Ten years ago this month, veteran news and documentary scribe Michael Winship was elected president of the WGA East’s governing council. A week later he was on a plane to Los Angeles, where the WGA East and WGA West’s joint contract negotiations with the major studios were turning ugly, setting the course for the 100-day strike that began on Nov. 5, 2007.
Winship’s tenure began with a trial by fire and comes to a close just a few months after another round of film and TV contract talks went down to the wire amid the specter of a crippling walkout by writers.
After serving five consecutive terms — making him the second-longest tenured president in WGA East history behind Herb Sargent — Winship formally hands the baton today to Beau Willimon, who ran for the office unopposed. Winship has earned the respect of industry writers for his steady and effective leadership of the WGAE. But after 10 years, he felt it was high time for a change, for the guild that represents about 4,000 TV, film, news and digital writers east of the Mississippi River, as well as for himself.
“I thought 10 was a good round number,” Winship told Variety.
Winship has spent most of his presidency working as a senior writer for the Bill Moyers-hosted public TV series “Moyers & Company” and for its website, BillMoyers.com. During his long career, he’s worked in everything from documentaries and news to children’s programming to comedy-variety shows. That breadth of experience has served him well as guild president — that and his “abiding love” of movies and TV. “I’ve usually been able to relate to what the members may be going through,” he said.
He also worked in politics early in his career and had exposure to leaders in New York state and on Capitol Hill. But nothing quite prepared him for the whirlwind of demands that came with the 2007-2008 strike.
“I remember being stunned on the first day of picketing outside of 30 Rock,” he said. “I’d gotten there at 8 o’clock in the morning and there was nobody there. I was so worried that nobody was going to come. Forty-five minutes later there were 500 people there.”
And while the film and TV writers were taking to the streets, the WGAE was also in the thick of bare-knuckle negotiations on a contract for news writers at CBS and ABC, Winship added.
The WGA has been able to make steady gains in its master film and TV contracts because of the solidarity among the membership and because of the collaborative spirit between the two unions. That wasn’t always the case for the guilds, which had a history of contentious relations in the past.
Winship sought from the start to build on the efforts to improve communications established by his immediate predecessors, Chris Albers and Warren Leight. He credits the arrival of WGA East Lowell Peterson as executive director in 2008 for also raising the bar of professionalism for the guild.
“Improved relations between the guilds has helped us have more leverage together in negotiations,” Winship said.
The WGAE’s organizing efforts have also stepped up with success in the unscripted TV arena and digital news outlets such as Huffington Post, Vice and the erstwhile Gawker. The guild has raised its profile on public policy issues such as net neutrality, media consolidation and its recent muscle behind the New York state tax credit program for TV programs that make diversity a priority in writer and director hiring.
The achievements on Winship’s watch amount to “very big shoes to fill,” in Willimon’s view. The two have worked together during the past few years after Willimon was elected to a seat on the council.
“I’m honored to continue the work Michael began,” Willimon said. “The initiatives that began under his leadership and staff he assembled — he’s been an extraordinary president. I’ve learned a lot from him and I’m grateful for his service.”
Winship sees a generational shift afoot among WGAE leaders and members that he believes bodes well for the future of labor in a fast-changing media landscape.
“We’re seeing a lot of millennials coming to us who really recognize the importance of the union and the protections that they gain,” Winship said. “A lot of these people have worked really hard (to organize) and they recognize that things don’t always happen very fast. Sometimes it’s a tough slog.”