Now that the WGA West election is over – with President David A. Goodman and all of his running mates sweeping to victory – the WGA East election is set to conclude on Thursday, with President Beau Willimon, running unopposed, and his Unity Slate poised to carry the day as well.
And as with the election in the West, the main issues in the East’s officer and Council races are the WGA’s five-month battle with the Association of Talent Agents and the upcoming negotiations with the management’s AMPTP for a new film and TV contract, known as the Minimum Basic Agreement.
Willimon and his Unity Slate all support the WGA’s demands to end agency packaging fees and affiliations with corporately related production entities – and the WGA’s edict that all of members must fire their agents who refuse to sign its new agency Code of Conduct. Indeed, the four candidates competing for officer posts all support the guild’s ongoing agency campaign, so no matter who wins, the guild’s leadership will be solidly in favor of continuing the fight. The overwhelming majority of the 18 candidates vying for nine open seats on the Council also support the fight, though several question the guild’s tactics.
The Unity Slate’s platform states: “Our Guild’s strength is in its solidarity. We aim to maximize that strength with regard to the agency struggle and the upcoming MBA negotiations. We support a firm stance in systemically addressing conflicts of interest within our industry.”
In his official campaign statement, Willimon wrote: “I have worked closely with Council, staff, captains and the leadership of the WGA West to help conduct our current collective action as strongly and smoothly as possible, while also being mindful that we need to address the concerns of those who have felt disruption. I will continue to support our struggle and promote ways for us to help each other. The tools and networks we are creating now will serve us long after this struggle is over.”
Read all of the candidates’ statements here.
Bob Schneider, running unopposed on the Unity Slate for re-election as secretary-treasurer, described the guild’s agency campaign as a “slow-moving freedom train.” In his statement, he said that “We have moved collectively to end the conflicted practices of the agents whose job is first and foremost to serve our best interests, and the solidarity we’ve shown over the course of this slow-moving freedom train has been inspiring. A Guild united cannot be defeated. Vote for the Unity Slate and we will finish what we’ve started along with supporting and expanding the priorities that the leadership and membership of this guild have chosen over the past dozen years.”
David Simon, one of the earliest and loudest voices against the alleged conflicts of interest inherent in agency packaging deals, is running for re-election to the East’s Council. In March, he posted a statement denouncing the agencies’ packaging practices. “Packaging is a lie,” he wrote. “It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. Attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that f*cking ugly.”
And a month later, be became one of the named plaintiffs in the WGA’s anti-packaging lawsuit against the Big Four agencies (read it here), which claimed that their conflicts of interest are illegal because they create a breach of fiduciary duty to their writer-clients.
Simon, the writer-producer of such shows as The Wire, The Deuce and Homicide: Life on the Street, made similar arguments in his campaign statement, while acknowledging that writer-producers like himself also have certain conflicts of interests of their own when it comes to guild service, though those conflicts, he says, are not illegal.
“Let me be blunt about my status as a television writer,” he told the guild’s members. “I am one of those who wear the joint labor/management hat of a writer/producer. It is a problematic position within our union in that the interests of every writer/producer or showrunner are inherently in conflict. As a writer and a member of the WGAE, and certainly as a council member, my absolute allegiance must be to the craft and position of the television or film writer. My interests as a producer cannot and should not factor in my deliberations or votes. The union is here first and foremost as a labor organization; it defends and services the laborers and their skill above all.
“As a producer, I have been with the same television agent for a quarter century and it has been easy for me to retain representation. As a showrunner, I have been on the same HBO development deal – renegotiated at intervals of two and three years – for 18 years. If I am gauging self-interest on the basis of my producorial status, there is little to be gleaned personally by engaging in this battle. In fact, my status will be unaffected whether the WGA wins or loses this packaging fight – especially given the fact that I have refused to allow myself or my shows to be packaged since I discovered as a young writer the incredible conflict of interest and organized bid-rigging that packaging represents. Having covered bid-rigging and racketeering in the federal courts of Baltimore, I can assure everyone that packaging bears the comparison well. If I went along with this scam, allowing my shows’ shooting budgets to be raided by agencies who take money off the screen and artificially reduce the cost of all the talent below my position, I could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in commission that I willingly pay. I do so because to not pay that money while my WGA brethren are being diminished is to in effect profit from the bid-rigging and accept what amounts to a bribe.
“But for all the younger and more vulnerable writers in my union – the men and women who labor for and with me on my productions – there is much less opportunity to obtain representation. Why? Because agents have little incentive to spend time and effort on behalf of junior writers who cannot deliver or produce the kind of packaging through which the agencies now make their real money. These younger and more vulnerable writers cannot go to HBO business affairs and demand pay commensurate with their talents when the rate for staff writers, story editors, and junior producers has been artificially reduced by the wholesale indifference of agents to champion younger writers at the expense of the packages themselves. As a showrunner, I have seen firsthand how packaging has corrupted the direct fiduciary role of agents in advocating for younger writers. They are the ones being betrayed by this dynamic. It is unsurprising to me that some small number of my fellow showrunners – accustomed to not paying their 10 percent and unaffected by the relative poverty of those lower on the pay pyramid – are among some of the more vocal opponents of the current campaign. Yes, they are doing fine. At a certain point up the pyramid, this system does have advantages.
“As someone steeped in the power of unions who knows that nothing worth fighting for was ever gained by such little cost as going without a business representative for a couple months, I confess to being a bit embarrassed by some of the few complaints I’ve heard from a handful of members. I think of Flint, Ludlow, Haymarket, or even the earlier and hard-fought battles of this union in establishing itself and guaranteeing us a living wage and real benefits, and I wonder how anyone can issue a jeremiad against this action so quickly. Especially when twice now, the agencies have come back and thrown small amounts of cash on the table – money that wasn’t there before we began this fight. Is it enough? Is there an amount that will be enough to justify the maintenance of packaging? It’s hard to say when the agencies are refusing all efforts at establishing transparency, or when the percentages are still so seemingly small. But the precedent has already been broken: For the first time, the agencies are acknowledging an inherent problem with packaging and they are throwing the first bones. Undercutting our negotiating committee now – rather than strengthening it with the support of this unity slate – is a mug’s move. And making that move will weaken us just as we head into our triannual negotiation with the studios; maintaining our commitment to the long haul with the agents shows our real resolve not only to the agencies, but to the studios as well.
“For these reasons, I am proud to be a part of the Unity Slate. And for these reasons, I respectfully ask to be returned to the WGAE council for a second term so that the essential work of addressing the longstanding problem of agency packaging will be supported and not undercut.”
Other members of the Unity Slate include vice presidential candidate Kathy McGee and Council candidates Bonnie Datt, Josh Gondelman, Dru Johnston, Courtney Simon and Amy Sohn — all of whom support the guild’s current course of action.
Fifteen candidates are vying for six open Freelance seats on the Council, while three others – incumbents Philip Pilato, Kim Kelly and Hamilton Nolan – will be re-elected to the three open Staff seats.
Pilato, who’s also running for vice president against McGee, is also a strong supporter of the guild’s agency campaign. “When I was first elected as a WGAE Council member in 2007, we were in a crisis,” he wrote in his campaign statement. “We had just started the strike that would re-define the entertainment industry. Now we are in another battle to reshape the industry and the stakes for writers couldn’t be higher.
“There were those against the path that we ultimately took then – a strike – and now, there are those that oppose the current path that the WGA is taking against agents. Those opposed were wrong then and they’re wrong now.
“The biggest gain writers achieved from the strike was getting the studios to open their books to us – so that writers could find out how much a movie or show really made and demand fair compensation based on that knowledge. Similarly, the fight against agents is a battle to get them to be fair and open with writers. Because they refuse to open their books to us – we really don’t know how much they’re making off of writers’ work. Of course, there’s the small fact that getting a kickback for doing your job is illegal. And when the agents try to appease us by offering to share a fraction of that kickback with us – it doesn’t make it anymore legal. That’s why writers have to stand firm and fight for the agents to work for us – not themselves.”
Council candidates Anya Epstein, Bash Doran and Tracey Scott Wilson issued a joint statement calling for major changes in the agency business, but are critical of the guild’s handling of the battle. “At this critical moment – when we all are pushing for much-needed change in our relationship with the agencies – we believe there must be room for diversity at the table: diversity of gender, diversity of race and diversity of opinions,” they wrote. “We have increasing concerns over the way the conflict with the ATA is being managed. We have no desire for a return to the status quo. We believe the ATA must make tremendous adjustments in the way they structure and do business. We also believe that the acknowledgement – and inclusion – of questioning and challenging voices will be key toward retaining solidarity and guiding this action toward a more thoughtful resolution. Going forward, we aim to ensure more open communication between members and leadership, greater transparency at every turn, protection for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters and most of all – the articulation of a clear, achievable vision for the future that will benefit all writers. These values will also guide us through the upcoming and critical MBA negotiations.”
Council candidate Gina Gionfriddo, meanwhile, said in her campaign statement that she is “conflicted” about the agency campaign, but she is not calling for a change in strategy – at least not yet. “To address the elephant in the room,” she wrote, “I think this will be a more volatile election than I’ve experienced previously because we are in the trenches with the WGA’s negotiation with the ATA. I am not aligned with any slate of candidates because I find myself a conflicted, middle-of-the-road thinker about this action. To be clear, I voted in favor of the action (imposing a code of conduct on the talent agencies) and I left my film/TV agents as the guild required me to do. More importantly, I am philosophically and ethically in agreement with this fight. I believe that agency packaging and affiliate producing are practices rife with abuse that our union absolutely needs to address. And I don’t believe packaging is just a rich show runner’s problem; I believe it impacts writers at all levels.
“But I’m conflicted. My reservations are not about the rightness of the action, but rather about the lack of transparency with which the battle has been waged and about how inequitably this burden is being borne within our membership. Unlike a ‘pencils down’ strike action, this is an action that asks for great sacrifice from one segment of our membership while stressing a big chunk of our membership not at all. To ask for union solidarity in the face of that is a much bigger challenge than we’ve adequately acknowledged. I’m worried about heading into 2020 AMPTP negotiations with part of our membership spiritually and financially depleted.
“I also think membership deserves a less cryptic conversation with leadership about revenue sharing as an option to reform packaging. Are we open to it or not? I don’t know if revenue share is a viable solution, but I feel we’ve received very mixed messages about this and the resulting confusion is sowing discontent in our ranks. I’d also like to have a more frank conversation about the expense we will incur fighting the lawsuits this action has spawned. What are some ballpark numbers and where will the money come from?
“But do my concerns mean that I advocate a change of course? No. Not yet. This is an action the vast majority of our membership voted for. If elected, I will see my goal as a council member as representing the will of the membership. Now, we may need a different kind of survey than we’ve yet done to determine precisely what the will of the membership is, but my suspicion is that the majority of our membership does not want to retreat and capitulate at this time.”
Indeed, over at the WGA West, 77% of the members voted to re-elect leaders who want to stay the present course.
Many of the other Council candidates also support the guild’s agency campaign. Andy Rheingold said “On the issue of the day– I 100% support the WGA and our collective action demanding stronger and more transparent representation by agents. Packaging harms writers plain and simple. Agents acting as producers is untenable and illegal. But make no mistake, our struggle for fairness and wage security won’t end with the deal we make with the ATA. Negotiations with the AMPTP are right around the corner and the WGA will need to stay strong and united.”
Melissa London Hilfers said that “Regarding the present action, I believe we’re in an important and morally just fight. I also believe that with 2020 on the horizon, it’s crucial for leadership to weigh the costs and benefits to membership of all possible resolutions, and to continue to make concerted efforts to assess and act upon the will of the membership. It is my top priority to ensure members’ voices are heard, no matter how diverse and varied those voices are.”
David Angelo said that “This agency strike is a huge issue for many members, and probably the reason so many people have interest in the election this year. I’ve listened to many concerns from many perspectives and think we need to really balance this one properly. For instance, this strike is particularly hard on feature writers, who are often isolated from the social-professional networking found in TV and therefore rely heavily on agents for work. We can’t forget about them! The package-deal writers are extremely talented and important to the guild, but there are a lot of other writers (with less savings) who need to be equally represented in the council. Though I strongly oppose writers going to the press to attack the guild, I think these disagreements could be more constructively aired out ‘in house’ if everyone felt better represented. It’s so important to have a Council that can find a solution to move us forward as a unified group.”
Stu Zicherman is one of the candidates most critical of the guild’s current action. “This has been a rough year. Brutal. The Agency Campaign has led us to the brink of civil war inside the guild,” he wrote. “We have all been part of much conversation and heard a wide array of strong opinions that have left our membership feeling confused and thoroughly frustrated. We all want to resolve the issues but don’t know the answers. Many of us have never seen a clear answer to this campaign and are now feeling something between panic and general fatigue. Worst of all, some of our members feel they can no longer trust the leadership. That is a terrible feeling and erodes at the fabric of the guild.
“I have been a sounding board for a great number of friends and colleagues within the guild about the Agency campaign. They have told me that I am a voice of reason. I have joked that as a child of divorced parents, I became very good at listening to every side of an argument and distilling the issues. I am frustrated by a number of things that have led us to this point, but as I write this today, my sole focus is ‘What can we do NOW?’ This is not a criticism, because we need to air our grievances, but so many of us have gotten into a habit of venting and arguing about everything that has happened up to this moment. The honest truth is how we got here no longer matters. What we can do moving forward… what solutions we can come up with… how we can make our voices heard… and how we can bring about real change… that is my focus is now.
“I strongly feel that our membership cannot fold this campaign and walk away with nothing, but I want my agent back. I don’t believe a world exists without packaging of some sort, and I don’t want writers left on the outside looking in. I am committed to getting the agencies to open their books and to finding a viable solution based around revenue sharing. I can’t pitch you specifics at this moment because we mere members of the WGA have been locked out of any details of the negotiation. As a council member, closer to the inner sanctum, I vow to make my voice heard, to listen to you, to bring practical solutions to our leadership, and do my very best to be a voice of reason.”
Larry J. Cohen didn’t address the agency situation directly in his campaign statement, focusing instead on the upcoming negotiations for a film and TV contract, which expires May 1, 2020. “As consolidation continues, subscription services become the new norm and global markets turn more dominant, the major media companies are primed to take a wrecking ball to traditional models of profit participation. In 2020, the Guild must stake our claim to these emerging new platforms and business models or we risk losing our seat at the table for a generation. This is the single most important issue facing the WGA. Full stop. And if elected, I will be a tireless advocate to make sure we are prepared for next year’s MBA negotiations –– not just to make short-term gains but to carve out positions that protect us for the long term.”
The WGA East, with 5,116 active members as of March 31, is about half the size of the WGA West’s 10,559 current membership.
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