The WGA East’s membership has grown 40% in the past five years, according to the guild’s latest annual report, which only briefly mentions the WGA’s ongoing battle with talent agencies. That fight is now ending its third week after the WGA East and WGA West ordered members on April 12 to fire their agents en mass who refuse to sign the guilds’ new Agency Code of Conduct.
“WGAE members have received so many emails and phone calls in recent months about the renegotiation of the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement and the subsequent Code of Conduct that I hesitate to reprise the discussion in this report,” wrote Lowell Peterson, the guild’s executive director.
Without providing new details, Peterson said that “In brief, the WGAE and the WGAW negotiate the minimum terms of employment for writers of television, film, SVOD, and similar programs – initial compensation, residuals, benefits, and so forth. Talent agents are charged with negotiating terms above those minimums, and they do so with the permission of the Guilds. The terms under which agents could represent Guild members were set forth in the AMBA, which was last negotiated in 1976. In April 2018, the Guilds notified the agencies that the AMBA would be terminated 12 months hence and made a series of proposals to modify the terms. Despite extensive negotiations, the parties were unable to reach agreement on a new AMBA and the Guilds exercised their authority to issue a Code of Conduct that set forth new terms, including a prohibition on agencies’ receiving packaging fees and serving as producers (with some easements for independent film financing work). Only agencies that agree to the Code of Conduct are now permitted to represent Guild members, and Guild members can only be represented (for Guild-covered work) by agencies that have agreed to the Code.”
“We have become larger and stronger, tackling important issues like the transformation of our industry and diversity and inclusion; and making big gains at the bargaining table and in organizing,” Peterson said in the report (read it here).
The WGA East, with more than 5,000 members, has seen significant growth over the last five years, Peterson said. “Some of this growth is attributable to the rise of Peak TV; more writers than ever are being hired on series for broadcast, cable, and pay TV and for SVOD services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus. We have also welcomed nearly 1,200 new members who craft stories for digital-native companies like Vice and HuffPost, and we have won recognition to represent many hundreds more who will become eligible to join the Guild once we have finalized their collective bargaining agreements.”
“The WGAE remains powerful in our core jurisdictions: scripted television, screen, and new media; feature films; and broadcast news,” he said. “We have expanded our staff and programming for ‘freelance’ members who write for television, screen, and new media, making sure that members remain engaged, active, and informed. We have also ensured that we will remain vital to storytellers in a rapidly-transforming industry by organizing in newer sectors like nonfiction/‘reality’ television, digital news, and podcasting. We know that unionizing new sectors is meaningless if it is not translated into real gains at the bargaining table. In the last year the WGAE has successfully negotiated first contracts or renewal agreements covering nearly 1,000 members in broadcast news, digital news, and nonfiction TV. We are currently negotiating agreements covering about 600 more.
“The secret of our success in collective bargaining is a combination of member engagement and professionalism at the table. At every step – from initial organizing through preparation for negotiations through the actual give and take of bargaining – we make certain that the affected members know what is going on, get the opportunity for meaningful input into our bargaining priorities and proposals, stay engaged through meetings, and if necessary escalate pressure on the employer through social media and on the job. At the same time, our negotiators bring a lot of hard-won experience to the table. The WGAE proves that collective bargaining works.”
Recapping the guild’s efforts to combat sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace, Peterson said that the guild “Continues its work to ensure that all members can write in workplaces free from sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. In 2018 we issued a pledge from Guild staff to our members that, when speaking with them about these issues: We will respond promptly to each member inquiry and communication. We will be compassionate and respectful. We will believe, and not second-guess or doubt, members who bring incidents or concerns about sexual harassment to our attention. We will assist the member to the extent the member wants us to do so. Our pledge also notes that ‘sexual harassment exists in the broader context of sexism and power imbalance, and our union is committed to transforming the culture and power dynamics that currently exist in our industries. This requires collective action as well as individual representation.’”
Last October the guild presented a panel called “Sex, Gender, and Power in the Workplace” which included women from each of the guild’s main sectors – episodic drama, comedy-variety, feature film, broadcast news, and digital news. In November, the guild held an open forum to discuss these issues, moderated by social workers from the Actors Fund.
Addressing diversity in television, Peterson said that “We continue to advocate and agitate for greater diversity and inclusion, offering programs and opportunities for activism to members in all Guild genres and sectors.”
“After many years of hand-wringing and often empty gestures,” he said, “the discussion has shifted from whether employment and storytelling in the entertainment industry should reflect the diversity of American audiences to how this should be accomplished. The WGAE is proud to have been on the forefront of this struggle. For years our members have said to the press, to elected officials, and to the industry as a whole that the lack of diversity in writers’ rooms was not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of opportunity. Having writers with a range of backgrounds and experiences and outlooks makes for better storytelling, and ensures that audiences will remain interested in what goes onto the screen. A more diverse industry is more likely to prosper in the years ahead, and more likely to provide employment opportunities for everyone.”
Peterson noted several other highlights in the report, including:
- “We are paying close attention to the coming dominance of Video on Demand (especially SVOD) and its impact on writers, and we are studying the structure and impact of “mini-rooms” on writers’ annual earnings and their career paths.
- “We negotiated very solid contracts at CBS News and ABC News, despite the headwinds faced by those broadcast news companies.
- “We unionized the writers at CBSN, the first anchored live-streaming news company to be organized, and at Gimlet, the first podcast company to be organized.
- “We won strong contracts at VICE, covering nightly news writers and producers, nonfiction TV writer-producers, and folks who craft digital content. We also won great contracts at Gizmodo Media Group, The Onion, Slate and a number of other digital companies.
- “We continue to build power in nonfiction TV, winning a first contract at NBC/Universal’s Peacock which includes contributions to the Entertainment Industry Flex Plan. This, combined with the VICE contract, brings us closer to achieving our long-term goal of portable health benefits for writer-producers in this historically nonunion sector.”