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A Union at the Edge

An embarrassing confession:

Until such time as I was goaded to stand for election to the Writer’s Guild of America East’s governing council, I never actually voted in my union’s elections.  I pride myself on being an educated voter and dropping the lever on the right people, and to be entirely honest, I went through my first two decades in the WGAE without the slightest clue of who was who in my union leadership or what anyone stood for.

Sorry to say, I think I regarded the politics of our generally healthy, often aggressive union of screen and television writers to be beyond my any worry. In a previous career, I was a veteran of more fraught struggles as a member of the Newspaper Guild in Baltimore, where industry retrenchment and the brutal realities of out-of-town ownership had made print journalists vulnerable. By comparison, collective bargaining in an entertainment industry with unrelenting profits did not invite the same focus. When we negotiated, we gained. When we went on strike, we won. I was a loyal union brother but I didn’t pay much attention, I‘ll now admit.

Since stumbling onto the WGAE council, however, I’ve been poleaxed by the last two election cycles – each offering up issues and arguments that have challenged the union’s ability to maintain both solidarity and claim on its own future. Two years ago, an alternative slate attempted – in the middle of an ongoing, and ultimately successful job action against talent agencies – to reconsider that campaign, a challenge not only to the governing councils of the WGA on both coasts, but also the will of a membership that had voted overwhelmingly to take on the fight.  It got a little nasty, inevitably, but in the end the challenging slates were not victorious.

Now, again, I find myself on a slate of candidates, opposed by another insurgent slate, arguing two entirely different futures for the East Coast branch of the writer’s union. And, just as inevitably, it will probably get somewhat uglier before all of us figure out how to get clean of this and move forward. I hope I am wrong. I doubt it.

This time the insurgent slate is comprised of candidates for council who support the idea of continued organization of digital journalism shops and even traditional print journalism units under the WGAE umbrella – to the point at which the union is no longer the primary representative of screen and television writers in the east, but rather an amalgamated union of writers, some of whom write primarily for the screen and some who do not.

And I am sharing a slate with candidates who support the organizing of other sectors, and are committed even to subsidizing that continuing effort, but who also believe that issues about the structure, governance and future of our union need to be discussed and resolved first – meaning right now.

The argument has been simmering in our council debates for a while now. But presently those arguments have exploded into public view as this campaign heats up. In the past weeks I have been called anti-union elitist, an anti-organizing one-percenter, a structural racist and, best of all – a keeper as we would call it in the writer’s room – a Gomperite. It‘s good, tasty stuff. And it leaves me to ask my older, more experienced WGA colleagues a question tinged with real regret: How long has this been going on? Are all our union elections this much fun? And, my god, what other grand operas did I miss when I simply wasn’t paying attention?

The fact is this election suddenly matters to all of us in the WGAE in the most existential way. Our union has done a remarkable job of organizing thousands of digital and prose journalists over the last five years. That work needs to be honored, preserved and, yes, continued. It is, to invoke an old collectivist phrase, a mitzvah. But what our union is going to be going forward now hangs in the balance. That we are all finally talking about it openly is good; that it took us so long to come to the membership with this debate is regrettable, but genuinely understandable when you know the recent history.

If the council as a whole hasn’t been transparent about the stakes involved with the membership, the leadership of the digital contingent has been at least equally opaque with those members in its camp. The end game here — known to all on the council who have been wrestling with the issue — was kept from them, so that now, belatedly, they view the idea of a structural threat to the union as a whole not as a fundamental that was always there to be addressed, but as a sudden and surprising campaign threat. No one to this point has done particularly well communicating the stakes, and so, resentments have boiled over.

On the digital side there is now a sense that their status as unionized members and their dues are unvalued or that their generalized appeal for solidarity-above-all is not reciprocated. Among screen and television writers there is a growing sentiment about what happens with good deeds, and that ours, in taking on this work, is now giving us a good dragging. To be clear, a lot of the rhetoric in this election cycle is now almost perfectly useless.  Among some all-or-nothing digital members, those screen and TV writers who want organized labor to actually be organized – who want every sector of writing to be unionized and resources spent on that effort without destabilizing existing unions – are backward-thinking collaborators with capital itself. And to hear some of my fellow freelance members vent, the union’s five-year-effort to organize digital writing shops amounts to little more than a strategic mistake that opened the door to a remarkable ingratitude.

It is not a mistake.  And we are not backward-thinking tools of management– at least not the folks on my slate.  And the digital journalists who have been brought onto union rolls – and those who will inevitably join them – should be valued and properly represented. But there is a problem here and it needs to be solved now – in one of three ways.  If it is not solved, the fourth result will be that the WGAE will likely not exist – by even a  conservative estimate — in five years.

That’s not a threat, or campaign hype. It is simply what is.

More Certain Than A Threat

Some history:

The East Coast branch of the WGA dates to 1954 and in the more than six since, the much larger WGAW – with more than four times our membership — has at several points sought to swallow us whole.

The resistance to those efforts by the WGAE has always centered on our claim that while we shared the same mission as the WGAW, we represented cadres of writing, such as comedy-variety, non-fiction film and TV work, as well as East Coast-based production, that were better served and addressed than if they were subsumed into the larger West unit.  Relations between the West and East are now cordial, even warm, but the minority status of the WGAE has always made it harder for our voices to be heard on the other coast.  And, of course, while the union rules nominally declare that whatever side of the Mississippi River a new member calls home determines which union they will join, a reciprocity exists in which members can and do change their affiliation all the time. Any business address will work in a pinch, and for many Eastern members working for West Coast studios and represented by West Coast agencies, a migration to the WGAW isn’t much of a journey. 

         So what happens when the WGAE, rather than being governed by the screen and television writers for which it was formed and for which it has sustained itself as a separate entity from the larger WGAW, is instead  to writers of all kinds, not just those working on film and television products – regardless of platform – but for writers laboring anywhere? For newspaper journalists or those writing prose for digital outlets?  Or perhaps not even writers at all?  Leaders of the insurgent slate have made it clear that they see no reason not to add units that have nothing to do with writing at all should the opportunity present itself.  What happens when the WGAE becomes an amalgated union of writers in general, or of workers overall?

To those of us who understand the history and dynamic of the relationship between the Writer’s Guild, the answer is obvious and speaking it aloud is, again, not a threat.  It’s more certain than a threat.  It’s simply an exercise in realistic thinking: For decades, the WGAE has sustained itself as separate from its much larger sister union by declaring that the distinctions between screen and television writers working in the East and West are relevant enough so that we in the East are better served by maintaining our own affiliated union.  But how does that argument hold when East Coast screen and TV writers look up one day to find that the majority of the WGAE, as well as the majority of its governing council and officers, are not actually television and screenwriters?  How does an East Coast writer continue to pay dues and affiliate with a union that represents his or her interests in part, when he or she knows that those dues can be similarly paid to a larger union that represents their interests and spends their dues money on those interests in full? The same concern doesn’t presently hold for digital members in the East; to sustain the organizing campaign in their sector, digital contributions are necessarily augmented by union assets gleaned from screen and TV writing.

But to take it all a critical step further, consider that East Coast screen and television members will also have to ask themselves how seriously the WGAW will take the opinions of its sister union – or the votes of its governing council – knowing that the WGAE is no longer actually an entity that represents their same membership? The East already has to shout to heard at times in our negotiations with the West; imagine the growing indifference of the WGAW and the inevitable loss of influence to the WGAE once it becomes clear that screen and television writers are no longer on both sides of the table. The migration from East to West in such a scenario will be inevitable and rapid – and of course that exodus will include much of the dues base of the WGAE, destabilizing the union and, ironically, collapsing the very resource on which the entire digital organizing campaign has been premised, among all else.

Too quiet, for too long

This very scenario — the end game for the union unless we solve the issue creatively — was delivered last year to leaders of the digital contingent in the WGAE.  The reality and the need to address it was spelled out in sufficient detail that it was one of the premises that brought them to participate in an exploratory working group created to seek a solution.

Among WGAE councilmembers, much hope was placed in the work of that four-member group. As digital membership in the WGAE reached 25 percent, with another 11 percent expected to be added in the coming year, the council leadership realized last year that the rapid success of the organizing campaign was about to transform the union in ways that would begin a West Coast exodus. Indeed, if the WGAE continued organizing writers in digital and prose journalism units at the extant rate, screen and television writers would cease to be a majority in a couple more election cycles.

As the working group labored on, we did not bring the problem to the membership as a whole.  In retrospect, this was a mistake – so much so that many WGAE members are only absorbing the existential importance of this union election right now, with voting sent to commence in the coming week. But to be fair, the delay in openly acknowledging the reality makes sense in light of the current rage and rhetoric now being voiced publicly in this campaign; council leaders were hoping that the working group would come to a solution – either by:

1) Creatively imagining a bifurcated governing structure within the WGAE that would allow for continued organizing and representation of digital and newspaper units while at the same time preserving the conditions of self-governance for screen and TV writers that are the only reason the WGAE exists as a separate union, or, by:

2) Figuring out how to spin off the digital components into a new union – and then subsidizing that union with WGAE funds for a period of years to make sure it succeeds and organizing gains of the past five years are honored and advanced.

So what happened?

As digital representatives were more intrigued by a separate, carefully subsidized union rather than a bifurcated WGAE, a plan for such was hammered out and presented to the union staff for review.  This resulted in consternation from some staff for a variety of reasons – but a considerable amount of opposition resulted from the realization that some union employees would be going to the new entity. That reluctance to leave the greater stability of the established WGAE had an effect; digital leadership backed away from the idea.

The failure of the working group to solve the problem left the union’s executive director staring at the horizon with no other alternative than to pause the organizing campaign until the issue of structure and governance was resolved. At which point, when he declined to immediately mount an effort to organize yet another new shop – even amid a membership surge that has the WGAE taking on up to 1,000 new members in the coming year – the digital contingent on the council expressed outrage and demanded that the executive director’s decision be put to debate and a council vote.

The matter was debated.  Among other arguments, it was noted that the shop in question was not a digital entity and did not involve those writing for screens. It was a traditional newspaper. Where, in all of this organizing, was the NewsGuild? Should prose journalists not be represented by that long-established union.  In reply, digital members argued that the NewsGuild was moribund and that, in fact, the shop in question had first approached the NewsGuild for organizational aid and been denied by a union that was inert when it comes to organizing.

This was not true. In fact, the NewsGuild – like the WGAE – has been aggressively organizing new units for the last several years.  It could not take on this particular shop’s request for assistance because spending on organizing was outstripping the news union’s dues base. But tellingly, the NewsGuild last week voted 2-to-1 to raise their dues for the first time in decades. Far from being moribund, that union was very much in the game and looking to add prose journalists to its ranks. None of this was fully cited or disclosed in the digital contingent’s insistence that even with the governing issues facing the WGAE unresolved, we were obliged to continue organizing more shops regardless.

After the full council vote went against them once, that contingent brought the same matter before the council again the following month. After that second vote went against them, digital members – frustrated by even this singular pause in the organizing campaign – leaked their complaints about the council action to outside media, breaching the traditional confidentiality of the union’s governing board, which holds that once a vote is taken and upheld, all council members stand in solidarity with that action.  Apparently, sloganeering about solidarity across all sectors of an amalgamated union only holds when a majority decision is agreeable to the digital contingent.

Telling our digital brothers and sisters no for the first time and having the rapid organizational effort paused has not only divided the WGAE council, it has led to competing slates and an election fight for the union’s future. We are here not because screen and television writers are anti-union or opposed to the continued organization of digital sectors – but because of the fundamental need to pause long enough to fully inform the union membership of this issue and the stakes involved, and then to resolve that issue. In any solution contemplated by the working group or the majority of the council, the WGAE is going to commit to supporting continued organization of new sectors – either by creatively bifurcating our union to create separate units with separate governance, or by spinning off a new digital union. Either solution will require that the resources of the WGAE be dedicated to continuing to subsidize the organization of new digital shops – whether the dues of those newly unionize members accrue to this union or another.

That scarcely comports to the rhetoric about screen and television writers being anti-union, or anti-organizing, or even to our wanting to kick our digital brethren out of doors without so much as a decent goodbye, but then campaign rhetoric is always what it is.  The other grinding bit of hackery being given play in this election cycle is that this a classist betrayal of young, hungry and undernourished digital writers by some fatted, hierarchical old guard of rich screenwriters and television moguls. Nope. The average screen or television writer is unemployed – about 40 percent of that class of our union is working at any given moment. The average salary of that contingent is $50,000.  Digital workers employed full-time actually make more.  But hype is hype and far be it from me, as a dramatist, to not offer a tip of the cap to a good, simple narrative theme.

A fresh possibility

During the council debate over the singular decision not to organize a newspaper shop, I openly asked that basic question about the NewsGuild. What was the preeminent and historic union of prose journalists – my alma mater, for whom I maintain unbridled affection for allowing me to glean a living wage in Baltimore for years – doing with itself if not organizing even traditional news organizations?

As dismissive as our digital council members were about the NewsGuild and its capabilities, I thought that the WGAE should be sitting down with that union and charting a collective future. After all, digital news entities are the future of journalism; newspapers will not be cutting down trees and throwing the pieces on doorsteps for much longer.  Granted, the health of the newspaper industry is such that the NewsGuild struggles for resources as the WGAE does not, but isn’t it in the interests of labor overall for print or digital journalists to become allied as they share the same future, struggles and purpose? If journalism is to be a unionized profession, doesn’t that union have to seize its future and thrive?

After watching the NewsGuild bite the bullet and raise its dues as it has, I’m even more convinced that the questions I raised in that council debate are relevant. We need to sit down with the NewsGuild and reason out, carefully and thoughtfully, which workers are indeed writing primarily for screens and which are producing prose content in the digitized framework of prose journalism. Organized labor needs to be, well, organized. And further, as the WGAE was willing to acknowledge our responsibility to our current digital members by continuing to support their continued organizing either through a bifurcated governing structure or through several years of subsidies to a new union, we should also consider subsidizing the NewsGuild in its organizing efforts for writers and, indeed, transferring to that union those units which reflect the labor represented by that entity. There are some digital shops we organized that do indeed reflect a part of the future of writing for screens and they should be represented by the WGAE, and there are others still that need to be organized and made a part of our union.  But it is also true that the aggressive campaign to organizing the digital component has delayed and overshadowed the necessity of our union reaching workers in sectors – animation and podcasting, for example – that are clearly far more relevant to the WGAE than to the NewsGuild

When a real bill comes due

Another argument put forth by the digital component is that the WGAE is financially healthy and capable of fighting for the welfare of screen and television writers and engaging in a continuous organizing effort of other writing sectors simultaneously. This is predicated on the limited claim that not once in the five-year period of this organizing campaign has the union been obliged to tighten its belt or say no to the ambitions of either faction.  When history is so constricted, such comfortable optimism can be asserted.

But of course that five-year period contained no strike by the WGA. The last such job action, in 2007-08, went for 14 weeks. The previous battle with the studios and networks, in 1988, went 22 weeks.  Enduring strikes of such duration are part and parcel of the WGA’s strength and a fixed necessity, given that the studios and networks often can’t be brought back to the negotiating table until they’ve burned off a season or more of already-in-the-can programming. And strikes of such duration can require significant reserves for strike funds and medical-coverage subsidies. It is almost a willful failure of imagination to assert that for an amalgamated union, there isn’t a horizon event at which a governing council is asked to choose between delivering millions to weather a lengthy job action and delivering those same millions to continue organizing new shops or bargaining for new contracts in other sectors.  And, yes, while increased dues from digital members will, over time, reduce the subsidization of the WGAE’s organizing and representation of that sector, the fact remains that the lion’s share of our dues base comes from screen and television writers and will for years to come.

In such a circumstance, a divided union council can also be a huge liability. Traditionally, the union’s governing boards, East and West, have delivered authorization for strike votes to units with near unanimity – a message not only to the membership, but to the studios and networks as well. Solidarity sells. And yet it is hard to avoid imagining a future strike authorization vote on an amalgamated council going forward with 70 or 60 or 55 percent support. Contract issues that matter to screen and TV writers might seem secondary if the fight for them interrupts the organization and goals of other sectors.  And, given the quick breach of confidentiality that just resulted from the digital council members being in the minority on a singular vote two months ago, it’s equally easy to imagine that a divided vote on a strike authorization could also become public and gravely damage the job action.  Certainly, at the first moment that a WGAE board exhibited any division or expressed concern over conflicting priorities, the WGAW would come to rightly regard its smaller sister union as a vulnerability and our influence with the West would be greatly reduced. And certainly, too, any ongoing of migration of screen and TV writers to the West would turn into a rout.  

Some digital council members have pointed to their support of the WGA’s fight with the talent agencies over packaging as definitive evidence that an amalgamated union can evidence solitarity even when priorities diverge.  They point out that the packaging fight meant nothing to the digital sector and yet they remained allied.True and thanks for that. But let’s be honest here, too. The costs of the packaging fight were not paid, by and large, from the union treasury. The costs were borne by individual screen and television writers who undertook to fire Big Four agents and work for an extended period without representation. There was little competition for union resources in that job action; it was in no way a stress test for the eventuality of a prolonged strike taxing the resources of a union that is no longer oriented to representing workers in a singular industry, but has ambitions anywhere and everywhere that someone lifts a pen. 

True, too, that writers move back and forth between sectors and that when labor in one industry is organized and rewarded, all writers and the craft of writing benefit. I believe this as fundamentally as my digital brethren.  It’s the reason that in my four years on the council, I supported every organizational effort undertaken by the WGAE and – given a solution to the structural risk to the union – want to continue to support and subsidize that organizing going forward, regardless of who collects the fresh dues from new members. 

If you win, you’ll lose. 

The bottom line is that whomsoever wins this union election will be faced with one of three practical options.

If the Inclusion & Experience slate wins, we are not going to cut the digital sector dead or walk away from five years of worthy organizing, but are instead resolved to:

1)  Sit down with representatives of our digital members and create a bifurcated union that allows both sides the necessary measure of self-governance and control over commensurate resources so that the WGAE can thrive as an amalgamated union.

2) Spin off a new digital union that is supported and subsidized to an extent that digital members can be confident of their future and that of the new entity and its ability to continue organizing.

Or, if this new idea finds favor with the WGAE council, as I think it will:

3) Sit down with the News Guild and chart a future logic for organizing labor so that the union with the primary mission of representing prose journalism on any platform and the union with the primary mission of representing writing for the screen can both grow and thrive.

Frankly, if the Solidarity slate prevails and gains seats on the council, I think the same outcomes will still need to be considered and the same fundamental issue addressed, whether digital members like it or not. And in the end, if the WGAE at some moment in the near future ceases to be primarily the representative of screen and television writing in the East and is instead an amalgamated union operating as such — while the WGAW devotes itself to our original, claimed mission — then the digital contingent in the union will find itself fully in control of an insolvent and vulnerable entity. And the vehicle that did so much to organize their sector – and would have remained committed to keeping and expanding those gains regardless – will no longer exist. If they win this election and then proceed to ignore that reality, they will lose. 

But then again, if you think screen and television writers in the East deserve their own distinct union, we all do.

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