On the eve of bargaining with the AMPTP for a new film and TV contract, WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson said today that his members have “mostly kept working” despite the industry’s COVID-19 shutdown. Those contract talks, which will start next week, will be conducted at the same time – though separately – as the AMPTP’s ongoing contract negotiations with SAG-AFTRA, which began on April 27. Both unions’ contract are set to expire on June 30.
“When the pandemic struck, we set about learning as much as possible about its impact on our members,” Peterson told his members today. “We talked with shops and activists and rank and file members. We met with employers and committees and our sister unions. We conducted a detailed survey of the impact of the crisis on TV, SVOD, and feature writers. So far, they have mostly kept working, although we are paying close attention to the possible impact on development deals and projects such as greenlit pilots, series, and features that will be affected by the shut-down in production.”
Discussing the lead-up to upcoming contract talks, he wrote in his annual report to the guild’s Council:
“Beginning in the summer of 2019, WGAE staff and elected leaders started preparing in earnest for negotiations for a new Minimum Basic Agreement, the contract that sets minimum compensation, residuals, health and pension contribution rates, and the many other terms of conditions of employment for writers of television, subscription video on demand (SVOD), feature film, and other forms of what we call freelance work. (‘Freelance’ being the term for working series-to-series, pilot-to-pilot, feature-to-feature; not to be confused with being an independent contractor like a ‘freelance’ journalist.) We met with members at TV writers rooms, held formal and informal discussions with SVOD and feature writers, analyzed the pressing issues faced by comedy-variety writers, talked about the impact of TV mini-rooms, recruited a smart, knowledgeable group of active East members to serve on the joint WGAE/WGAW negotiating committee, and prepared to make significant gains at the bargaining table with the AMPTP.
“We met several times with the broader freelance membership to hear their concerns and to describe what seemed to be top priority issues in these negotiations. Discretion precludes me from writing those priorities in a report that might make its way into the inbox of an AMPTP executive or two, but our agenda was aggressive and focused on the issues our members cared about most.
“Then the COVID-19 crisis hit. Our bargaining agenda is still smart and achievable, but negotiations will be starting later than usual. The MBA was set to expire on May 1. It has now been extended until June 30. Negotiation will begin, with remote digital participation, in mid-May. In the coming weeks we will organize meetings with members to discuss the bargaining issues in greater detail. Our MBA captains have been meeting and they are ready to do whatever needs to be done to ensure we get the best possible contract.
“When the pandemic struck, we set about learning as much as possible about its impact on our members. We talked with shops and activists and rank and file members. We met with employers and committees and our sister unions. We conducted a detailed survey of the impact of the crisis on TV, SVOD, and feature writers. So far, they have mostly kept working, although we are paying close attention to the possible impact on development deals and projects such as greenlit pilots, series, and features that will be affected by the shut-down in production.”
“After 9/11, the first question people would ask each other was, ‘Is everyone okay?’ It was the gentlest way of finding out about loved ones lost in the attack, or about people affected by the toxic cloud or the sudden disruption of housing and workplaces, especially in New York. Here we are, in mid-2020, asking each other a similar question, usually framed as a statement of cautious optimism: ‘I hope you and yours are healthy and safe.’
“Of course, many of our members and loved ones and neighbors are not healthy, and no one is completely safe, yet. We have lost too many to COVID-19. Everyone’s life has been upended. The way we work, take care of our families, relate to our friends – every aspect of our lives has been transformed.
“Despite these huge challenges, the WGA East remains strong, active, and involved in our members’ work lives. Our members remain engaged in all aspects of the union’s work, looking out for one another and for the industries in which we work. As terrifying as things are in the time of pandemic and economic collapse, I am inspired by this union and its members and employees, and by the labor movement and its members and leaders.:
We learned very early in this crisis that the WGAE had to be proactive, to plan for the unimaginable, and to be creative and nimble in all aspects of our work. We shifted quickly to work-at-home for the entire staff, which was a real adjustment for a union whose fundamental activity consists of getting people together to build and exercise power collectively. Everyone on staff adapted their work procedures quickly and (more or less) seamlessly.
At first we really did not know how the coronavirus pandemic would affect our members. We knew it was critical to make sure members who report to work in a writers room or a newsroom were protected from infection. As the economy transitioned to full-on downturn, as productions simply shut down, and as newsrooms started to adjust to the imperatives of social distancing and declining revenue, we rapidly focused our energy and attention to learning as much as we possibly could about members’ actual experiences. Were TV and SVOD writers still working, but from home? What protections were employers offering to people who were still reporting to the jobsite – masks, disinfectant, staggered schedules?
First and foremost, all of our representatives (business agents, field representatives, organizers, and others) spent many hours reaching out to Guild stewards, captains, and activists to keep track of what was happening in real time. We could no longer do shop visits but we could do phone calls and emails and Zoom and slack and all of the other digital tools. Our strategy has included two fundamental principles: gather as much information as possible, and get members engaged in all aspects of the struggle to stay safe and to maintain workplace standards, including pay and benefits.
“We are paying close attention to the possible effect of the pandemic on members’ ongoing eligibility for benefits from the Producer-Writers Guild health plan. We have communicated regularly with the health plan, which is monitoring eligibility carefully. Ultimately, any effort to extend coverage to people who drop out of eligibility will probably require the agreement of trustees appointed by the employers that contribute to the fund, so this is a story still unfolding.”
With respect to the WGA’s ongoing battle with Hollywood’s biggest packaging agencies, Peterson said: “It has been more than a year since the members of the WGAE and the WGAW voted overwhelmingly to refuse to be represented by any talent agency that was not signatory to a Guild agreement. This is a remarkable, unprecedented show of solidarity.”
“The WGAW, WGAE, and three of the big four agencies are also pursuing litigation,” Peterson wrote, but he didn’t mention that a federal judge has dismissed most — but not all — of the WGA’s antitrust claims against WME, CAA and UTA. “The Guilds, and some members who have been affected by packaging, allege that the agencies have violated their fiduciary duty and state and federal anti-trust law (and some additional statutes) by engaging in packaging. The agencies allege that the guilds have violated anti-trust law by challenging the practice. There has been motion practice and discovery has commenced. It is unlikely that there will be a definitive decision before the end of the year. At this point, essentially all of the talent agencies have signed a Guild Code except the big four.”
The WGA East also represents news writers, and Lowell noted that some news freelancers “are reporting cuts in hours, and we have seen significant layoffs and furloughs at several digital shops; active shop committees have fought against the cuts and have ensured that the members’ actual concerns are addressed.”
“Collective action works. Members have mobilized in Albany, in D.C., and in their workplaces to win protections during the pandemic. The WGAE continues to expand its sights. We’re exploring scripted podcasting, organizing digital and non-fiction, winning concrete gains in equity and inclusion.
“[WGA East members] have mobilized very effectively to win an extension of the New York state COBRA subsidy program and, at the federal level, to ensure that gig workers in entertainment and freelance/independent contractors in news (and elsewhere) are eligible for benefits under the CARES Act. Members are now mobilizing to win federal support for the news industry, which has taken a beating with a steep drop in advertising revenue. Leaders in news shops compiled a list of best practices to ensure workplace safety and to minimize layoffs; our sister unions have embraced these principles.
“We negotiated a groundbreaking first contract at CBSN, the first anchored live-streamed news network to unionize. The WGAE is learning as much as possible about scripted podcasting – meeting with members, crafting some podcasts-about-podcasting, and conducting a survey of members and others who have created or worked on scripted podcast series. We have studied TV mini-rooms.
“In mid-2019 we won the first-in-nation tax credit for TV diversity, and our mentorship programs for TV and feature writers have expanded. We asked showrunners to restate our collective commitment to a professional environment where people can do their work from harassment and other misconduct. Nonfiction writer-producers continue to organize, and they have mobilized around a petition calling on the networks and streaming services that depend on nonfiction series to support the people whose series have shut down because of the pandemic.”
In conclusion, Peterson wrote, “I am proud to be part of this union, and I thank you and our staff for your commitment to our work.”