WGA leaders have urged dissenters to speak up at Saturday morning’s membership meeting – the last before the final electronic ballots are cast Sunday morning in the big vote to authorize the guild to implement a new Agency Code of Conduct. And leadership says they especially want to hear from those who might have feared being shouted down at previous “rah-rah” guild meetings.
On a recent podcast, Chris Keyser, co-chair of the guild’s negotiating committee, also offered a lengthy history lesson about how the WGA came to this “moment in time” in its showdown with the Association of Talent Agents over packaging fees and agency affiliations with related production companies.
“Occasionally we hear from folks that feel that the vibe in those meetings is so guild positive and guild rah-rah that they don’t feel comfortable speaking up and sharing concerns,” Angelina Burnett, a member of guild’s negotiating committee, said on the podcast (the link to listen is below). “And I want to say, at least from leadership’s perspective, we want to hear concerns. We want this to be a place where people can voice dissent. This is a democratic union – warts and all. And we don’t ever want to make people feel like they can’t share their concerns. So if you have concerns and you want to share them, please come to those meetings and feel like you can speak up. Nobody’s gonna shout you down. We’re there to listen.”
Burnett, who also is a member of the WGA West’s board of directors, made those comments on fellow board member John August’s latest Scriptnotes podcast, which was taped last Friday, the day before the latest round of membership meetings began.
Keyser, a former WGA West president, agreed. “And even if it’s difficult to do that, and it may be difficult to do that in meetings where the majority feels like they’re on the other side,” he said on the podcast. “Secret ballot. Vote your conscience and your heart. Don’t know who votes which way. And an honest vote from our membership tells us what to do.”
“That’s right,” Burnett said.
Listen to their entire conversation here:
Saturday’s membership meeting will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Voting on the proposed Code will end at 10 a.m. Sunday, and it’s expected to be approved overwhelmingly. If so, and an agreement isn’t reached with the ATA by April 6, the guild could call for its members to fire their agents en masse if they refuse to sign the Code, which the big four agencies – WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners – almost certainly will not.
Responding on the podcast to a member’s write-in question about why it’s taken 43 years to renegotiate the Artists’ Managers Basic Agreement of 1976, Keyser gave four basic reasons to explain why the guild is taking action now and not before: The guild has been busy, the membership had to be engaged, the 100-day strike of 2007-08 took a “a really great toll on the guild,” and rapid changes in the industry that have turned the biggest agencies into all-powerful “oligopolies.”
“It’s a complicated answer,” he said, offering a history lesson. “I think it has to do with the fact that the Writers Guild has a lot on its plate. Every three years, we have to renegotiate the Minimum Basic Agreement [with the studios], and that’s a thing that happens over the course of a couple of months. But the preparation for it – and not just the preparation that has to be done by the staff and the negotiating committee – but the preparation to get the membership ready to think about that is long. It can be over a year. When you think about what the cycle looks like when that happens, and then you think about where the Writers Guild membership is – whether that membership is engaged enough to be called into action more than once in a three-year cycle – it’s taken us a long time to get to the place where we could do that.”
He then talked about how the membership might not have been prepared for what could be ahead had it not been for the bitter strike of 2007-08.
“And to be honest with you,” Keyser said, “I don’t know what might have happened earlier had we not had to strike in 2007-08. That was absolutely necessary, and the benefits of that we reaped from our jurisdiction over the Internet, I think, are being felt by almost all writers today.
“It’s taken a little while to understand exactly why that was important, but it took a really great toll on the guild,” he added. “There were people who were angry about it in the moment; there were people who suffered from the strike because strikes can be cruel things. It took a lot of years for people to say we’re back in a place where we’re going to fight together in a place of unanimity.
“And I think the guild leadership, after a lot of decades, became to feel in the 2017 negotiations that the guild was in a place where it could do that,” he said. “We had the kind of staff that was prepared. And so we saw this opening between 2017 and 2020 and we thought we’d go for it.”
Prior to that, he said, “It’s not that we didn’t care — it’s that it took a while for us to have a moment in time where we could do it.”
Keyser then explained why the timing is right for action nowbecause of the rapidly evolving nature of the industry in which even the big agencies – the representative of writers – are part of vertically integrated corporations. Here’s an extended quote from the podcast:
“And then on the other side, the business has changed so that the agency business in now dominated by four agencies – an oligopoly. They have an overwhelming percentage of the market share, and their control over that and packaging and the assessment of packaging fees has made this a question that we have to answer now.
We are not going after packaging fees and other conflicts of interest just because we’re on a moral crusade. We’re going after these things because it has an economic impact on writers. And it has been in the last decade that we’ve seen writers’ salaries plummet.
“So we’re in a very special moment in the business where the studios who make our product – because of the globalization of the marketplace, the accessibility of our product – their profits have doubled in the last 10 years. They make $50 billion-plus every year. They’re doing really, really well.
The agencies – those big four agencies – because of the influx of money from packaging fees – they’re able to monetize that and their control over talent to get an enormous influx of capital. So we know these agencies – we know this indirectly because their books are closed – they’re the recipients of billions of dollars in investments and those investors are reaping hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in profits.
So agencies are doing well, and at the same time, writers’ salary has gone down 23% in the last two years – double digits over the last decade. That is contrary to the rules of economics. It ought not to happen that way.”
The WGA West’s latest records show that its members’ earnings hit an all-time record of $1.4 billion in 2017 – up nearly 3% from 2016. Earnings from feature films broke through the $400 million barrier for the first time since 2010, while TV earnings are fast approaching $1 billion a year.
The guild, however, says that median wages actually are on the decline, and it blames the agencies’ “conflicted interests” for the drop-off, despite gains made in contracts with management’s AMPTP, which this week rejected the guild’s request that the studios and networks participate in what the AMPTP called a “group boycott” of talent agencies that refuse to sign the Code of Conduct.
A recent guild survey found that in 1999, a writer with the title of Producer on a half-hour network comedy in its first season made $15,000 per episode. “Adjusted for inflation, the fee would be more than $23,400 today,” the guild said. “But in the WGA’s survey of TV writers from the 2017-18 season, the median episodic fee for a writer at the Producer level was only $16,000 per episode.”
“And we had to look for a number of different causes for it,” Keyser said. “Some of them we’ve identified in our minimum basic agreement negotiations – that’s why we renegotiated span a couple of years ago – and one of them is the fact that the people who are supposed to be defending our above-scale income – the agencies – are failing in their jobs.
“So when you take the decline in writers’ salaries; the overwhelming control over the business that the agencies have, and a moment in time where the guild is powerful enough – feels enough of a kind of common purpose to actually take on a battle like this – it led us to this moment. That’s why.”