Members of the Writers Guild of America have at last approved a new contract with producers, ending months of doubt over the guild’s ability to pull its troops into line.
The vote, considering the internecine battles that preceded it, was remarkably decisive, with 80% of voting members favoring the pact with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and the major networks. Of the 3,089 valid ballots cast, 2,474 were for the contract, and 615 against.
“This is a great result for the guild,” WGA West president Dan Petrie Jr. said Friday afternoon after the votes were counted. “It shows a clear direction from the membership and now it’s up to the guild not to waste this opportunity. We’ve got to show that we are using that unity in ways that directly benefit writers.”
Petrie said he was “pleased about the lowering of the emotional temperature around this ratification vote.”
The contract was rejected by a narrow margin in September on its first ratification attempt, leading to a vitriolic spat between guild officers in New York and Los Angeles.
Negotiated contract again
After laying down their poison, they sat with producers and renegotiated some aspects; the WGA extracted some further concessions from management, although not nearly enough to satisfy the pact’s opponents. They accused negotiators of capitulating to the bosses’ demand for a two-year study of residuals, effectively postponing any immediate progress on the issue.
The WGA has the option of participating in the residuals study, which was agreed to by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists in their contract talks. In any event, representatives for the writers have vowed to resume negotiating foreign television and basic cable residuals within a week.
Given that most of the opposition to the pact last fall came from Eastern members, Friday’s vote was significant for its uniformity, with percentages on both coasts nearly identical.
In the West, 2,492 members cast valid ballots, with 2,002 “yes” votes, or 80%, and 490 “no” votes, or 20%.
In the east, there were 597 votes, with 472 (79%) in the affirmative column and 125 (21%) in the negative.
The three-year contract is effective retroactively from May 2 this year through May 1, 2001.
3.5% annual increase
Under its terms, minimums in screen and non-network TV will increase by 3.5% in each year of the agreement, for a total increase of 10.9%. Foreign and domestic television residuals will also increase by 10.9%, while daytime serial breakdown minimums will increase by 4.0% each year, for a total of 12.5% for the term of the pact. Primetime minimums at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will increase by a total of 9.3% over three years.
Residuals for primetime reruns on Fox will be increased by 10%, retroactive to May 2, rising an additional 10% on May 2, 1999. After the second increase, a second run in primetime on Fox would pay 66.6% of the applicable minimum.
Increases in residuals for made-for-pay-TV and made-for-video programs will be made retroactive to May 2. For pay-TV movies, break amounts are eliminated and replaced by a 2% royalty after 10 pay TV exhibition days or one year.
For the first time, contributions to the pension plan and health fund will apply to purchases of literary material. Also for the first time, writers earning $200,000 or more in one cycle will be able to “bank” contributions on earnings for one additional year of health coverage.
The guild and the companies plan to make three additional recommendations to the health fund trustees, a body comprised equally of guild and company appointees:
- Dedication of about $20 million from the reserves of the fund to establish long-term fund protections for certified retiree health coverage. The so-called “boomer fund” will create a mechanism to insure the viability of the benefit when the boomer generation retires.
- Consideration of additional “banking” provisions for writers to assure extended coverage during periods of non-employment.
- Reduction of the contribution rate by 0.25% and restoring that amount to minimums for writing services.
Other improvements in the contract include: security interest provisions to guarantee residuals payments in bankruptcies; the extension of a residuals payment audit fund; expedited arbitration procedures for residuals cases, particularly instances in which the paying company is economically irresponsible or unstable; and expedited arbitration for re-acquisition of original screenplays.
In addition, the guild plans to have three meetings a year of both the screen and TV committees on the professional status of writers, and will establish a sub-committee of screenwriters and CEOs who will study the issues of late payments and free rewrites.
In a statement released by his office, Petrie said the vote was “the fitting outcome of a sometimes painful journey we’ve been on, as an organization and as one community of professional writers. We are, without doubt, stronger for having undertaken it.”