Who needs a union? The owners of Jane Street Entertainment certainly don’t think their freelance writer-producers do. The New York-based company, which produces reality shows for Food Network, HBO, NBC, TLC, USA, Lifetime and HGTV, is urging its freelancers to vote no on union representation, arguing that the company can do a better job of safeguarding their interests than the WGA East can.
“If the WGA comes in, you will have to bend to the collective decision,” Jane Street owners Donna MacLetchie and Linda Lea said in a recent email to their freelancers. “It is in everyone’s best interest to keep small companies like Jane flexible because we can work with you directly. You aren’t part of a machine. You are part of a team” – a team that relies on the government to pay for its health care.
“I hope you’re well,” the owners said in the email to their freelancers – because if they’re not, they’ll have to pay for their own health care coverage. One of the main goals of the union is to require companies to contribute toward its workers’ health care, but Jane Street, which does not provide health benefits to its freelancers, says that they can get by just fine on Obamacare. “Considering that Obamacare has already changed the health benefit conversation, much of what they are promising won’t necessarily be needed,” the owners told their workers.
Individuals who make more than $46,689 a year aren’t eligible for health benefits, though, so those freelancers would have to provide for their own coverage. A family of four with an income of less than $95,400 can receive government health care subsidies, so the company maintains that the government should take care of those workers’ health needs.
Jane Street also told its freelancers that if they vote the union in, they’ll have to bow to whatever salary demands the union dictates, regardless of merit. “If the WGA wins this election, someone is negotiating on your behalf,” they said. “As it is now, if you feel you need a raise, you come to us and we can negotiate together. If the WGA is elected, we can no longer make that decision on our own – we would have to negotiate all salaries with the WGA. The Union may not allow us to give you a raise unless we give it to everyone.”
“What they’re saying is not true,” said WGA East spokesman Jason Gordon. “We negotiate minimums” – meaning that the union only sets minimum rates, not maximums, and does not require that everyone to be paid the same.
“Jane Street will be the eighth nonfiction production company in New York whose freelance writer-producers will vote to form a union, and there will be many more to come,” the WGA said in a statement. “Freelancers in this relatively young industry are getting organized because they see this as a critical moment. … They see explosive growth and international multimillion-dollar deals happening all around them, but their rates are declining and their workloads are increasing.”
Urging their members to reject union membership, the owners told their freelancers: “You have the strongest voice when speaking for yourself.”
The union responded: “We agree. Freelance producers and APs are forming a union, not just at Jane but across this industry, because it is the only way we can speak up for ourselves in a way that the industry will hear us. With a union we have a seat at the table to negotiate over standards. Without a union we are letting the networks and production companies set standards for our work that suits their needs regardless of our own.”
The deadline for the return of ballots is March 19. Here’s the letter from Jane Street’s owners in its entirety:
Donna and Linda, the owners of Jane Street, here. We are writing to you because, as you may already know, the WGA has filed a petition seeking to represent all Producers and APs (including you!) in all future dealings with Jane Street. Not many companies in our industry have been petitioned, and so, if the WGA succeeds, Jane will be one of the few WGA companies around.
This election concerns us. It’s not just our interests we are concerned about —but yours as well, because we truly believe that your independence, and freedom to negotiate what your title is, and to demand what your salary must be, could be jeopardy if the WGA wins this vote. We have been incredibly lucky to work with people of your caliber so far. We want an environment where you have the freedom to negotiate and move up the ladder, and pay scale, as we together see fit. We want you to feel comfortable bringing us show ideas that we can partner on. Adding a middleman who is not looking out for your individual interests could undermine this.
We are most concerned in the following areas:
YOUR JOB TITLE and PROMOTIONS:
Jane is a small company, and that means we have been able to run it as a place of tremendous opportunity. That means we promote quickly when it’s deserved. We have given many Producers their first gig as SP, and promoted many SP’s into their first Show-running job. We have promoted many AP’s to Producer before other companies would, because we recognize talent and want to reward it no matter what the big picture is. If the WGA is elected, there will be a middleman who is speaking for ALL the APs and Producers, not just you. So if someone is more senior, the WGA could demand that they get a promotion before you, even if we feel YOU deserve it. And YOU could have no say. And WE could have no say. In this case, a middleman scares us.
Another area of concern is your salary. If the WGA wins this election, someone is negotiating on your behalf. As it is now, if you feel you need a raise, you come to us and we can negotiate together. If the WGA is elected, we can no longer make that decision on our own – we would have to negotiate all salaries with the WGA. The Union may not allow us to give you a raise unless we give it to everyone.
You should also be aware that the contracts the WGA has signed with other New York nonfiction production companies all have guaranteed minimum rates below what we typically pay. Jane’s pay rates are well above WGA scale. For example, the minimum WGA rates in the WGAE contracts are approximately $1000/week for APs, and $1500-1800/week for producers.
This raises another important point. The contracts that the WGA has signed with other production companies – and there are only THREE such companies with contracts – do not contain any of the things we’re sure they promised you. Considering that Obamacare has already changed the health benefit conversation, much of what they are promising won’t necessarily be needed. And the WGA has failed to deliver portable health care to members in any of the contracts it has signed, because that model does not work for this industry.
Also, one thing the WGA has demanded in contract negotiations is the right to force you to pay Union dues, (1.5% of your earnings), and an initiation fee. The industry contracts all state that the WGA can start forcing all WGA-represented employees to pay dues once six companies agree to that provision, which the Union likely will insist be a part of any contract. So this vote brings you one step closer to paying dues. The benefits just won’t outweigh the likely costs to YOU, or to us.
Here’s the bottom line. We feel you have the strongest voice when speaking for yourself. Not everyone needs or wants the same thing—but if the WGA comes in, you will have to bend to the collective decision. It is in everyone’s best interest to keep small companies like Jane flexible because we can work with you directly. You aren’t part of a machine. You are part of a team, and we invite each and every one of you to call us, or come in for a meeting, to discuss this matter personally. Our personal email addresses are copied here, and please copy Carly as well who can coordinate a meeting or a call. We want to talk to you!
Finally, we want you all to make the decision that is right for you! We encourage you to research WGA membership on your own, and to fully understand the pros and cons of membership. We have been and remain committed to ensuring that Jane Street is a great place to work and make television. We just think that we – not the WGA – are in the best position to make that happen. We ask that you continue to give us the opportunity to prove to you that we care, listen and want to make this a place where Producers want to work.
Please come in or call before voting because we want you to have all relevant information so you can make an informed decision – the choice is yours!
Donna MacLetchie Linda Lea