Leaders of the WGA East have reached a compromise after months of friction over the membership base of the union that represents film and TV writers on the East Coast.
The WGA East council voted unanimously to pursue major changes to the union’s constitution to allow for different classifications of membership. The council is recommending changes that will be voted on in a member referendum later this spring.
All of this is an effort to settle the divide over the WGA East’s big push during the last decade to organize writers for digital news and entertainment outlets.
“The WGAE Council has spent the last several months working together and with an outside facilitator. I think I speak for everyone involved when I say that it has been a learning process in which everyone exchanged ideas and listened to one another,” said Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East. “Now we have united. I’m enthusiastic about the result and the next chapter for this brave union of storytellers.”
The guild’s plan is to create three “work sectors” for WGA East membership: Film/TV/Streaming, Broadcast/Cable/Streaming News and Online Media. Under the proposed constitutional changes, all members would vote for the President and Secretary-Treasurer officer posts. The guild will create three new VP council posts — one for each sector — and voting for those slots will be limited by membership sector. Guild members would also only vote WGA East contracts or strike authorization votes that affect their sector.
“We’re very happy. The community was able to come together and reach an agreement that protects everyone’s rights and everyone’s contracts and everyone’s negotiations,” Winship told Variety after the vote.
Longtime WGA East members who work in traditional entertainment and scripted TV and film have gradually raised concerns about the influx of members who typically make far less that successful screenwriters and showrunners. The income differential has some members worried that the union’s health and pension funds will be diluted.
But the even bigger concerns among film and TV writers was the fast rate of growth for the ranks of digital writers at a rate that would quickly outpace the ranks of the union’s traditional core narrative screenwriters — which would be a big departure from the WGA East’s roots. Among the old guard, there were worries that some members would be inclined to shift membership to the WGA West, where the vast majority of members work in traditional TV and film.
The schism was laid bare last fall during the WGA East election for officers and board members when two clear factions emerged. The slate of candidates that ran under the Solidarity banner reflected the desire to keep broadening the WGA East tent with digital writers. Candidates that ran on the Inclusion and Experience ticket, which included Winship, called for a moratorium on WGA East organizing of digital outlets while the issues were vetted by union leaders.
Over the past few months, sources said Winship has led the effort to bridge the gap with the goal of keeping the union from breaking up or bifurcating along more permanent lines.
“I’m thrilled that our governing body has not only created an agreement to increase and formalize our commitment to organizing but also built a process to collaborate with each other on finding solutions to challenges across all work sectors,” said Sara David, a member of the Council who works in online media. “These changes mark an exciting new chapter of the WGA East where we can negotiate stronger contracts, expand our organizing work, and ensure that every member’s voice is heard.”
David Simon, a veteran showrunner and council member who ran on the Inclusion and Experience slate, said the issue at hand came down to a problem of governance. The WGA East needed to find a way to make room for new members working in different sectors while still protecting the interests of the members that the union was founded to represent. At present the WGA East has about 6,500 members.
“What it came down to was: How do we protect the existing union and its intention and allow the digital side to continue to organize,” Simon told Variety. “None of us wanted to stop that process or throw them out of the union.”
But without the changes now recommended by WGA East leaders, the union’s board membership and representation on negotiating committees could eventually be dominated by writers from other sectors. That would be a big disadvantage when it comes to bringing leverage to the table with Hollywood’s major employers, in the view of Simon and many others.
“At that point, somebody in the West who calls us to talk about a contract might be talking to somebody who works for Vice or for Hearst,” Simon said. “That’s a different kind of writing job.”
Sources close to the situation said the discussions picked up steam after the first of the year. Council members broke up into working groups to tacke the nitty-gritty issues that require changes to the union’s constitution. Numerous scenarios for restructuring the union were considered, including the prospect of the digital members to create their own local.
Ultimately, it was determined that creating a separate local was too big of a lift for new members that don’t have as much experience with union governance and contract negotiations.
Winship credited the contributions of two outside labor law experts — Susan Davis, of Cohen Weiss and Simon, and Rutgers professor Susan Schurman — for helping to bring objective perspective that helped guide discussions. He also cited the work of WGA East vice president Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and Secretary-Treasurer Christopher Kyle.
“They shouldered so much by helping us hammer out language and being able to reach compromise when necessary,” Winship said.