of guild members, willing to mobilize in solidarity with members in all areas. As television migrates to SVOD, these members face an MBA that does not include minimum compensation terms for made-for-SVOD comedy-variety programs. And the MBA’s residuals for made-for-SVOD comedy/variety programs are pitiful.”
Harkening back to the 100-day WGA strike of 2007-08, in which writers gained coverage of content made for new media, Peterson noted: “As the guild’s members anticipated by striking nearly 15 years ago, digital technology has transformed how content is created and distributed, and how our members earn a living. On the TV and features side, everything has changed with the advent of streaming video on demand, including basic changes in reuse and residuals payments; reductions in the number of weeks of work and the number of writers in the room; additional pressure for free development and other unpaid work; and reduced opportunities for members to move up the…career ladder and to produce.”
The guild, he said, also has expanded its staff to better meet the needs of film, TV and SVOD writers. “Our executive and field staff have done room visits, meeting with every television/SVOD writing room in the East that could accommodate us. Rooms went remote during the pandemic, but as people get back to writing together, we are resuming these important meetings. The guild staff attending these meetings are the same people who participate in MBA negotiations and who intervene when studios and networks violate the MBA. We have won many hundreds of thousands of dollars through arbitrations and negotiated settlements on behalf of TV and movie writers in the past year alone.
“After surveying members about increased demands for unpaid work, we launched an initiative to ensure that every TV and film member has the tools to protect themselves from the increasing pressure to work for free,” Peterson added. “The industry cannot be permitted to offload its development costs by pressuring Guild members to write without compensation.”
The guild also offers a wide range of panels, workshops, roundtables and other programs and events where members gather to talk about the craft and the business of professional TV and film writing, and to network with each other and with producers and network executives. “In short, we have significantly increased the staffing, programming, and member engagement opportunities in the film/TV/streaming sector in recent years,” he wrote.
On the diversity front, he noted that the guild “remains committed to enhancing equity and inclusion in the entertainment and news industry and in our union. One of our guiding principles is that a diversity of experience and voice strengthens the industry and developing activists and leaders who represent and reflect the full range of experience and identity is an essential part of this work. … We must ensure that the industry becomes more inclusive. Equity and inclusion initiatives are about social justice, but they are also about industry self-interest. Audiences expect stories that speak to their lives, and stories are better if they are told by people with a range of experiences, identities, and perspectives.”
In comedy/variety, he said, the guild “has worked closely with members to develop concrete steps that all late-night shows can take to enhance equity and inclusion in their rooms – from hiring to workplace culture to career sustainability.”
Citing several examples of the guild’s equity and inclusion initiatives that have been undertaken over the past year, Peterson noted that the WGA East and the Directors Guild of America “fought for years to win a tax credit to incentivize the hiring of women and people of color to write and direct television programs in New York. With the active participation of hundreds of guild members, we won that battle in 2019, but then-Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a requirement that a disparity study be conducted to prove what industry observers already knew: that women and people of color are underrepresented. Last year we mobilized again to get the state to fund this study, and to take the bureaucratic steps necessary to carry it out. As of now, the state is still sorting out a contract with an outside vendor to do the work, and we have already compiled a long list of organizations and resources that can help the vendor identify the relevant pool of available writers.”
He also cited the guild’s Comedy-Variety Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Work Project, which was designed “to create and implement a meaningful commitment to improving recruitment, retention, and work culture in late-night rooms. This work can be a model for change across the industry.”
Last June, he wrote, the guild initiated a Pre-WGA Workshop program “to open pathways to WGAE-covered jobs in television and screen writing, with a focus on increasing membership from underrepresented writers. We offered a series of panels and events to help non-members learn more about the industry. Each panel featured honest discussions about the problems early-career writers might encounter, as well as guidance on how to navigate the many possible paths from support staff to writer.”
The guild’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, meanwhile, continues to meet regularly, he said, “and there are a number of salons that bring together members from underrepresented communities to discuss the craft and careers.”
To combat sexual harassment in writers’ rooms, he pointed to the guild’s Work Culture Project, in which WGAE showrunners were convened a year-and-a-half ago to discuss various actions the union could take “to ensure that our members could work in rooms free from sexual harassment and other misconduct. Earlier this year, we reconvened the showrunner group to address a broader range of concerns and decided to revise a statement that showrunners could read at their rooms, indicating that misconduct will not be tolerated.”
The guild also offers “an enormous array of workshops, panel discussions, roundtables, seminars, training programs and other events, in addition to our ongoing series of podcasts featuring the work and insights of guild members in many genres,” he wrote. “Thousands of WGAE members partake of these programs each year – especially because during the pandemic everything has been available online through Zoom and on our website. This programmatic work offers insights into the creative and career aspects of being a professional writer and engages members in the life of the union. This work creates a community of creative professionals, and it is an essential part of building the solidarity that is a foundation of our power as a collective bargaining representative.
“We also facilitate many dozens of meetings by our member-driven salons. We are committed to fostering member-driven initiatives like these; we think it makes for a stronger union and develops member-leaders. This includes the Asian American, Black Writers, Career Longevity, Disabled, Latinx, LGBTQ, and Women’s Salons. We also assist with the Broadcast Forum and the Scripted Forum.”
The WGA East also represents a wide range of members working in broadcast news. “This part of the industry,” he said, “has been in transformation for a long time, as broadcasters have contended with changes in viewership and reductions in advertising revenue, have faced competition from cable and digital-native news organizations, and have cut jobs and increased members’ workloads. The WGAE has fought back by ensuring that our members continue to be relevant as the workflow shifts, by organizing as broadcasters create new operations, and by fighting hard at the bargaining table.”
At CBS News, the guild recently negotiated a tentative agreement covering several hundred news writers, assignment editors, graphic artists, producers, desk associates, and others employed at the network and at local stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. “The WGAE and the WGAW have represented this bargaining unit for many decades,” he said. “The economic package – raises and pension rate increases – is better than any other union pattern at CBS News, and we won increased producer and acting editor fees, better staff severance pay, and transformational gains for permatemps,’ including severance pay and parental leave. And we beat back company demands for significant economic concessions in holiday pay, night shift differential, long tours, and terms for desk associates in radio.” The CBS News members will soon vote whether to ratify the agreement.
At ABC News, “We are still at the bargaining table,” he said. “We have made progress on several issues, including work-from-home and sexual harassment and discrimination provisions, but we still have a lot of ground to cover.”
At MSNBC, the guild won an NLRB-run representational election last August and began negotiating for a contract in November. “We hope to reach an agreement,” Peterson said, “that addresses the unit members’ concerns about pay transparency and equity, about reasonable workloads and work shifts, about equity and inclusion issues, and more.”
The guild is also at the bargaining table at radio industry giant Audacy, local television station WNYW, and news radio station 1010 WINS. “As at CBS and ABC, it is imperative that we get the company to pay the increased pension contribution rate, and that we make other gains our members expect,” he wrote. The guild also organized the storytellers at Jigsaw, the nonfiction TV production company, and at the nonfiction podcast operations at iHeart.
The guild is also negotiating third contracts non-fiction TV producers Sharp Entertainment and Lion, whose writer-producers organized with the WGAE several years ago. “We hope that renewed enthusiasm will create momentum to improve these agreements during the current round of bargaining,” he said, noting that the guild also has contracts with nonfiction shops Vox Entertainment, NBS News Studios, and Viceland.
Over the past year, he wrote, the guild “has made enormous progress on all fronts, in all sectors. We are fiscally sound, and we engage our members in all aspects of the union and its work. Thus, the union has functioned at an extraordinarily high level of efficiency and effectiveness, through the pandemic and the many challenges presented by an industry in transformation.”
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