WGA Issues: September 2007 Archives
Everything that has
transpired has done so
according to my designWhile the mainstream media continues to struggle in their effort to decipher the current state of Hollywood labor strife, I’m sitting here (in my trailer at 6:45 AM, thankyouverymuch) wondering when this narrative is ever going to stray from the formula.
As you might recall, I made a few simple predictions about how things were going to unfold. The WGAw would tepidly re-elect the Verrone group (not in terms of margin, but turnout), the WGA would stalemate its way through its negotiations and agree to work past a deadline, SAG would continue to posture threateningly (last week its members had an election choice between “militant guy” and “really militant guy”), and the DGA would likely step in and negotiate early in an attempt to short circuit the path to war.
Well, Verrone & Co. are safely back in office, SAG’s still flexing its biceps, our negotiations (now in round two) haven’t generated any exciting headlines yet, and now, as if on cue…
With Hollywood writers enmeshed in cantankerous contract talks with the studios, the DGA already has begun strategy meetings of its own. The development is sure to fuel further speculation that the oft-independent-minded directors will swoop into the mix of contracts talks to forge a template for other entertainment guilds to follow—like it or not.
There’s not really a question here, regardless of the word “speculation.” The DGA, whose contract expires this summer around the same time SAG’s does, will absolutely be negotiating early.
So here’s what is a question.
How aggressive will they be?
On the one hand, the DGA membership is less reliant on residuals (particularly their below-the-line members). On the other hand, they’ve got a stronger hand to play than usual. Even though the guilds don’t work together, in a funny way, they do work together. The more credible the strike threat from the WGA/SAG, the more leverage the DGA has in their “we’ll save you from a strike” negotiation.
While the WGA uses the strike stick, the DGA uses the carrot of stability, and stability has a very large and very real value for the AMPTP companies.
In another twist, however. I suspect the DGA is aware that if they don’t nail down a reasonable formula for internet download residuals (and “reasonable” is the rub), then the WGA and SAG won’t swallow their pill, and a strike will ensue.
Furthermore, if the DGA doesn’t make a deal, it could be viewed by the WGA and SAG as a green light for a strike.
So if the DGA can’t make an early deal, the AMPTP has a major problem. If the DGA makes an early deal that doesn’t lock in a download rate, the AMPTP still has a major problem. But if the DGA makes a deal that does lock in a download rate, then folks…
…this one’s pretty much over.
SAG and the WGA will still have to haggle over various terms of the rate as they affect their memberships unique working issues, and there are certainly plenty of other matters to negotiate. The big one, though…the strike-worthy one…will be settled.
So, what’s my prediction?
I think the DGA will cut a deal. And I don’t think there will be a strike.
My last essay went over reeeeeeeeeally poorly with leadership (yeah, I heard from them), so I guess I’ll squeeze some more lighter fluid on the fire.
If you’re a WGAw member who attended an outreach meeting, you’re now getting emails from organizer Kim Hoffman that read as such:
Before anymore time passes I wanted to thank you for attending the Outreach Meeting at the home of [redacted]. To help us with future meetings please fill out and return to my attention the attached evaluation. I have included a Commitment Form and information about the Picket-Contract Captain Orientation for your convenience. Being a Picket-Contract Captain is a great way to meet other writers and play an active role during this historic time. Think of the stories!… If you have any questions feel free to contact me at 323-782-xxxx. Please pass my number along to any of your friends or colleagues who have questions. All the best, Kim
Captain a picket line and make friends? Collect stories???
What the fu——????
Striking isn’t about making friends and collecting glory days stories. It’s a drastic labor action in which people make serious personal sacrifices. If we strike, some people will stop working and never work again.
Strikes are sometimes necessary, but strikes are always bad. Why in God’s name would the Guild be sending out these kinds of smiley-face, “See the world, join the Navy!” kind of messages?
Hey, folks, trench warfare is a great way to make lifelong friends, and just think of the stories!!!!
Hey, Guild. Staffers. People who get paid by our dues. Dig this: we’re writers. We’re better at detecting bullshit in word form than anyone else. Sharpen the internal propaganda skills, or the rank and file are going to start marking this crap as spam.
As someone who has a vested interest in a unified membership should a strike come to pass, I’m telling you…this sort of poorly rendered “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” Jedi mind trick ain’t gonna cut it.
I’ve been largely silent on the upcoming WGAw elections, because it all seemed like a bit of a forgone conclusion. The Writers United (WU) slate, headed by Patric Verrone, will almost assuredly be re-elected. WGAw voters tend to be both apathetic and disinterested in switching horses midstream, and we’re certainly about as deep midstream as you can be right now.
But there’s one non-WU that really deserves your attention, not only because of what he’s saying, but because of what WU is saying about him.
He sent out a mailing recently. Here’s what he said.
Not being on the WU slate, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself…
I’m Jeff Kleeman, the ONLY member running for the board who was a former studio executive.
Having almost 2 decades of experience sitting on the other side of the table, I can bring the kind of real world knowledge to our guild that will not only give us a much greater advantage during the upcoming negotiations, but will also help the Guild navigate difficult issues such as free rewrites, late payments and how ancillary markets can be fully exploited.
There’s been an implication in some election materials that not voting for the entire Writers United slate would somehow weaken the guild during negotiations. In my view that’s both untrue and unworthy. I hope you’ll agree with me that the way to strengthen the guild is to elect the strongest possible board, and that the way to do that is to evaluate every candidate on his or her own merits.
Take a careful look at the WU candidates and ask yourself if there’s some redundancy. If they represent the fullest possible range of industry experience and knowledge. And then please consider finding the room to vote for me. I’ll inject new life into the Board and provide fresh perspectives while still maintaining the unity that’s so important as we move forward.
I can make a claim that few others can: almost all the writers who’ve endorsed me have worked with me. They’re not only attesting to my personal qualities, but also to my professional knowledge. Here are their names:
Daniel Petrie Jr.
(and the list goes on…)
Thank you for taking the time to read this and to consider voting for me.
All the best,
Okay, back to Craig.
Seems pretty reasonable. His basic position is that he’s a writer like you and I, but he also has experience seeing things from the other side of the table. That’s useful. Furthermore, he can serve as a bit of diverse and challenging thinking in a room that’s otherwise full of march-in-lockstep WUers.
The list of names supporting him includes such geniuses as myself…but more notably…politically diverse but highly respected Guild pols like John Wells, Dan Petrie Jr., Dennis Feldman, Aaron Mendelsohn, Ron Bass, Irma Kalish, etc. Interestingly, Wells has supported Verrone in the past, as has Feldman, Mendelsohn and even Bass.
In other words, this guy ain’t some nut.
He also takes issue with one of the WU’s most odious political tactics—their insistence that either you have to vote for the entire slate, or you’re somehow against “unity” and “strength.” This is pretty much tantamount to the “either you’re for the Iraq War or you hate America” school of thinking (and I’m a guy who has supported the war while very specifically refraining from questioning the patriotism of those who don’t).
Standing up in the middle of a democratic election and challenging the very validity of a diverse political body is, well, nuts. It’s nuts, it’s insulting to the electorate, and it’s also just plain wrong. The companies don’t think that a monolithic Guild leadership is more of a problem for them. I honestly don’t think they give a damn what the WGAw Board does at this point (which is largely the result of poor leadership decisions by the WU group), but the idea that the election of one dissenting voice to the Board will somehow cripple our union is flat out hysterical.
It’s so hysterical, I must say it’s intellectually dishonest…and yes, Phil and Tom, even though I consider you friends, c’mon. This kind of all-or-none rhetoric is far more divisive than the thought that your total hegemony should be challenged.
Phil and Tom wrote the response for the WU group. Here it is.
Dear Fellow Members,
In a recent email one of the candidates for the board characterized Writers United’s position as “unworthy.” We’re sorry but we take umbrage at that. Recommending that Guild members re-elect all the incumbents who have done so much to organize and strengthen our Guild is hardly “unworthy.” What’s unworthy, if anything, is the suggestion that our Guild needs someone “from the other side of the table” in our leadership. The candidate making that suggestion, self-described as serving almost two decades in management, has been a Guild member for only two years, so perhaps he should be excused if he doesn’t know or remember recent Guild history. But here’s the fact: our former executive director, who spent two decades in management, spent six years in our boardroom and on our negotiating committees reminding us of his kind of “real world knowledge” — and he left our Guild weaker than at any time in its 67 year history. In the unlikely event that the companies invite a writer into their leadership, maybe we’ll reconsider. But until then, we think our Guild has had quite enough of management’s point of view, thank you very much.
There are some great people running for the board. Some are part of Writers United, some aren’t. In any other year we might urge you to vote for any of them. But even someone from management would have to admit that in this election - in the middle of some of the most important negotiations in decades - the most powerful message we can send to management is a strong endorsement of our current direction and leadership.
Please join us in sending the strongest possible message to management by re-electing the Writers United candidates.
Phil Alden Robinson and Tom Schulman
“Well,” as Quentin Tarantino famously wrote, “allow me to retort.”
Phil and Tom say that recommending that Guild members re-elect all the incumbents who have done so much to organize and strengthen our Guild is hardly “unworthy.”
I disagree on a number of points. First, they haven’t done that much. I give the WGAw credit for getting our television showrunners to stand tough, and I like the results with the Comedy Central shows. But honestly…how are we in any different a position than we’ve ever been? The companies aren’t playing ball with us right now in the way we want. We will almost certainly work past our contract deadline (a strategy first introduced by the guy these dudes hate the most…John McLean), and once again, we’ll be looking to other unions to shake the tree loose for us. In the last two years, we’ve spent millions on reality with nothing to show for it but some very public black eyes, we’ve lost scads of top-level staffers with an enormous amount of institutional knowledge…
…so, sorry, but I don’t think we’re “stronger” than we used to be. I just think we’re all more pissed off than we used to be, but it’s not WU that’s accomplished that. The companies pulled that one off all on their own.
So yeah, insisting on the basis of track record that every single one of the WU candidates be reelected is definitely unworthy of the integrity and intelligence I know Phil and Tom to both possess (certainly in greater quantities than a few of their slatemates).
Then, Phil and Tom really blow it.
They go after the fact that Jeff Kleeman has only been a WGAw member for two years. How dare he question them! The little pisher!
Hey, guys, he qualified for membership. He paid his initiation fee, he pays his dues. WU is the group that keeps saying we should represent more writers, including hundreds of writers who aren’t even writers, but reality editors, and yet we’re supposed to look down on Jeff because he’s a recent member?
That’s just hypocritical and mean-spirited. Deserving of an apology, frankly. Phil is as good as anyone at giving a speech about what it means to be a union and why more writers should be in our union. How sad, then, to read him shoveling dirt on a guy because he’s a short-timer. How is this the spirit of unity? Isn’t this just the spirit of “unity, as long as you agree with me”? Where’s the interest in consensus? Where’s the belief in the value of collective wisdom and a plurality of viewpoints?
Then, it’s back to the usual grindstone. John McLean. Just as George W. Bush kept blaming Clinton, and just as Clinton blamed Bush Sr. before him, Phil and Tom keep beating the dead horse that is John McLean. First of all, they fired him two years ago. It’s enough already. Secondly, if they honestly believe that the Guild was at its weakest point ever in 2004/5, they need an MRI.
Weaker than we were in 1985, after a strike crumbled in two weeks under internal pressure from a large group of writers threatening to go ficore? Weaker than we were in 1988, after the longest strike in our union’s history failed to reverse rollbacks? Really? You know, I don’t mind a little bit of hyperbole, but this much of a whopper is delegitimizing, and makes me wonder why their pitch is so high (I have a theory, natch, but that’s coming in a bit).
Next, their central thesis.
But even someone from management would have to admit that in this election - in the middle of some of the most important negotiations in decades - the most powerful message we can send to management is a strong endorsement of our current direction and leadership
The most powerful message we, the writers of the WGA, can send to management is a HIGH TURNOUT for this vote.
A high turnout.
Not a landslide for Patric. Not a landslide for Jeff Kleeman.
A high turnout.
What the companies fear are strikes. Strikes are the function of the whole membership. They know that the whole membership votes on strikes. Only 20% of the membership bothers to vote in these dog-and-pony elections. If 80% of us voted in this election, then mark my words…no matter what the results, the companies would be shaken to the core.
Phil and Tom know this. I wish they wouldn’t write otherwise.
So what gives?
Why the hysterical response to a single, off-slate candidate’s email?
This is WU’s greatest weakness. The group of them, comprised by some terrific people (like Tom and Phil and Robert King), has far too thin a skin. They hate debating, they hate being disagreed with, they hate compromising. They want to talk to each other or people who already agree with them. They don’t want bad news. They don’t want to hear that maybe their plans are wrong. They appear to be a faith-based organization, and they believe that the key to their success is mass-belief. If we all believe in them, if we all agree with them, if we all vote for them….then they will get us what we want.
Naturally, I disagree. This may be, in part, because I’m not an idealist, I’m not religious, and ultimately, I’m pretty much devoid of faith.
I’m a pragmatist. I’ve always felt kindred spirits in guys like Robert King and John Bowman, who are also pragmatists. Robert and I disagree on a lot, but I like the way he tackles problems. Same for John. Same for Ron Bass.
And, in a funny way…same for Patric Verrone.
I think Patric, in fact, devised this “vote for us all if you love your Guild” as a pragmatic strategy for winning elections, and it’s been working.
Good for him.
Good for all of them.
All I ask is that they not use their non-idealist cudgel of Fake Idealism to beat up one of the few frickin’ people that dared run against their political machine. Rather, show Jeff Kleeman the respect he deserves as a brother in our union, and as a writer with both the opinions and the balls to run for office.
He put his finger right on the hypocrisy of the “us or weakness” baloney that WU likes to peddle. Don’t crush him for it.
Hell, welcome him into the fold. He’s intelligent enough to read the WU strategy for what it is, and with the stakes as high as they are right now, we need all the smart, perceptive, analytical brains we can get.
Vote Jeff Kleeman for the Board!
Big news in the world of the WGA this past week. No, it’s not about how we’re going to sit back down at the bargaining table (I still expect that to be as relevant as post-season strategy for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays).
Mona Mangan, the Executive Director of the WGA East, has announced her impending retirement.
My immediate reaction was a simple “Thank God.”
Before I explain why I’m so happy Mona is leaving, let me first make it clear that I have no personal issues with Ms. Mangan. My quarrels with her are entirely professional.
The Executive Director is a critical position. The ED runs the staff (including all hiring and firing), the ED executes all policy, the ED acts as “chief negotiator” during collective bargaining…and more to the point, the ED really runs the union during the 353 days of the year the Board or Council isn’t meeting.
Mona has been running the WGA East for 29 years.
Since her rise, the West has had a number of different Executive Directors. Naomi Gurian, Brian Walton, John McLean and now David Young. Those four people are very, very different, and they were each supported by differing factions within the WGAw. They all, however, share one thing in common.
They despise Mona.
Mona’s reputation was summed up as such in THR.
But those at the networks and Mangan critics in the WGA West—where jurisdictional disputes have caused hard feelings in some quarters over the years—tend to fault Mangan’s personal negotiating style, which they claim is long on formality and short on practicality.
That’s a bit of a whitewash. Mona is long on formality, but what she’s really short on, in my humble opinion, is managerial, political or negotiating talent.
As I see it, Mona either takes forever to close deals (she got the 2003 PBS contract ratified a few weeks before it expired) or simple has no end-game in sight (see her current disaster of a negotiation, the CBS Newswriter stalemate). During my brief exposure to her, I was neither impressed by her grasp of facts or detail or strategy.
In short, I think she sucked at her job.
More damning that that…I don’t know anyone in WGA west leadership (membership or staff) who disagrees with me. No one. For all of our fights over negotiating strategies, credits, priorities, militance, etc., Mona is the great Unifier.
However, suckage wasn’t Mona’s greatest liability.
If Mona was really good at one thing, it was her ability to stay in power. She accomplished that a number of ways, but I think one of her aces in the hole was her identity as “the defender of the beleaguered East against the bullying West.”
Allow me to explain.
The WGA west is much bigger than the East. We have close to three times as many members. Furthermore, almost all of our members are screenwriters or television writers, whereas something like a third of the WGAE’s members are newswriters. Newswriters tend to earn less, which means that the WGAw brings in much more in dues money every year. On top of that, the WGAw controls the negotiation process for the “big” MBA that governs television and screenwriting. Finally, the membership requirements to get into the WGAw are more stringent than those in the East (to get into the WGAw you have to do a certain amount of covered work, whereas in the East you simply need any covered work). The WGAw thus has a staff of nearly 200 employees; the WGAE gets by with about 30. The WGAw has probably 30 attorneys on the payroll; the WGAE has two, I think.
You can see the circumstances. The WGAE has a natural inclination to feel bullied by their big brother in the west, and the WGAw has a natural inclination to feel like they’re dragging a “dead Siamese twin” around (credit for that goes to Tim O’Donnell).
But wait. Why are there two unions at all?
Well, back in the 40’s, this made…oh…20% sense. It was never reasonable. The divisions of the two unions had a lot to do with the divisions between the political groups that gave rise to them. Still, with New York as a dominant television center and Los Angeles as a film center, and with geography still a major issue in the way work was done, it wasn’t the craziest idea.
Today? In 2007? When everything is digital and businesses are scattered around the world and information moves at the speed of light? No. The idea of two unions delinated by geography is beyond moronic.
So why hasn’t merger occurred?
One possible answer is….Mona.
In 2006, Mona’s salary was $434,323. The total amount the WGAE paid out in salary in 2006 was $2,313,831. This means that Mona, one person, accounted for nearly 20% of the entire salary expenditure of the union she directed.
To put that in context, in 2006 the WGAw paid out about $500,000 to our Executive Director (that amount was split between John McLean, who was fired, and David Young, who replaced him). Total salary paid out by the WGAw in 2006? $11,582,000. While Mona soaks up 20% of the WGAE payroll, our E.D. accounts for about 4%.
That huge difference tells you a lot. For the size of her union, Mona was overcompensated…and one way to protect that overcompensation was to make sure no one killed the golden goose.
By “golden goose” I mean “stupid two union system.”
Our two unions account for enormous redundancy. We have two E.D.’s, two credits departments, two Presidents, two Boards, two magazines, two newsletters, two buildings, two staffs, two outside counsels……
Besides, there are literally ZERO issues that are geographically determined. Take me (WGAw, lives in Southern California) and my friend Stephen Schiff (WGAE, lives in Manhattan). He writes movies. I write movies. He gets residuals, I get residuals. He goes through credit arbitrations, so do I. All the same rules.
I’ll add some irony. He tends to write for companies located in Los Angeles, and I tend to write for companies located in Manhattan.
Why the hell are we in two different unions?
In my opinion, there have been two roadblocks to merger. The first is Mona, who certainly had circumstantial reasons to oppose merger. The second is the issue of newswriters.
Newswriters work under a different contract than screen and television writers. In their current situation, it shouldn’t be that big of a power gain for them to have a greater say in the WGAE than they would in, say, one big union…because they’re under a different contract.
Ahhhh, but newswriters are guaranteed a certain amount of positions on the WGAE Council, and that council votes on things like accepting or rebuffing MBA contracts, striking over MBA contracts, etc. So in the WGAE, newswriters actually have guaranteed votes on whether or not screenwriters or television writers should strike, take a contract, etc.
That’s power they probably don’t want to cede. Furthermore, when they’re a third of the membership of a smaller union, they will always have a bigger voice in that union.
So what’s the answer?
I propose that once Mona’s gone, the two unions move immediately to create a merged union that would function as such:
One National Union
It’s called the WGA. Main office in the West, smaller adjunct office in the East. That union has a National Board that meets twice a year or so, in order to approve general matters of allocation, major staff issues, etc. But the real work of the union is done by…
Screen & Television Writers of America and News Writers of America. The STWA and the NWA (heh) are essentially locals of the WGA. They are subunions with their own leadership, their own Executive Directors, their own negotiating committees, their own elections, their own contracts, etc.
They don’t touch each other in any way.
If you write a movie or television show under a MBA contract, you’re in the STWA, local of the WGA. Doesn’t matter if you live in L.A., New York or somewhere in deep space.
If you write news under a MBA contract, you’re in the NWA, local of the WGA. Same deal. Location is irrelevant. Everything’s about the work you’re doing, not the zip code in which you’re doing it.
At long last, our union wouldn’t be a house divided by nonsense politics, baloney recriminations and petty turf wars.
There is no justification to divide a union by geography, and there is every justification to divide it by work area. Our current arrangement is a disaster.
Everyone knows it.
And the solution is painfully obvious.
Now that Mona is leaving, I believe there’s a chance the painfully obvious can become joyously real.