Last week’s Writers Guild of America endorsement of film and TV composers’ attempts to union ize through the Teamsters was a big boost for the musicians. It not only adds the backing of some heavyweight Hollywood names, but it also comes with a good deal of historical precedent.
Nearly 20 years ago, the WGA supported the fledgling Society of Composers & Lyricists in its at tempts to re-establish a union for those who pen scores and songs for movies and TV. A previous entity, the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, disbanded in 1982 after a long series of battles with the studios and networks over how music writers were treated.
The CLGA, launched in 1954, successfully negotiated with producers throughout the 1960s, setting minimum wages, guaranteeing screen credits and establishing health and welfare benefits for members.
Its members included virtually every top composer and songwriter in Hollywood, from Henry Mancini to Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.
But strikes, lawsuits and general disagreements over copyright ownershi p of music written for films and TV took their toll.
Producers refused to negotiate and the CLGA was eventually bankrupted after more than a decade of legal wrangling. Studios later took the position that composers were ineligible for union benefits as “independent contractors,” and subsequent efforts to re-establish a union were rebuffed by the National Labor Relations Board.
With an organizing meeting set for April 19, WGA West president John Wells said his guild is ready to support a new effort. “We think it’s a worthy cause,” Wells said.
“These people are our peers and collaborators, and they certainly deserve to have fair representation, and pension and health benefits available to them, as well as standardized working conditions. We will be supportive in any way that we can.”
The WGA has made its Beverly Hills theater available to the new Assn. of Media Composers and Lyricists (AMCL) for the organizing meeting. About 300 composers and songwriters turned out for a November meeting in Burbank, and nearly 900 invitations have gone out for this next meeting.
Teamsters Local 399, which successfully organized casting directors in 2006, has taken on the task of organizing the group, which is seen as a traditionally solitary bunch. (The Society of Composers & Lyricists, which has not taken a position on unionization, is a support group for composers and songwriters but not a guild or union.)
Several leading composers and songwriters have announced their support for the effort. Quincy Jones told Daily Variety : “I am totally with them. It is simply wrong to take advantage of artists in the manner that (producers) have.”
Oscar winners Randy Newman and Marilyn and Alan Bergman have also attached their names to the cause.
“I’m for it,” said Newman. “The TV guys are making what they made in the 1960s. They do these all-in deals,” he said, referring to “package” contracts in which the composer absorbs all music-related costs and is often left with little or nothing at the end. “That is not right, and it’s gone on,” he said.
Marilyn Bergman, former president of ASCAP, not only remembers the CLGA but was among the leaders of the attempt to reunionize in the 1980s. “What’s happened since then is intolerable, just terrible, particularly for the television composers,” said Bergman. “I think (unionizing) is imperative.”
The organizing committee includes Emmy-winning composers Bruce Broughton (“Dallas”), Mike Post (“Law & Order”), W.G. Snuffy Walden (“The West Wing”), Sean Callery (“24”), Alf Clausen (“The Simpsons”) and James DiPasquale (“The Shell Seekers”).
Broughton, chairman of the committee, noted the significance of the WGA’s endorsement.
“The Writers Guild has always been supportive of the composers,” he said. “When the composers tried to unionize in the early ’80s through the SCL, it was done with Writers Guild help.”
“Friday Night Lights” composer Walden noted that, “we are the only people on the set, including the caterers and the secretaries, who don’t have health and welfare. There are guys coming up, in their 20s and 30s, who are going to be forced out if they can’t even take care of their families.”
The Teamsters are believed to want three-fourths of all working composers and lyricists to sign union cards before formalizing a deal to represent them in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Broughton said the group would initially seek health and pension benefits but that he expected questions on workplace conditions to surface at the April 19 meeting.
The AMPTP already negotiates with the American Federation of Musicians, whose contracts cover orchestration, conducting, preparing and performing music but not the act of creating music or lyrics.