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A WGA Strike Threat Timeline: How We Got To The Brink

Deadline logo Deadline 4/7/2017 David Robb
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With negotiations set to resume on Monday for a new WGA film and TV contract – and strike authorization voting set to begin April 18 – the run-up to what could become the first industry-wide strike in a decade has its roots in the last strike, and the September 2015 election that brought the WGA West’s current leaders to power.

During that election, David Goodman, who would be elected vice president, told voters that “our greatest recent success is the 2007-08 strike,” and urged them not to forget “how effective we can be when we’re united behind common goals, and, because we won, how important the threat of a strike is in negotiations.”

“I believe in taking a strong and pragmatic approach that utilizes the strike vote judiciously and only under certain circumstances,” wrote Aaron Mendelsohn, who would go to be elected secretary-treasurer, “like when our sacred cows are threatened – health and pension, residuals, etc. – or if we need to stake a fair claim in a new delivery system or work area, or if rollbacks remain on the table.”

Patric Verrone, who as president led the guild’s 100-day strike of 2007-08, told voters in his successful bid for reelection to a seat on the guild’s board that “leverage in collective bargaining is most effectively built through the careful development of a viable strike threat.”

Since then, there’s been a steady march towards the brink of a strike.

Sept. 21, 2015

Howard Rodman, a board member during the last strike, is elected president of the WGA West on a promise to get tough with the companies at the bargaining table. “This is an era where the companies are doing astonishingly well – the companies’ profits have doubled in the last decade, now approaching $50 billion a year,” he said during the campaign. “So much of that profit originates with our work. The companies forget that. It’s our job to make sure they don’t.”

May 10, 2016

WGA West leaders send a message to their members. “Soon we’ll be conducting a series of member-outreach meetings to discuss our goals in the next negotiation; our current contract ends on May 1, 2017. But please know this: those goals are both reasonable and attainable. A mere fraction of one percent of the companies’ profits – profits largely attributable to the content created by you and your fellow WGA members – would easily restore writer income to an appropriate level and move our benefit plans – health and pension – to a more secure position. Getting our fair share of it will require resolve and solidarity. But in a time of unprecedented profits for our industry, we believe it is our due.”

December 1, 2016

The WGA East and West announce the 33 members of their negotiating committee for the upcoming contract talks with management’s AMPTP. WGA West executive director David Young will serve as chief negotiator, with former WGA West president Chris Keyser and board members Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray serving as co-chairs.

Dec. 23, 2016

The Directors Guild reaches an agreement with the AMPTP on terms for a new three-year film and TV contract. The deal, which includes a tripling of residuals from top-tier subscription video-on-demand shows, establishes the pattern of bargaining for the upcoming WGA negotiations, and for the SAG-AFTRA talks to follow.

Jan. 20, 2017

The WGA West sends another message to their members about the upcoming contract talks. “Getting our fair share will require resolve and solidarity and the willingness to fight if necessary. But in a time of unprecedented profits for our industry, we believe it is our due.”

“You’ve told guild leadership in meetings and surveys that new models of development, production, and distribution – while making the companies richer –have not worked to your individual or collective advantage.”

“The $49 billion annual operating profit accumulated by the six major media companies with whom we will be negotiating is double what their profit numbers were only a decade ago. Contrast that with the economic picture facing the members of our Guilds, whose average incomes in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade.”

Feb. 1, 2017

In another message to their members Rodman and WGAE president Michael Winship ask their members to support a “pattern of demands” that have been unanimously recommended by the negotiating committee and the governing bodies of both guilds. “The broad goal of our negotiating committee will be to build on the gains achieved in past contracts, and to ensure that writers receive their fair share of the proceeds generated by the content they create.”

February 2017

The guilds hold a series of informational meetings about the key bargaining issues. After one of those meetings, a writer told Deadline: “It seems that if they took a strike authorization vote tonight, it would be favorable. They were cheering speakers who were in favor of a hard line, and booing those who expressed trepidation.”

“We’re always ready for a strike,” a TV writer laughed as he left the last meeting on Feb. 25. “Television is in another Golden Age and the companies are reaping record profits, but writers aren’t sharing in that. Our incomes are going down, so it’s going to be a tough negotiation.”

“Writers deserve more and the companies can afford to pay it,” said another TV writer who attended the meeting, “and we may just have to fight for it.” As for a strike, he said: “I pray that there will not be one, but I fear that there will be one.”

“The general feeling is that everybody would prefer to work,” said another writer, “but given the companies’ profits and our declining wages, it’s now or never. This meeting was not a strike vote, but we have certain needs that have to be met. Nobody wants to strike, but we are willing to if we have to.”

“We are all standing strong for the union,” said another writer.

“We have a unified guild,” said another.

Feb. 21, 2017

The guilds’ members overwhelmingly approve the pattern of demands, which include:

· Increase minimum compensation in all areas

· Increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets

· Expand types of made-for new media programs subject to MBA minimums Increase contributions to Pension Plan and Health Fund

· Strengthen economic and workplace protections for television and new media writers employed and compensated on per episode basis

· Strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity provisions in television and new media employment contracts

· Address inequities in compensation of writing teams employed under term deals for television and new media series

· Provide paid family leave for writers employed under term deals for television and new media series

· Amend definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media Increase funding for Showrunner Training Program and Tri-Guild Audit Program

· Modify and expand all arbitrator panels

· Modify requirements for work lists and other information submitted by companies

Feb. 23, 2017

The guilds and the AMPTP set March 13 as the first day of bargaining.

March 13, 2017

Negotiations begin at the AMPTP’s offices in Sherman Oaks. “It was very tense and got a little heated,” an insider told Deadline about Day 1 of the talks. “There’s a big divide when it comes to expectations and a lot of mistrust, more than I’ve seen before.”

March 17, 2017

After one week of bargaining, negotiations recess for the weekend.

March 20, 2017

Week two of bargaining resumes under a media blackout.

March 23, 2017

Negotiations break off, with each side blaming the other for walking away from the talks. Guild leaders say they will ask their members for strike authorization.

“The WGA broke off negotiations at an early stage in the process in order to secure a strike vote rather than directing its efforts at reaching an agreement at the bargaining table,” the AMPTP said on Friday. “Keeping the industry working is in everyone’s best interests, and we are ready to return to negotiations when they are.”

The WGA West says the AMPTP broke off the talks, and has a tape to prove it. “Last Thursday night at 9 p.m., the AMPTP advised the WGA via voice mail that ‘we don’t see any need to meet tomorrow,’ meaning Friday March, 24th, the last day scheduled for negotiations,” the WGA said in a statement. “That’s their right, and the WGA will recommence negotiations whenever the AMPTP is ready to meet and invites us back.”

But the AMPTP spokesman said that management had good reason to send the voice mail – and has an email to prove it. “We provided them with a package proposal on Thursday, and instead of responding to our proposals, they said they had no moves and were going to get a strike authorization vote. They were the ones who walked away when they said they were going for a strike authorization, and then they sent us an email saying they would get back to us the next day, and they didn’t.”

March 29, 2017

The WGA says it’s ready to return to the bargaining table “whenever the AMPTP is ready and invites us back.” Guild leaders tell their members that during the first round of talks, they withdrew “almost 50% of our economic asks,” but that “the companies have yet to put an economic offer on the table.”

March 30, 2017

The AMPTP formally invites the WGA back to the bargaining table.

March 31, 2017

The WGA accepts the AMPTP’s invitation. Talks are scheduled to resume at 10 am on April 10.

April 2, 2017

WGA releases a trove of data to support its bargaining position, including projections that the guilds’ ailing health plan is facing more than $145 million in deficits over the next four years, leaving the plan basically broke and with less than two months of reserves by the end of 2020.

TV writers are being especially hard hit, the WGA says. “During this ‘peak TV’ era, when more television is being produced than ever, and when everyone who works in television is finding a sellers’ market for their skills, why is the average TV writer seeing their income go down?”

There are five critical reasons, the guild says.

· The number of episodes, and therefore, episode fees are half the traditional number on many series

· These fewer episode fees are being amortized across more than two weeks per episode

· Writers are held exclusive and under option even when not working on these short season series

· Residuals are too low in the emerging rerun markets

· Script fees remain unequal to the network rates for the growing areas of the industry

The guild says that the shortened season – 10 to 13 episodes – that has come to dominate the industry, pays for only half of a traditional full season even though it usually takes the writer off the market for a full year.

“To make this underpayment worse,” the guild says, “these short season series take advantage of the looser calendar to do more writing before production starts, take more days to shoot each episode, and spend more time in post. Writers can find themselves working a span of more than three weeks per episode. In this model everyone else on the production gets additional pay for the additional time, except writers.”

“The traditional TV calendar equated each episode fee with two weeks of work and an experienced writer’s deal was often over-scale,” the guild says. “By having this episode fee spread over three weeks, the deal has now been driven down to guild minimum. The writer is no longer being paid for experience, and any writer-producer can find him or herself earning the same as a story editor.”

As a result, the guild says, “Writer-producers at all levels of experience have seen their compensation for a year of working on a series drop, at the median, between 8% and 26%. Even showrunners not on overall deals have seen their compensation drop 21%.”

April 3, 2017

Responding to the WGA’s data dump, the AMPTP issues a statement: “Our objective continues to be to reach an agreement with the WGA at the bargaining table. We hope the guild will engage with us on the issues in that forum when negotiations resume on April 10th.”

Later that night, the WGA sets the dates for the strike authorization vote – its first in 10 years. WGA West members will vote on-line or at special membership meetings on April 18 and 19. WGA East members vote on line or at a special membership meeting on April 19.

April 4, 2017

WGA West executive director David Young sends letters to ad buyers warning them that they may be wasting their money if there’s a writers’ strike come midnight May 1.

Young fires off another letter, warning AT&T stockholders that a protracted writers’ strike against Warner Bros. could deflate the value of their shares if the companies’ proposed $85 billion merger is approved.

April 10, 2017

Contract talks resume.

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