WGA Contract Talks

This is from an email FAQ I wrote for writers who asked to stay informed…

I received an email from the Guild about a strike authorization vote. Does this mean we’re going on strike?

No. An authorization vote does not mean there’s going to be a strike nor does it lend itself to one. There’s a month to go before our current contract expires on May 1st and there is every reason to think we can still come to terms on a new deal.

A “yes” vote empowers our leadership at the negotiating table with the threat of a strike and enables the committee to call for one if circumstances demand it. Voting “yes” does not mean you want a strike. No one wants a strike. Strikes suck.

Okay, fine, I get all that. But what the hell happened? Didn’t we just start negotiations? How did we get here so fast?

The first round of negotiations lasted for two weeks and ended on the night of Thursday, March 23 when AMPTP negotiators called our leadership and told them not to bother coming in on Friday. And that was after we went back to them with a 44% reduction in our asks with the hope of getting a deal done before the end of the two weeks. What did the AMPTP come back with? No substantive gains and a demand for ten million dollars in cuts to our health plan.

So, naturally, on Thursday our leadership told them that was unacceptable. The response from the AMPTP came when they cancelled catering for Friday’s session.

Dude, that’s not what I read on Deadline. They said the WGA broke off talks.

Deadline is a source for facts on trade guild negotiations just as InfoWars is a source for environmental protection data. Deadline and Variety are both owned by the same conglomerate, Penske Media Corporation, whose interests are much more in line with the studios than writers.

That’s not to say you’ll never see favorable reporting on the contract talks. They do occasionally go to great lengths to cut and paste infographics from the WGA website.

So about those talks… are we still talking?

Contract talks with AMPTP are scheduled to resume on Monday, April 10th.

I haven’t heard anything about the authorization vote since that first email. Has it been scheduled yet?

The vote won’t happen until our entire membership has a chance to be heard. Meetings are scheduled for April 18th and 19th with voting to be held after all questions have been addressed. Voting would be done in-person as well as online. Obviously all of this is a moot point if an agreement with the AMPTP is reached before then, which is both the hope and expectation.

No one wants a strike, but they still happen. And isn’t this, like, the worst possible timing… for both our own leverage and for the country?

Our contract expires May 1st, right at the beginning of upfronts for the broadcast networks and major cable outlets. The possibility that they may not launch their fall programming on time is likely to impact ad buys and foreign distribution sales. Not to mention all the cable and Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/etc series that are filming or in script phase. So, as it turns out, leverage is in our favor when it comes to the timing.

As far as the broader picture is concerned, Congress recently introduced a deceptively named Right-to-Work bill for consideration. If/when this law is passed by the current legislative majority, it will effectively destroy unions in this country.

If our contract negotiations falter, we must stand up…. not just for ourselves, but for those who came before us to help establish safety regulations, minimum pay, rights protections, and pension/health contributions through collective bargaining. And we must do so for future generations of workers who will hopefully continue to take advantage of all that organized labor has done for this country.

Read more about Right-to-Work laws here: https://aflcio.org/issues/right-work

That all sounds incredibly… pretentious.

You’re welcome.

Can we talk about the last WGA strike? If it wasn’t worth it last time, why is it worth it this time?

Wasn’t worth it? Have you been reading Deadline again? We talked about this.

Okay, fine, let’s discuss what happened in 2007 and dispel the myth once and for all that we didn’t gain anything.

Netflix. Amazon. Hulu.

Heard of them? Yeah, well, without the 2007 strike the WGA would have no jurisdiction over the films and TV shows that originate or appear on those platforms. None. Nada. Zero. It’d be considered internet content. Which means no minimums, no residuals, no pension or health contributions, no anything.

Did you know that 15% of all writer income come from subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) programming? And it’s the second largest residual market for writers. None of that would be possible if we didn’t walk in 2007.

Oh, and streaming. Remember bitching about how measly those reuse numbers were that we gained from the strike? Me, too. But we got them. And now we see just how much of a moneymaker it’s become for studios and networks. Fortunately, because of the strike ten years ago, now we’re asking for the appropriate increases rather than begging for scraps without any framework in place.

We need a logline. A quick pitch to explain what we’re asking for and why it’s important. Something people can latch onto like we had last time when we needed a foothold in digital knowing it was the future of media consumption.

This is still about the future, but it’s unfortunately a little more complicated than a simple logline. Everything is interconnected this time around.

Our health plan has been operating at a deficit three of the last four years. And if that trend continues, it will become insolvent before we know it.

It’d be easy for us to use this as a rallying cry. But a key issue is why the plan is operating at a deficit. There’s a number of reasons, including the rising costs of medical care and prescription drugs….

… but mostly it’s because writers aren’t making as much as they used to, which means employer contributions to our health and pension plans are way down.

Wait, how is that possible? Aren’t we living in the “Golden Age” or “Peak TV” or whatever people are calling it these days?

Are there more TV shows than ever? Yes. Are there more working writers than ever? Well, not as many as you might think when you consider how staff sizes have shrunk over the last ten years. And a big reason for that is the changing television landscape where short season orders are no longer the exception… they’re the new normal. This new model favors the studios, who get more bang for their buck from writers on episodic payment schedules (which is everyone except staff writers). Writers, meanwhile, are delivering the same bang for less buck.

Fewer episodes produced mean fewer episodic fees. And the fewer fees are being amortized across multiple weeks per episode resulting in a huge increase in the number of writers working at WGA minimum and a huge decrease in overall income. This is happening at all levels, but is particularly damaging for those working at Co-Producer and above.

The change in median earnings from the 2013–14 season to 2015–16:

Co-Producer/Producer: -19%

Consulting Producer: -23%

Co-Executive Producer: -26%

Showrunner: -21%

TV writers are no longer being paid for their experience or their time. And for staff writers looking to the future, it’s disheartening to know the hours they’ll have to put in once they become producers won’t be rewarded. They’ll make the same amount they’re making now at scale.

Adding insult to injury, even with these shorter orders exclusivity rules still apply, forcing writers to forgo other work to wait for the return of a show that’s in limbo and may never be picked up. So not only are they making less money when they do work, they’re working for shorter periods during the year.

Traditionally, this time off was supplemented by residual income, but in emerging markets they’re too low to make a dent. Residuals for ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) are 0.05% that of broadcast network rates. Yes, you read that right. And for subscription-based video on demand (SVOD) it’s 30% of network rates.

Not to mention that because of the ability to stream episodes on their websites, there’s been an exponential decrease in broadcast network reruns altogether. So even that income has declined for writers.

Years ago, television series were deficit-financed and the hope of huge profits only came in the form of syndication deals. It would take upwards of 80 episodes for a series to “reach” syndication. Now that number is down to 8. With international distribution and on-demand deals bringing in money right from the start, making television is now an instantly profitable endeavor for studios.

The bottom line is this… in a time of unprecedented consumer demand when every TV show is profitable out of the gate, writers are actually earning less.

For charts and graphs: http://www.wga.org/members/membership-information/contract-2017/bulletin/writers-not-keeping-up-2

You sure talk about TV a lot. What about those of us who work exclusively in features? What are we getting from this?

The solvency of our health and pension plans affects every writer, regardless of the medium they work in. But our leadership is also fighting for minimum increases for feature writers.

In the past decade, the international box office has grown by nearly 70%, from $16 billion in 2006 to $27 billion in 2016. And yet, the latest AMPTP proposal offered no gains for feature writers. Zero.

But if it feels like TV is leading the charge a bit in these negotiations, there’s a reason for that. It’s because television is where we’re seeing the biggest drop in income across all levels. It’s that lack of income that’s affecting our health plan.

So, what is it we want out of these negotiations?

The simple fact is, the entertainment landscape is changing and we need to change with it otherwise writers will continue making less money for the same work. Really all we want is to be financially stable and know that our health care and pension plans will be there for us when we need them.