The Average Writer’s Non-Biased Guide To The Upcoming WGA Negotiations

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow WGAw member who wrote:

I joined the WGA last year. Joined WA a few weeks after. All this talk of strikes and what-not….man, it’s a mess. I’ve talked with fellow ‘newbie’ wga writers and the fact is: no one understands what the hell is going on.

…So, a primer or a “The WGA for Dummies” type of thing…y’know, like ‘Our Story So Far….” sort of article. It’s a big undertaking but if you’re ever looking for a topic for your site, maybe this is one that should at least start getting addressed.

At first, I groaned, because I thought that a) he was right, I did need to write this, and b) it was going to be a big undertaking.

But you know, in the end, it’s not really all that complicated.

And so, I present to you the primer. I will do my best to be as unbiased as possible.

What Are These Negotiations Anyway?

Every three years, the WGA, west and the WGA East work together to negotiate the Minimum Basic Agreement (or MBA) with the companies we all work for. The MBA sets the terms for things like “What is scale?” and “How much residuals do I get?” and “How much will the company contribute to my pension and health insurance?”

The companies are represented by a trade organization called the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP. The AMPTP is largely controlled by the big studios (Paramount, Disney, Columbia, Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers) and the big networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and The CW). Their chief negotiator is a man named Nick Counter.

How Do The Negotiations Work?

The WGAw and WGAE create a joint committee called the Negotiating Committee, or NegCom for short. The NegCom consists of 17 members, and the division between East and West is determined roughly by the proportion of the two memberships. The officers of the WGAw also sit on the committee in an ex officio status.

First, the NegCom drafts a laundry list of “stuff we want out of this negotiation,” and they send it to the members of the WGAw and WGAE. The members try and rank the laundry list in the order of importance to them, and the NegCom then uses this list as its “set of demands.”

In reality, the “set of demands” is pro forma, as the demands tend to be the same year after year, and the NegCom isn’t bound by them in any case.

The NegCom then proceeds to negotiate with the AMPTP. Our chief negotiator is our Executive Director (currently, that’s David Young).

The negotiations occur over weeks and sometimes months. They consist of two basic types of interaction.

The formal negotiations occur between the committees in large conference rooms. They have often been compared to kabuki, as they’re ceremonial, extremely structured and very carefully orchestrated so as to avoid making any mistake, setting any dangerous bargaining precedent or carelessly ceding leverage.

The true negotiations largely occur in sidebars. The two sides caucus separately, then send their three heavy hitters into sidebars with three guys from the other side, and wheeling and dealing ensues.

Once a deal is determined, the NegCom votes on whether or not to recommend it to the Board of Directors of the WGAw and Council of the WGAE. Following that recommendation, if the Board and Council vote to recommend the deal to the membership, then we all vote on the deal. Majority rules.

How Does A Strike Or Lockout Work?

The first thing to know is that while we’re covered by the deal we approved in 2004, we can’t strike, and the other side can’t lock us out.

Once the deal expires (October 31st, 2007), all bets are off.

If the NegCom fails to recommend a deal to the Board, or if the Board fails to recommend a deal to the membership, or if the membership fails to ratify a deal, then a strike is possible. It’s the same mechanism. The NegCom recommends a strike to the Board, the Board recommends a “strike authorization vote” to the membership, and the membership votes.

If the membership votes to authorize a strike, the Board is then free to declare a strike if they feel the need. The Board can also ask the membership to vote to declare a strike.

In no case can a strike happen without a majority of the members voting for it.

A lockout is pretty much just like a strike, except instead of writers refusing to work, the companies decide to no longer hire any of us until a deal is struck.

Again, a lockout can only occur after the current deal expires.

The WGA has struck a number of times since its inception, with the longest and most recent strike occurring in 1988.

The AMPTP has never locked out the WGA.

So What Are We Arguing About This Year?

Every three years, we ask for increases in minimums, increases in pension and health, more creative rights, and a long list of other things.

The big argument for the last 20 years, however, has been over residuals.

Most of our residuals formulas stipulate that we are to collect 1.2% of what the companies make off of so-called “secondary markets.” Those markets include broadcasting movies on television, pay-per-view, and home video.

It’s the home video that’s been giving us fits.

In 1985, the companies decided that they didn’t want to pay 1.2% of what they were making on VHS tapes. Instead, they wanted to apply the 1.2% to 20% of what they were making. After a failed strike in 1985 and another failed strike in 1988, we ended up with the much-hated home video formula of 1.5-1.8% of 20% of what they make on VHS…and DVD.

Arguing and posturing aside, there haven’t been any strikes since 1988, because once the home video battle was lost, no strike-worthy battle has arisen.

That’s changed.

Everyone is freaked out over “new media,” or “internet video on demand.”

In short, the football this year is how we’re going to be paid residuals when people pay to download our television shows and movies through the net, be it on to their iPod or their computer or their Apple TV or their DVR or some soon-to-be-purchasable tv-computer-internet thingy.

The two unions with the biggest stake in this are the WGAw/E and SAG. The DGA has a lesser stake, because many of their members are below-the-line employees (1st AD’s, UPM’s) who earn a relatively small fraction of money from residuals. Regardless, it’s a huge issue for all three unions.

It’s also a huge issue for the AMPTP. When they deal with one union on this issue, they know they are dealing with all three, because of “pattern bargaining.”

Pattern bargaining dictates that if one of the three creative unions gets a residual improvement, then the other two must get it as well.

Residuals are generally paid like this: the writers get X, the director, 1st AD and UPM get X, and the cast gets 3X (because there are many more actors to divvy the residuals for than there are writers or DGA employees).

So, whatever we’re asking for, the AMPTP knows it’s going to have to ultimately pay out five times that amount.

Is It Just Me, Or Does Everything Seem More Militant This Time Around?

It’s not just you.

In 2005, the WGAw elected a slate of candidates who expressed a desire to be tougher with the studios.

The basic plan of this slate, led by current WGAw President Patric Verrone, was to organize reality television writers, bring them into our union, and thus be able to create a very strong strike threat against the AMPTP (right now, the producers believe, rightly, that reality television is a huge wedge against the efficacy of any WGA strike, because it keeps new programming on the air during a walkout).

The slate believed that with this enhanced strike threat, we’d be able to improve on the 1.5-1.8% of 20% formula when it came to residuals for internet downloads.

Unfortunately, no reality writers have been organized into the WGA. It is highly probable that we will go into the 2007 negotiations without any enhanced strike threat.

Still, the last year has definitely been marked by heightened rhetoric from both sides. The WGA engaged in a number of controversial “corporate campaigns” designed to shame or pressure the companies into letting us organize reality writers, and the AMPTP took out a full-page ad in the Variety excoriating the current WGA leadership.

So Are We Going To Strike Or What?

Hard to say. Always cloudy is the future…

I think there’s certainly a better chance of a strike this time around than there was last time around, but my personal opinion is that there won’t be a strike.

It is possible that we might work past our contract, as we did in 2004.

Okay, What Happens If We Work Past Our Contract?

Not much. We lose our protection against a lockout, and certain grievance provisions go away, but other than that, our 2004 contract remains in effect. The idea of working past the deadline is simple: we try and get closer to the expiration of the SAG contract (June 2008), and then we use their strike threat as leverage to get us both a good deal on internet downloads.

The danger of waiting?

The DGA could always leapfrog the WGA and SAG and make an early deal (which they did in 2004). If they do, it’s pretty much game over. The WGA and SAG will almost certainly get stuck with the deal the DGA makes. If it’s a good deal, that’s no problem.

If it’s not, that is a problem.

Will We Win?

Possibly. A better question is…will the fight even happen? It’s possible that the entire issue of internet residuals will get punted down the line three years, because no one really knows how the economics of downloading movies and television will work.

I hope this primer was of use and answered everyone’s basic questions. I tried my best to stay away from political opinions. If you have any other questions about this rather nutty negotiation year, please go ahead and ask them in the comments section.

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