Lowell Peterson WGA East President
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Peterson: member earnings strong, guild finances solid

The exec director of the Writers Guild of America East has issued an upbeat assessment of the guild’s outlook, pointing to improved finances and organizing efforts — while conceding there are darkening prospects for the labor movement.

The guild posted the letter from exec director Lowell Peterson on its web site Thursday.

“Reports of labor’s demise might be premature, but the news is not good: The percentage of people in the American workforce represented by unions is at an historic low,” Peterson said. “Decades of attacks by powerful corporate interests and conservative politicians seem to have paid off, and the labor movement is struggling for survival. Fortunately, the Writers Guild of America East is doing well.”

Peterson said member earnings are strong and the finances are solid for the New York-based WGA East, which had 3,622 members in good standing as of last July.

“Almost all high-quality, high-budget scripted programs on broadcast and cable television are written under Writers Guild contracts, as are most larger-budget feature films in the U.S.,” he added. “The anti-union wolf is not at the door.”

But Peterson also noted that the WGA East is part of a broader labor movement that is in real trouble.

“Even in our own industries, there are fundamental shifts in how projects are developed, funded, produced and distributed.” he added. “That is why we continue to devote energy and resources to organizing, to training members in new ways to work, to building our creative community, to enhancing work opportunities and to thinking about new ways to represent members in an increasingly contingent job market.”

The report included the disclosure that the guild’s finances have improved, citing “realistic” operating budgets and close attention to expenditures. A spokesman said revenues for the fiscal year ended March 31 were $5.64 million and expenses were $5.13 million.

“Dues revenues have continued to trend upward,” the spokesman said. “We have managed to replenish reserves we tapped to cover the cost of moving to our current offices. We are doing well enough that we added a full-time staffer in the organizing department – bringing that department to five, in total (which is substantial for a 4,000 person union).”

Peterson noted that the guld has made inroads in organizing in nonfiction basic cable television.

“Although nonfiction shows constitute the majority of programming shown on cable television, this is a part of the industry that historically has been non-union,” he said. “We have won four representation elections at the National Labor Relations Board and are waiting for an NLRB ruling in a fifth, and we have communicated with hundreds of men and women about working conditions and the difficulties of sustaining meaningful careers without employer-paid benefits.”

The WGA East reached three-year master contract agreements in July with Lion Television and Optomen Prods. after more than a year of negotiations with the reality TV companies. Reality TV company Atlas Media was backed last month by the NLRB in its dispute with the WGA East over representing Atlas employees with the NLRB dismissing all unfair labor practice charges filed against Atlas.

Atlas contended that the guild no longer represents any Atlas employees while the WGA East is appealing the NLRB’s ruling.

Peterson also noted that the WGA East negotiated three-year successor contracts with CBS News and ABC News this past winter. And he asserted that the screenwriter members are seeing a higher level of alleged abuses.

“It has never been easy to build a career writing feature films, but screenwriter members report increased pressure from studios and producers to write for free in order to get a job, to keep a job or to stay in the running for jobs in the future,” he said. “These demands are improper and actionable. Our figures indicate that many members are very much able to get paid for their film work, but it is clear that the types of movies being made, the budgets, and the deal structures are changing, and often not to the benefit of the writer.”

Peterson made no mention of prepping for negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in 2014 on a successor feature-primetime deal. The current three-year deal expires on May 1, 2014.

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