For the second time in less than a year, members of the Writers Guild of America are voting this week on a new contract with producers, although few appear to be placing bets on the outcome.
A significant number of members continues to oppose the pact, saying it fails to address the perennial problem of residuals and that negotiators capitulated to producers who sought and won a postponement on resolving the issue, deferring it instead to a two-year, industrywide study.
The contract negotiated last summer was narrowly defeated in a ratification vote in September, primarily by WGA East members, leading to several months of recriminations and bitter exchanges between officers and members on both coasts. Eventually, after a series of peace meetings, representatives from the two guilds managed to renegotiate several aspects of the contract.
“No one argues that residuals for foreign and basic cable are the most important financial issue for writers,” says an anti-contract statement signed by 26 WGA West members and issued as part of the ballot package. “So important, in fact, that neither the studios nor the guild can bring themselves to negotiate it.”
The residuals issue, the statement says, has been “relegated to a discussion over two years wherein management has already warned us they are going to be asking for rollbacks in network residuals.”
The statement, whose signatories include WGAW board members Josh Friedman, Charles Edward Pogue and Ann Marcus, says that “what this guild is here to do” is to “put dollars into writers’ pockets … and in today’s market that means residuals.”
“We’ve all seen the liberality of the studios at work,” the opposing statement goes on. “Executives with multimillion-dollar severance packages. Lumbering behemoths getting $20 million to star in movies that tank opening weekend. But when it comes to us getting our fair share, it’s empty-pockets time.”
The opponents urged their fellow members to reflect not only on “where this contract has been, but what it says about contracts in the future.”
“We blinked this time. Let’s consider carefully how much this costs us before we do it again.”
A group of opponents from the WGAE council, the governing board of the New York-based guild, says in a separate statement that the union capitulated after two other unions, SAG and AFTRA, “dropped their demands.”
In their own contract talks, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists staved off a strike by agreeing to the residuals study, prompting the WGA to follow suit.
“What has happened is that we have lost our credibility by allowing ourselves to be stripped of the only weapon a union has — the threat of withholding services,” the WGAE opponents say in their statement. “In this multibillion-dollar industry, those who have control of the basic ingredient that makes all other things possible (i.e., the scripts) should have enormous bargaining strength. But we do not.
“Instead we go on bended knee to ask for fair compensation and for creative rights that other art forms enjoy,” the WGAE statement says. “Whose fault but our own? We have disempowered ourselves by buying the mythology that our union cannot and will not ever strike again, a dogma that can only be gleeful to management, and perhaps was propagated with their connivance.”
Members are being told that if they are tired of their “beggar-like status” as writers, a “no” vote is an opportunity to “send a strong signal to management and to some of our leadership that you’ve had all you can take and are not gonna take it any more, to paraphrase the great Paddy Chayefsky.”
Those in favor of the pact, including WGAE council members Donald Westlake and Walter Bernstein, and WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr., VP John Wells and secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern, are asking members to vote for the agreement and to “put past divisions within our guilds into the trash bin of history.”
“While the events of the past nine months have been wearing on all of us, and have consumed substantial guild resources, we believe that they have left the WGA in a very strong bargaining position for the future,” the pro-contract statement says.
It says also that the residuals study will allow time “for a full exchange of data and an opportunity for a productive outcome, if the studios can be made to see the light.”
If the subsequent negotiations are unsuccessful, however, “it will have the effect of uniting our guilds and our diverse memberships for possible strike action in 2001.”
Deadline for voting is Thursday, during which special membership meetings will be held in Los Angeles and New York. In L.A., the meeting is at 7 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills.
Results of the ratification vote are expected Friday.