Toppers say they've got members' backing

The Writers Guild of America isn’t backing down.

Despite being the current focus of showbiz anxiety about a possible strike, its leaders are unapologetic about the course they’ve chosen — stressing that standing up for the 13,000 members of the WGA doesn’t necessarily mean a work stoppage when the current guild contract expires on Halloween.

Both Chris Albers, president of the WGA East, and Patric Verrone, prez of the WGA West, were easily elected a year and a half ago on platforms that stressed taking a more assertive tack in negotiations and devoting more of the guild’s resources to organizing non-union work.

They both insist that they’ve continued to get plenty of backing from members — an assertion supported by the fact that last fall’s elections saw members choose candidates who espoused the same kind of platforms that Albers and Verrone offered in 2005.

“I think the members are OK once we can explain our approach, part of which is that we don’t want to go on strike,” Albers notes. “But the sexy line is always that there’s going to be a strike. And I resent the companies fanning those flames.”

Verrone agrees that while the studios and networks may not like the guild’s approach — such as opting to start negotiations in July, rather than last month — it’s fine with his constituents.

“I’ve always felt like we’ve been successful with our audience in prepping them, and that’s now turning to resolve,” he adds. “If it takes protracted negotiations, or a strike, we’re ready.”

Both presidents cite what they believe is an unprecedented level of outreach to members through lunches, dinners, parties, meetings with showrunners and screenwriters and emails. Lots of emails.

“I get a dozen a day,” Verrone admits.

On Feb. 6, the guild appointed a negotiating committee. That panel will need about six weeks to form a “pattern of demands,” which will give the town some indication of exactly where the WGA’s aiming to revamp the contract.

As mandated by the org’s constitution, the WGA membership must approve the pattern of demands for negotiations to start.

Verrone believes the outreach is working far more effectively than in the previous two negotiations in 2001 and 2004, to the point that it’s putting a bit of a damper on strike speculation. “I think we’ve managed to shout down the fearmongers” is how he puts it.

Still, the negotiations won’t be easy since the guild will be aiming for better terms and for coverage in the rapidly changing era that features downloads, iPods and cell phone mobisodes.

And unions leaders are painfully aware that more than 20 years ago, the WGA, DGA and SAG made the initial homevideo deals that allowed companies to exclude 80% of wholesale revenues from residual calculations — a formula that has never been revised despite the eventually massive size of the homevid industry.

Companies have insisted for years that they’re 1) barely making a profit under growing pressure from Wall Street, so they 2) can’t afford to give the guilds any more because of changing business models and 3) are perturbed by seeming lack of gratitude from well-compensated writers wanting more.

In short, should the companies insist that they’re not ready to give writers a bigger cut on what may be the digital bonanza, negotiations could turn rocky.

“We’ve been down this road before,” Albers notes. “They say there’s no business model, then they don’t want to talk about it when it starts to make money.”

Albers and Verrone can point to one unqualified success — they’ve managed to put an end to what had been a bitter battle between the West and the East.

“We’ve accomplished a lot, and we’ve done that by focusing on the writers, so I feel like we’re really back on track,” Albers asserts. “And I think they’ve been very encouraged to see the East and West put aside their differences and join forces to work together.”

But other efforts have generated mixed results. The WGA East has seen its negotiations on newsroom employees at ABC and CBS drag into what will soon be their third year with no end in sight.

And organizing has been slow, with the best success coming from getting Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” under guild jurisdiction.

On the other hand, a months-long effort to organize “America’s Next Top Model” via a strike by the dozen writers — including an October rally with 900 guild members and supporters attending — wound up leading to those writer slots being eliminated.

Albers and Verrone remain undaunted and note that organizing can take an inordinately long time.

“We are going to continue to apply the pressure,” Verrone promises.

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