John McLean gives first interview post-firing
A year after it ended, the WGA strike remains a landmark event in Hollywood history that still provokes strong emotions.
Former WGA West exec director John McLean, in his first interview since being fired in 2005, believes the writers’ deal has received far more credit than it deserves.
“I think it is a terrible deal — perhaps the worst deal ever negotiated by the creative guilds,” McLean said. “If it was the best deal negotiated in the last 30 years, why did the WGA keep their members on strike for an additional three weeks after the DGA made their deal? Why hasn’t SAG stepped up and taken this great deal?”
McLean also stressed that the WGA, DGA, SAG and AFTRA have to work together more effectively if they’re going to make better deals. And he said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, used a “divide and conquer” strategy to provoke the WGA to strike early rather than go out later in a strike with SAG and AFTRA.
“It should have been evident to the WGA leadership what Counter was orchestrating, and it should not have been provoked into a premature strike,” McLean said. “If the WGA had not struck in November but waited until July, they could have presented a united front to the producers. Further, it would have put the DGA in a much stronger bargaining position.”
Labor relations expert Daniel Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at UCLA, disagrees that the WGA should have waited.
“The WGA had the accident of good timing,” Mitchell noted. “The economy had not gone into the tank, they didn’t have another union saying that they’d sign a deal as AFTRA did, and there was a greater degree of internal unity. So in retrospect, the strike turned out to be well timed.”
David Young — McLean’s successor at the WGA West — believes as Mitchell does.
“It’s obvious that it was the right decision to go when we did,” Young asserted. “They had not stockpiled on features, we hit them during the height of TV season, we avoided SAG’s internal problems, and we pushed the DGA to our bottom line.”
Mitchell also gives the WGA leadership credit for putting pressure on the congloms by generating public support. “Unions will often make their case to the public, such as an ad during a supermarket strike, but the WGA was very creative about how it went about that, such as all the YouTube postings,” he added.
WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA prexy Michael Winship have remained unapologetic, stressing that the companies were so intransigent that they had no choice but to go on strike.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we made the right decision to go out when we did, although only after all other options were exhausted,” Winship said. “We believed, and all evidence seemed to indicate, that the members of the AMPTP were banking on the notion that no action would take place until the SAG contract expired. They were acting accordingly — stockpiling scripts in anticipation of that deadline, etc. Because we were outgunned, we engaged in what was a form of asymmetric warfare, and that element of surprise, the ability to change strategy at the moment we did, was key, I believe, to our ultimate success.”
As for the WGA deal, Verrone and Winship have asserted that while the pact fell far short of what writers deserved, it was also the best they could do after being out on strike for three months. And they’ve noted the strike opened the door for writers to create their own material for the Web.
“The deal that we got is still evolving as we speak,” Winship said. “Even though so many said that no one knew what the relationship would be between our members and the new media, we knew it was crucial to establish that such a relationship existed, period, and then figure out how best to define and make it work for us. The bottom line remains what it always was: When you get paid, we get paid.”
The DGA, which made the deal that led to the end of the strike, remains cautious beyond touting the gains in new-media jurisdiction and access to data. “We’ve got our foot in the door, and we want an honorable, honest accounting,” DGA prexy Michael Apted noted in an interview last month about state of the guild.
Meanwhile, the writers strike continues to propel the seemingly endless saga at SAG. Control has shifted to a moderate coalition that’s now fired Doug Allen twice for being too eager to replicate the WGA strike, and president Alan Rosenberg has sued the guild and the 41 members who fired Allen.
Though booted out, Allen continues to dump on the DGA deal while never mentioning the WGA deal — even though the latter is the mirror image of the former.
“In the first half of 2008, the DGA new-media deal was heralded as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘excellent,’ ” he said in a recent open letter. “No one uses those terms anymore, and most debate among union members is not about how good the deal is; rather, it is about the best strategy to overcome it … whether to fight it now or to live to fight it another day.”
McLean agrees with Allen about the WGA’s deal on four fronts: The companies don’t pay on 100% of digital revenues; the deal includes 17- and 24-day windows where writers are not paid residuals for the streaming of shows; there’s no improvement in DVD residuals; and there’s no jurisdiction over reality shows due to the WGA’s insistence on negotiating that provision into the master contract rather than organizing on a show-by-show basis as the DGA has done, reaching deals on over 100 shows.
Young strongly disagrees.
“We broke a long pattern of missing out every time that there was a new technology,” he notes. “Our membership had two bottom line positions — jurisdiction over original content for new media and reuse of traditional content on new media — and we achieved that.”
McLean’s also dismissive of the notion that the WGA strike increased the DGA’s leverage when the directors began their negotiations.
“When DGA entered into negotiations in late December (2007), their members who work in TV had already been on a de facto strike for eight weeks,” he said. “When a guild enters early negotiations, its most effective weapon is not a strike but the threat to leave negotiations. This threat would clearly ring hollow to the producers considering that the DGA members had already been on a de facto eight-week strike and their below-the-line members had (nothing) or little at stake on the strike issues of digital and new-media residuals.”
As for SAG, McLean advised that the actors turn their attention to the 2011 round of negotiations.
“SAG failed to heed the godfather’s advice to his son — ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ ” McLean said. “SAG allowed their friends at the WGA to strike prematurely and their adversaries at AFTRA to go off and make their own deal. Once WGA and AFTRA made their deal, SAG’s position was untenable. SAG has lost this game, and they need to get focused on the next game. SAG needs to heal their rift with AFTRA. Any time two unions share the same jurisdiction, they need to stand together or it will be a race to the bottom.”
SAG’s strike authorization is still on the table, but it’s doubtful such a vote would reach the required 75% support among those casting ballots. By contrast, the WGA strike authorization received over 92% support, as did the ratification.
“I probably lost more in the first week of that strike than I ever have hopes of getting back,” said writer-producer Steve Levitan, one of the organizers of the United Showrunners coalition that rallied scribes in the early weeks of the strike. “I don’t expect the economics to make sense for me. But the principles made sense for me. And they still do.”
As for the long-term impact of the strike and the WGA pact, Levitan, who’s now at work on a comedy pilot for ABC and 20th Century Fox TV, said it’s hard to gauge given the nation’s larger economic woes.
“It’s so unbelievably overshadowed by the economic situation that it’s hard to get any real perspective on gains or losses,” Levitan said. “As SAG is discovering, had the economic situation been this dire back then, we would probably have had a very different situation.”
WGA member and animation writer Richard Mueller recalls the strike with mixed feelings since the WGA wasn’t able to achieve jurisdiction in animation.
“We were always the guild’s poor stepchild,” Mueller said. “We figured that if push came to shove, we’d be the first ones put out of the lifeboat, and so it came to pass. At least the reality writers got a T-shirt. But most of us stuck it out, and we were there day after day and proud when the strike ended in a victory of sorts. Maybe next time we’ll do better, and we won’t have to eat in the kitchen at the kids’ table. Oh well, at least we got Barack Obama.”