In a preview of what they’ll be telling writers at strike-authorization meetings this week, the co-chairs of the WGA negotiating committee say the choice is simple: Voting “no” will be tantamount to surrender.
“If we don’t get that authority – if the membership does not give us a ‘yes’ vote in the strike authorization – then we are essentially telling the companies, ‘You can give us whatever you want,’” former WGA West President Chris Keyser said during a podcast taped last week before negotiations resumed today.
Guild members will begin online voting for strike authorization on Tuesday and at special membership meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York. “The members will be given every opportunity to ask all the questions they need about where the negotiations stand, what our philosophy is going forward, what we hope to gain, what the risks are — all of that,” Keyser said.
On the podcast (listen here), Keyser and co-chairs Billy Ray and Chip Johannessen urge members to trust that their leaders, if authorized, will call a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers only as a last resort. But they stressed that members owe it to themselves, to future generations of writers and to the labor movement itself to authorize a strike if the companies refuse to offer a fair deal. Contract talks were expected to resume today after recessing for Good Friday.
“What we have today,” Johannessen said, “has been handed down to us by people who struck largely before to get the things that we have today, and it is not OK for us to just kind of dissipate that year after year after year, never standing up to the companies and just watching it all go away.”
Said Keyser: “We all understand that we are about to ask the membership to do a very difficult thing. We’re going to ask them to give us the power, if necessary, to go on strike. It doesn’t mean we’re going to strike; it means they have to trust us, because they won’t be there at the moment when that decision is that made.”
If authorized, the final decision on a strike will be made by the negotiating committee and by the WGA West’s board and by the WGA East’s council, all of which have voted unanimously to request strike authorization.
“There is no question that we get less in this business than the value we create deserves,” Keyser said. “And there’s no question that at the end of these negotiations we’re going to get less in this business than the value we create deserves. But there is a calculation that needs to be made, from time to time, about what risks should be taken in order to get us something closer to what we deserve.”
All three co-chairs praised the guilds’ chief negotiator, WGA West Executive Director David Young. “I would go through fire for that guy,” Ray said. “I think he is the smartest, most caring, the most thoughtful, the most insightful business person I’ve ever dealt with, and he really believes in the labor movement in America. And if you think about it in the broader context, that at its peak in the United States, 40% of Americans were in unions. That number is now 7%. That’s something that he takes to heart, and he believes that our guild has a role to play in defense of the labor movement in general.”
The trust of the members is the key to going forward, they said, noting that every decision made when considering the companies’ final offer will be based on cold, hard facts.
“One of the things that David is so good at,” Keyser said, “is that there’s not a moment of decision in that room where he doesn’t come in and say, ‘OK, this is what you have to gain, and these are the risks – this is what you have to lose. I think this is worth it; I think this isn’t.’ Nobody makes decisions based on emotion. They only make decisions based on a cold, rational calculation of risks and rewards. I don’t think that any of us want to be reckless, nor do we want to be fearless. We need from the membership the trust that you give to your elected leadership and appointed leadership that says, ‘Go out there and do for us what needs to be done.’ Because without that, nothing will ever change. One thing the three of us have said at every outreach meeting is there’s no one else making this argument for writers. There’s no one to fight for this but us. And there are things worth fighting for. And we want to take this to the point where our power merits. And then we will make a rational decision about whether or not it is necessary to go further.”
One of the WGA’s major demands is that the companies address the problems faced by TV writers because of the growing trend of shortened seasons. TV writers, the co-chairs agreed, are “slowly drowning.”
“This is the simplicity, I think, of what we are asking for,” Johannessen said. “We need to get more money for writers; they need to be paid more per week for these people who are getting 10 script fees and are not able to get by. We have to raise these minimums. We also have to cap the amount of time that they can amortize episodic pay over, so that if you’re lucky enough, with your agent, to get over-scale income, that it doesn’t vanish because they just make it go away by extending your term of employment. So we have to protect the bottom by pumping more money into it; we have to protect the top by capping time, and then we have to free up the labor force, which benefits them too, so that if your employment terminates, you can go out and get another job. You’re not sitting there stuck not getting paid any money.
“Those are basically the three pillars of this short-season thing anyway,” he continued, “and it is a very simple thing, and each particular is well deserved. I mean, we understand that at some point, you know, if you’re a writer, you join the circus a little bit and you have your ups and downs and stuff, but it is not fair for them to then hold you without paying you any money so that you can’t go out and get another job if it was possible for you to do that.”
In granting strike authorization, Keyser noted, many members “naturally wonder whether people who have chosen to be in leadership positions in the guild are hot-headed, are so involved in the campaign to get what they want to get that they won’t make rational decisions about that for us; they worry that the risks are going to outweigh the gains. And our job is to assure them that David Young and the staff, the three of us and the negotiating committee, are not like that at all.”
He added: “I know also that the things we’re asking for are not things that are ephemeral. We’re asking for very specific things that have particular numbers attached to them. If you once worked in a world in which your episodic fees paid for two weeks of your work and you now work in a world in which that now pays for four weeks, having nothing to do with whether your quote went down, and it probably has, you’re making half as much as you once did. And if we can reverse that in some ways, you’ll go back and make that money again.
“The three of us,” he said, “always say to people, ‘We understand the risks of potentially going on strike, but you need to think about the risks of not going on strike. Think about the next ten years of your career if the best you can hope for if you achieve your dream of why you did this – you become a co-executive producer on a staff and you’re making Writers Guild minimum every single week. You’re making what use to be the floor as your ceiling. You’re making what was arbitrarily determined to be the amount of money the companies had to pay pension and health on, not what a supervising producer was supposed to make. And that’s the best you’re going to do, unless maybe you become a showrunner like Billy and I have, and then you work 50 weeks a year, or 52 weeks, for our eight-episode fees, and we also make minimum per week. That’s the best you’re gonna get, because no one’s gonna give you more than that. Calculate that over the next 10 years or so of your career, or 15 years, and think about how much you’re going to lose and compare that to the risks of going on strike.
“Now that’s not to say that there’s not somebody out there who has an overall deal that’s going to get screwed up or a show that was about to get picked up that won’t get picked up,” Keyser added. “We understand that. If there were a way of protecting everyone so that nothing were lost, we would do it that way. But the truth is, these things take their toll. It’s in being willing to pay that price that we actually take care of our future and the future of the next generation. I know that sounds highfalutin, but it’s the truth.”
The co-chairs also argue that the WGA’s willingness to strike – as it has done six times since 1960 – and the value that writers bring to every project give the WGA added power at the bargaining table.
“There’s a very concrete reason we have that power,” Ray said. “And it’s not just the guild’s history, as being, in my view, the only guild that would flex its muscles in this way. It’s that the companies made $51 billion last year. It’s a number that they are so tired of hearing in that negotiating room. And they actually said across the table, ‘We are really tired of hearing that number.’ They can’t dispute the number; it’s a matter of public record. But they’re tired of us saying that they made $51 billion. And what they’re really tired of is the truth, which is without writers, they’d have none of that. They would not have the shows that are driving this gigantic economic engine that is television.”
The contract talks resume today. The WGA’s current film and TV contract expires at midnight on May 1.