Wednesday, September 24, 2008
A closer look at the election results reveals some other positives:
- Along with Katherine Fugate and John Bowman, I was one of only three candidates to be listed on over half the returned ballots. (No other candidate was listed on as many as 45%.)
- While all five incumbents were re-elected, non-incumbents finished 1st, 3rd and 5th, a sign that the call for new voices was heard. Katherine Fugate and Karen Harris (who was 5th), while supported by Writers United, are both independent thinkers whom I expect will be strong Board members.
- Kat Smith, another excellent, fully independent candidate whom I got to know better during the campaign, finished an excruciatingly close 9th, just five votes behind Kathy Kiernan. This makes Kat next in line to take a Board seat in case a vacancy arises, as does happen.
I would have loved to see Kat make it into the top eight, but otherwise, from my point of view, this election couldn’t have gone much better. I look forward to a reunion of sorts with Bowman, Mendelsohn, Mark Gunn, and David Goodman, with whom I worked on the Negotiating Committee, and all of whom have served the membership tremendously well both there and on the Board. Karen Harris’s election puts a daytime writer on the Board, a very positive development.
Above all, given this year’s list of candidates, I can’t imagine a set of results which would have given a stronger endorsement to the notions of greater independent thought and of moving beyond single-party Guild politics.
Now on to the thank you’s.
First off, I want to thank all of you who’ve been reading this blog for your support, and for your e-mails, and for sharpening my own thinking with your comments these last couple of months.
I want to thank everyone who voted for me, everyone who asked other people to vote for me, and especially the couple dozen people who supported me most actively and tangibly. It was shocking and humbling to see writers throw themselves behind a sole independent candidate, and I can barely express my gratitude. Special mention here goes to the remarkable Cheryl Heuton, who figured out how to pull it all together, inspiring a much more active campaign than I’d ever anticipated running.
My final and most emotional thank you goes to my extraordinary brothers and sisters in arms from the 2007-08 Negotiating Committee who endorsed me and supported me in all sorts of ways. Not only couldn’t I have done this without them, but I simply wouldn’t have. They inspired me then and still do, and here’s hoping a few more of them run for the Board themselves next year.
I’m going to end this post with a question for anyone who may still be reading:
Would you like me to continue this blog? Should I post once or twice a month on what’s going on, with my new view from the inside (which would be somewhat fettered, of course, by obligations of confidentiality)?
Blogspot doesn’t let me know how many people are visiting to check out my rambles -- the only feedback has been your stream of e-mails or the random approaches at a Guild event or a coffee shop. So if you think there’s a value to my keeping this up, please drop me a line to let me know you’re reading: HMGforWGA@aol.com.
If you’re still out there, I’ll still be here.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
If you’re on this site, you’ve been reading what I have to say, but I highly encourage you to come hear everyone else. I’ve never met most of my fellow candidates and I’ve myself only decided what to do with about half my ballot, so I’m looking forward to this.
My own attentiveness to the Guild began at one of these off-year Candidates Nights, the one in 2000. There may have been more candidates at the front of the room than members in the seats. But listening to 16 members concerned enough about our Guild to make the commitment to run and to serve was the beginning of my education.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
“In the WGAw today, every single officer, every single member of the Board of Directors -- that’s 19 elected leaders in all -- either ran on a slate under the current president or under his endorsement.”
I went on to talk about how the Board had thus become a political tool rather than the philosophically heterogeneous deliberative body most of us naturally assume it to be.
Not surprisingly, this made current Board members unhappy. I know, because I’ve heard from a number of them. Some are friends, too, which doesn’t make this easy. I suppose I owe it to them, and to the rest of you reading, to back up my assertions a bit and to show that that first post wasn’t just political demagoguery.
See, it all actually started with a little cold analysis.
When I heard that most of the Writers United members were going to join together in a collective endorsement of eight candidates in this year’s election (a bit of an escalation from the off-year election of 2006), I got to wondering: how has Writers United’s heightened politicization of the Guild affected the way our Guild actually works?
Before diving in here, I want to point to the Guild Constitution, which says that the Board “shall have the exclusive power and authority to direct the affairs of the Guild,” and that the president “shall act as a spokesperson for the Guild.” Now, I don’t regard the WGA Constitution with the quasi-religious awe I save for the United States Constitution, but this seems like a good idea to me: a representative democracy selects sixteen of our best and brightest, and issue by issue they’ll deliberate until they find what they believe to be the best course.
You’re probably ahead of me right now, aren’t you? Well, here goes anyway. (Bear with me; it gets a little geeky.)
The minutes of all Board meetings are available on the WGA website. So I sat down for an hour one night with a legal pad, and buzzed through, counting votes at each meeting: how many were unanimous, how many were near-unanimous (one or two “no” votes on a resolution), and how many were contested (defined very liberally as three or more “no” votes). I did this for the first 25 meetings after which it was true that every single member had been elected with the current president’s endorsement (9/25/06-5/19/08).
Then, for comparison’s sake, I went back and did the same thing for the last 25 meetings of the pre-Writers United Board (1/26/04- 8/29/05).
Remember, these 20 months of the Writers United Board encompassed the lead-up to a strike, the strike itself, and its aftermath –- a time in which wrenching policy questions arose continually. Will we accept early negotiations if the studios offer them? Do we tack closer to SAG or to the DGA? What will our strike rules look like? How will we discipline writers who break them? Will we ask showrunners not to complete non-writing services on shows already produced, and risk lawsuits for breach? What legal services will we provide those who do? Will we support location pickets, trying to shut down productions? Will we first consult the member-writers whose work we’d be shutting down? What about interim deals –- should we offer them? And to whom -- to Letterman, but not Leno? And on and on: once the fit hits the shan, there are scores and scores and scores of tough ones like these.
So you’d think that the wartime Board, the Writers United Board, would be voting twice as often, three times as often as the peacetime Board, maybe even more. Wouldn’t you?
The current Board voted a total of 97 times in that period.
The pre-Writers United Board, in peacetime, voted 189 times.
The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.
That’s astonishing. So astonishing, in fact, that I’ll say it again:
The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.
(By the way, I excluded “approval of the minutes of the last meeting” votes, which literally are a rubber stamp. Also, if anyone does repeat this experiment and finds I’m off by a hair, I’ll happily publish a correction.)
Now let’s look at the breakdown of votes:
Pre-Writers United (189 votes): 125 unanimous, 34 near-unanimous, 30 contested.
Writers United (97 votes): 74 unanimous, 19 near-unanimous, 4 contested.
That’s right: defining “disagreement” so loosely as to require only three “no” votes on a motion, this Board took us all the way through a strike and disagreed a total of four times in almost two years.
The pre-Writers United Board disagreed thirty times, in peacetime.
The current monochromatic Board simply doesn’t disagree. 96% of the votes they did take were unanimous or near-unanimous. 96%.
And because the Board already knows it won’t disagree, it doesn’t even insist on its deliberative role. It’s apparently content to let the president set policy (consulting, presumably, with paid staff more than with the Board itself).
Completing the turn of the Constitution onto its head, the Board instead has taken on much of the president’s role as spokesman, tirelessly and enthusiastically, outreach after outreach.
So in that sense, it was perhaps unfair of me to describe the Board as “nothing more than a rubber stamp.”
But in the pure sense of the Board’s neglect in exercising its constitutional responsibility “to direct the affairs of the Guild,” well, I’m going to stand by that characterization, strong though it is.
Of course, a non-insider reading this may be asking, “Does this really matter? Who cares who sets policy?”
Well, I guess the heart of my campaign is the idea that it does matter, and that you ought to care.
Look at any of the issues I’ve talked about on this blog over the last two months, and, whether you agree with me or not, ask yourself whether you want these questions decided for the Guild by one leader with a strong and specific ideological bent, or by a heterogeneous, philosophically diverse sixteen member committee, deliberating its way toward the best course for us all.
Think about questions like:
- ought we reverse course and try to mend fences with the DGA?
- do we actively try to get better at enforcement, and if so, where do we find the resources?
- should we offer to put reality writers under a separate MBA?
- how should we be talking in the press about the SIT DOWN, SHUT UP writers?
- looking to 2011, do we repeat the brinksmanship of 2005-08 even if that might well mean steering us toward another strike, or do we try to get better at talking to people even when what they have to say isn’t what we want to hear?
Think about those questions, and think about who you want answering them for you.
The ballots are going out this week.
What kind of Board do you want?
You can find the original post to which I refer here:
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Here's the info:
Monday, August 25th
at the home of
Dan Petrie, Jr.
Tuesday, August 26th
at the home of
Hope to see you there.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
One of the valuable but relatively unheralded things which the Writers United leadership has done in the last few years is ease tensions between the WGA West and the WGA East.
This was not without controversy; some of the people I most respect regarding Guild matters felt we took the wrong course, that we were too “soft” on the East. This involved, among other things, forgiving large sums which apparently the East owed us but hadn’t been paying. It seemed to me, though, that in the bigger picture, forging a healthy relationship between the two Writers Guilds was of greater importance than what I hope, in time, will be looked back upon as bookkeeping.
Like most members, I’ve wondered why in this age of easy telecommuniations we still need two separate Writers Guilds anyway, with separate officers and Boards (they call theirs a Council) and, most wastefully, separate executive directors, paid staffs, and headquarters. The resistance to merger has historically come from the East, where heavy concentrations of news and daytime writers, for instance, worry that their unique concerns will go underattended.
I’m thinking about all of this more and more lately as we watch the unfortunate, ongoing contretemps between SAG and AFTRA, similarly redundant and overlapping Guilds. I’d hope that their troubles will provide an impetus for us to look at ourselves and eliminate our own split once and for all.
We showed good faith to the East and then some; now I'd love to see them do the same, and take the lead in setting forth some kind of plan for a merger which would leave them confident that their interests will be protected.
We showed good faith to the East and then some; now I'd love to see them do the same, and take the lead in setting forth some kind of plan for a merger which would leave them confident that their interests will be protected.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
First up is Scott Frank. You probably know him as one of the top screenwriters working today, and may also recall that he served on the WGA Board of Directors from 2005-07, elected as part of the original Writers United slate.
Scott has some strong opinions about our approach the last few years, and what we need to do to be more effective at the negotiating table going forward.
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The economics of our business are changing rapidly. But make no mistake: it is a BUSINESS. Going forward, we need to approach future negotiations as, well... negotiations. We are grown ups, fighting for a piece of an economic pie that is evolving as we go. We can only guess at trends. Every month, some new hotspot appears in the world of New Media. If we are to truly secure our place in that world, we have to start thinking creatively. Agitating will not win writers respect. Negotiating will.
Our leadership for years has claimed that the guild had gotten too "cozy" with the CEO's. That we needed to fight them from the outside. Yet, in the end, the only way we were able to make a deal was to sit down in the same room with these same CEOs.
Unity is a great thing, but the fight is not an emotional one, it's an economic one. We need to approach our future with a pragmatic eye. The world is changing. The economy is changing.
Are the corporations "greedy?" Sure. That's what corporations are. They are not people. They are money-making entities responsible for making as much money as possible for their shareholders. Does this make them evil? I don't think so. We just need to show them that it's in their best FINANCIAL interest to make us their partners going forward. They are as scared as we are about the future. That only makes them tougher to deal with.
Standing outside their offices and making fun of them won't get us a better contract. Working with them and ALL of the other guilds to better understand the future will. Working with them and ALL of the other guilds to set a better table for the next negotiation certainly will.
Howard Michael Gould understands all that. He cares about our future, knows that we'll have to fight for it, but understands that our fight, like our business, is collaborative.
Monday, July 28, 2008
I think most of our members have no idea how bad the relationship is right now between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild. Resentment and mistrust run high in both directions, and I’m sure that leaders on each side could be compelling in articulating the reasons.
But the truth is, we need them, and they need us. Come 2011, we don’t want to look on helplessly, again, as they negotiate the contract which becomes the pattern for our own. And they don’t want to look on helplessly, again, as we wage a strike which puts their members out of work.
To be sure, there was a meaningful difference of opinion in 2007 which perhaps made the breach inevitable. They looked at New Media and saw an area which wasn’t generating much revenue yet, and was thus unnecessary to address in this year’s negotiation. We looked at New Media and saw the same thing, but considered that exactly the reason to address it now: better to fight today for theoretical dollars than to wait until the dollars are real and abundant and that much harder to wrest from management. We forced the issue; they closed the deal.
In a perfect world, we’ll work together some day, and even at times quietly collaborate to pose as good cop and bad cop.
Things are so broken now that it’s hard to imagine getting to that point from here. But it’s not hard to imagine how we might begin.
We have all these issues precisely in common with the DGA, and will with SAG too. So let’s put together a tri-Guild committee, comprised of, say, two staffers and three members from each Guild, to meet on a regular basis to pool information and resources toward tracking facts and trends of mutual concern.
If we do this, will we still be faced with differences of substance once again down the line, in 2011 or 2014 or beyond? Won’t the day come when we still want more than the DGA is inclined to demand? Undoubtedly. Residuals play a more crucial role in the incomes of a greater percentage of our members. Plus labor-management confrontation is simply more part of our DNA. But hopefully by then we’ll again have a relationship to build upon, and we’ll be able to compromise and fuse into a joint negotiating posture which is a winner for both Guilds, and for SAG, too.
From where we stand right now, that dream may seem as unlikely as a thousand-to-one buzzer-beating shot from halfcourt. Maybe it is.
But we can certainly start with a lay-up, and see where we'll be able to take it from there.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Since posting my critical comments here over the last week or so, I’ve been finding myself frequently in conversation taking the other side, and explaining to critics what’s gone right in the Guild since Writers United came in three years ago, and I think it’s worth talking about a few of those things here.
First, and most obviously, they threw one hell of a strike. To the extent one believes that we were never going to get a fair deal on new media without striking at some point, it can’t be denied that we’d never have waged nearly so effective a strike without the army they built.
Second, they managed the relationship with SAG beautifully and much to our benefit. There were some, myself included, who thought our relationship with the DGA was ultimately going to be more important, because the directors were going to make the first deal, but our leadership thought that the strength we’d gain from SAG’s support would far outweigh whatever we’d lose if the DGA went its own way. In the end, they were as right (and wrong) as I was: yes, the DGA made the first deal, which drove our own, but SAG’s support, highlighted by the shut-down of the Golden Globes and the threat that posed to the Oscars, was a big part of the engine which pressed the AMPTP, and pushed the DGA, toward the deal that they finally made.
Third, there were a number of smaller scale victories which came through the new wave of internal organization, for example the showrunners’ stand against free work for the internet.
And the last which I’ll mention is maybe the most important: these guys managed to change writers’ relationship to our Guild in a fundamental way which I never would have believed possible. Before Writers United, the vast majority of us looked at the Guild as a needed bureaucracy -- an insurance agency, a collection agency, a credit determination agency. But now, for the first time since the long, sad 1988 strike, I think most members believe that the Guild can actually stand up and do something.
And it needs to be said that that happened because these guys got out there and showed up and did the work, day in and day out, outreach after outreach.
Take none of this as a walk backward from my recent criticisms. To be sure, the daily realities and enthusiasms of Writers United as a political movement have gotten in the way of the Board’s critical policy-making and oversight functions. I’m convinced that a more philosophically heterogeneous Board, more closely resembling this year’s Negotiating Committee, would serve as a better check and balance on the kind of extremely activist officers and paid staff we now have.
At the same time, though, critics, myself included, would be unfair to view Writers United only through that prism. A balanced, centrist appraisal has to acknowledge the accomplishments, too, even while calling for an important change in the composition of the Board going forward.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
It’s been a hell of a year. We did what doubters and the AMPTP said we’d never be able to do: we held together. I’m particularly proud to have been part of it as a member of the Negotiating Committee.
If a strike is a time for unity, the aftermath of success is a crossroad, a time for thoughtful evaluation of our priorities and strategies for the next cycle. Do we draw the right lessons from this past year, and build on all we’ve done? Or do we draw the wrong lessons, and squander it?
That’s why I’m running.
For the last three years, we’ve thrown massive resources into organizing reality, with little to show for it. We’ve focused on reality as means to a specific end: to restore our hegemony over network prime time and to put teeth into our strike threat.
The thing is, we learned -- to my surprise as much as anyone’s, frankly -- that we didn’t need reality to wage an effective strike after all.
Of course, there was always another, more pure reason to get reality writers covered by the Guild, to get them benefits like health and pension and minimums: if they are writers, it’s simply the right thing to do.
If we’re willing strip away the means-to-an-end aspect, it might be much more easily attainable. Here’s what we do: first, we put together a panel of reality showrunners who are already WGA members, to codify exactly what constitutes reality “writing”; second, we approach the companies and offer to put those writers under a separate MBA, just like the newswriters.
We’d be trading off something we learned we didn’t need anyway, while a) taking care of the people we purportedly want to help, b) making such a deal more attractive to the studios, and c) freeing resources to pay more attention to the needs of current members which have been neglected.
Enforce, Enforce, Enforce
For one thing, the Guild needs to get more aggressive about chasing down late and non-payment. If our staff isn’t adequately designed for that, we should consider outsourcing the work to the kind of accounting firm which is. If we ask the members to strike over residuals, then we owe it to the members to be relentless about their collection.
Working conditions for screenwriters have deteriorated radically over the past five years, exacerbated by the decline in available jobs. Studios now shamelessly demand free rewrites, and routinely make multiple writers do an unconscionable amount of free work before the job is even assigned. The Guild needs to codify some standard working guidelines, and needs to be proactive about policing for violations, rather than leave the burden on members who rightly fear career reprisals.
I just directed my first feature, and the Editors Guild was all over us from the start, phoning my editor regularly and even dropping in unannounced, all because one of our producers had run afoul of that Guild in the past. That union’s aggressive protection of its members was an inspiration.
Return to Truly Representative Leadership
In 2005, Writers United introduced an unprecedentedly partisan approach to Guild politics. In the absence of any other such organized movement, they haven’t just dominated the WGAw political landscape, they’ve owned it outright. Through three cycles, every single elected candidate -- a total of thirty in a row -- has run on a slate under our current president or under his endorsement. That fact alone signals a breakdown of representative democracy.
The Board of Directors ought to be a deliberative body comprised of the best minds we can gather, drawing the greatest possible wealth of Guild and workplace experience, and representing a philosophical cross-section of the membership. That’s exactly what this year’s Negotiating Committee turned out to be, and the membership was better off for it.
Your Board, however, has not been that for some time.
Prepare for 2011... but Prepare Wisely
Anyone who heard my speech at the Convention Center on the eve of the strike knows that I believe in what we did this year, not only as a way to protect middle-class writers as new media emerges, but as a necessary demonstration to management that we can and will stand together against rollbacks, now and forever. We accomplished all that, and I’m proud of it.
But it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that our own newfound militancy raised the temperature and significantly elevated the likelihood that we’d find ourselves in a position where we had to strike. The rhetoric escalated on both sides, we demanded a lot, they demanded rollbacks, and ultimately both sides were so confident of winning this game of chicken that we crashed.
And it was a crash. The strike was costly: tens and tens of millions, maybe more, in direct lost earnings; fewer pilots produced and smaller staffs in the aftermath; brutal hardships for co-workers with little or nothing to gain in our fight. A recent article in the LA Times estimates the cost to the
All of this matters, and it’s not disloyal to the Guild to talk about it.
In this environment, with traditional entertainment in transition, and a career as a steadily working writer so much harder to maintain, a return to the approach of the 1980s, with a triennial work stoppage more or less expected, would be suicidal for the industry, and for writers.
Which is why preparing for 2011 can’t simply be a matter of keeping the strike captains together and starting to compile our next wide-ranging, high-asking Pattern of Demands, toward the next game of chicken.
Effective preparation for 2011 means using our success as a starting point for conversations -- beginning now -- with the people we’ve had the hardest time talking to, even if it means listening to things we don’t want to hear.
Start Talking and Keep Talking
Foremost, we need to repair our fractured relationship with the DGA. This utterly dysfunctional good-cop-bad-cop act happened to work out this time, but we can’t allow dysfunction to become ingrained policy.
Our current leaders took the approach that the WGA-DGA relationship would always be sour and allowed it to deteriorate even further. This was a mistake. But I believe it’s correctible: the last twelve months should be proof to both sides that a rapprochement and healthy collaboration is very much in our mutual interest. Let’s take the lead.
Beyond that, we ought to be having frank discussions with the AMPTP throughout the cycle, and should never be afraid of early negotiations. That doesn’t mean a return to the CAC approach of the 90’s, and it doesn’t mean taking striking off the table. But talks which clarify honest points of contention are preferable to bellicose public pronouncements and brinksmanship which inspire nothing but the same from the other side.
New areas of dispute will arise over the next three years, especially as specific new media issues become practical rather than theoretical. A successful 2011 will mean figuring out the things we need, and then guiding management and our sister Guilds toward a deal which treats writers fairly.
Let this year’s action stand always as a reminder of our will, but let us never forget that a fully successful negotiation is one which yields a good deal without a strike.
Labor peace has value to writers, too.
What I’ll Bring
I’ve been a steadily working writer for two decades, and I’ve worked in almost every writing capacity in our two main areas, from the bottom up through showrunner in TV and writer-director in features. Guild issues aren’t theoretical to me; I’ve lived their real-world applications and still do.
I think I’ve managed to maintain the regard of a wide swath of the Guild’s philosophical spectrum, which allowed me to play a number of useful roles toward preserving unity during the strike. I’m particularly gratified to have the endorsement of so many of the extraordinary men and women with whom I served on the Negotiating Committee.
Please give me your vote and allow me to keep working in the interest of writers.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
In the WGAw today, every single officer, every single member of the Board of Directors -- that’s 19 elected leaders in all -- either ran on a slate under the current president or under his endorsement.
Every single one.
In fact, it’s been four years -- since 2004 -- since anyone’s been elected to anything in the WGA without the backing of Patric Verrone.
Did you know this?
Chances are you didn’t. Chances are you assumed what I assumed about the WGA for years: that a bunch of people of varying points of view were interested in the Guild, tossed their hats into the ring, and the natural process of selection and election led to a Board comprised of the most experienced people and best minds we could gather.
Chances are you thought we were led by a big, heterogeneous committee which functioned as a healthy deliberative body, one which could be trusted to debate the hard issues as they come up and which, after spirited debate when necessary, could be trusted to make the best decisions and recommendations to the membership.
Well, that was a reasonable assumption for years and years. In fact, that’s how it was.
But you’ve heard of Writers United, right? What do you think Writers United was about when it formed in 2005? It was about employing the traditional tools of politics -- more money, more organization, even a paid consultant, for the first time in Guild history -- to make sure that the entire group got elected, regardless of whether that group’s distinct private philosophy was reflective of the membership or not.
There wasn’t any similarly organized opposition, and it worked.
And worked and worked. Because once in, election and re-election became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now potential Board members who think differently from Patric Verrone, who don’t expect to get his blessing, won’t even run. It looks like a fool’s errand, a waste of time and money which will leave you that much more likely to end up on the growing list of smart, experienced Guild leaders who are seen as not supportive enough of the program and who are no longer wanted anywhere near 3rd and Fairfax, even for committee work.
Now you’ve got a self-selected, self-replicated Board of Directors -- a bunch of wonderful individuals, by the way, and people who think they’re doing the best they can for the Guild, but who as a group have let themselves become nothing more than a rubber stamp.
Add to that a massive turnover on the staff since Patric Verrone's election, from the Executive Director down, and consider the fact that the Board has become a rubber stamp for what they're doing, too.
Whether you love everything the Guild has done in the last three years or don’t, think about what you know of government, in any organization, on any level. And think about the impact the Guild has on your own life. And think about whether that’s really the kind of Guild leadership you want.
Friday, July 18, 2008
The studio has decided that the show won’t be WGA, as almost all other animated TV shows have been for the last decade; rather, it’ll be IATSE, like most animated features. Apparently -- surprise! -- the new norm of perpetual confrontation is going to cut both ways, and you’ve suddenly found yourself in its crosshairs.
But you’re told by an executive who’s seemingly in a position to know (though not, it turns out, in a position to promise) that it’ll all work out, that the show will end up WGA.
And then you’re told that it won’t.
So you put your career and your livelihood on the line, you stand up with your co-workers, and together you refuse to work, the way Larry Wilmore did singlehandedly on THE PJS a decade ago, and the way the SIMPSONS and other FOX animation writers did the same once Wilmore opened the door.
Then you learn that those shows back then were different: they didn’t already have a contract with another union. Yours does. Your show can't be WGA.
But you hold out anyway, and the studio finally agrees to WGA equivalents on all fronts, not just for yourselves but for future writers on the show. It’s not the WGA coverage you’d wanted, but you decide it’s the closest you can possibly get -- and what’s more, the stand you’ve taken will discourage any studio from trying this kind of move in years to come. So you take the deal.
You are, by any reasonable standard, a hero.
But within 24 hours, comments on Nikki Finke’s blog are calling you a scab and a sell-out.
Because your own Guild threw you under the bus.
This is what your Guild said about you, officially: “We understand why they [took the deal] but wish they hadn’t. Had they stuck together we believe that they would have won WGA coverage for Sit Down, Shut Up! Two WGA members refused the deal, and we and their fellow writers applaud them.”
And here’s what “one WGA leader” said to Nikki Finke, apparently asking her not to use his name: "The siege ended with a bribe."
In other words, if you do something courageous and beneficial to writers, but not courageous enough and beneficial enough to fit what Patric Verrone thinks is best right now for the Guild, expect things to get ugly.
Even if you’ve previously fought successfully to get other shows covered, as some of these writers had. Even if you’re a founder of United Hollywood, as one of them was.
Because apparently now the spirit of perpetual confrontation won’t be limited to challenging the studios. Apparently our leaders are so confident in the fervor of their followers that they’re willing to turn sentiment against our own, secure in the knowledge that all they have to do is drop the right word, and loyalists all over town will begin to vilify you.
They'll let you stand as an example to others: walk the line we lay down, or else. And they'll do it because they know there are people out there ready, eager, to buy into it.
And they'll do it because they know there are people out there ready, eager, to buy into it.
This is the New Fanaticism. And it’s appalling.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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As long as we're in permanent confrontation mode, constantly threatening to strike, and at the same time telling the studios that we're hell-bent on organizing reality so as to use it against them, we can expect the studios to put up the fierce resistance that we've seen to organizing those shows, while we keep diverting our finite resources toward that cause.
It's time to think about moving away from a "means to an end" approach to reality, and shifting to a "do the right thing" approach.
First off, we need to honestly define what "reality writing" is. For the last couple of years, we've been willing to call editors writers, shredding the MBA language which has always defined us on the theory that having more people in our union will make us stronger. (And it may well not, anyhow; the more diverse the union, the harder it is to get people to hold together over issues which don't usually affect all writers equally.)
Instead, let's convene the strongest committee we can, ideally comprised of reality showrunners who are also WGA members. Let's charge them with suggesting a definition of "reality writing," toward identifying the people who fairly ought to be covered by the Writers Guild.
Then let's go to the studios and offer to talk about organizing these writers under a separate WGA MBA, similar to the newswriters.
By taking off the table the very concept of organized reality as some sort of wonder weapon which we're itching to use against the studios, we'd remove the most powerful incentive they've had to resist. And the most important benefits these writers would receive -- health, pension, minimums -- are in the areas where even the studios have often shown willingness to be fair for fairness's sake.
We'd finally be doing right by the writers we've been claiming we want to help, getting them real benefits instead of treating them as pawns.
Again, I wouldn't be suggesting this if we hadn't just seen that we could wage such an effective strike even without reality. But we did.
Let's not be slaves to dogma. Let's learn from what we've gone through, let's actually do something meaningful for these writers, and let's start using our staff and budget resources to better enforce the contract we already have, in the interests of the members we already have.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
A few years ago I started growing concerned over what the rise in unscripted reality programming -- which the Guild does not cover -- would do to our ability to wage a strike, if we ever really needed one. The networks could load up on non-WGA programming and do just fine.
So I was very receptive to Patric Verrone’s argument when he ran for WGA President on the need to organize those shows, likening us to a toothless dog: “We can growl and bark but, when the time comes to strike, our bite is almost meaningless.” I was convinced that, for that reason alone, it was critical for us to get those shows covered.
Of course, there was another reason to get those shows covered, too: it was the right thing to do. To the extent that these shows are written -- though precisely what work ought to be considered writing is much debated, and maybe subject for another post -- these writers deserve to share in the things our Guild has fought for and won over the last 75 years, like decent minimums and health insurance and a pension plan.
But mostly our Guild spent 2005-07 focused on organizing reality as a means to an end, to reinvigorate our strike threat.
Of course, this would be an uphill battle by definition. By broadcasting the goal of organizing reality so that we could increase our strike threat -- basically telling management, “We want you to give us your gun, so we can shoot you” -- we disincentivized them even further from doing right by reality writers. Yet our new leadership believed we could win the day anyway, through the magic new weapon of “corporate campaigns” -- guerrilla-style tactics which had in some instances proved effective for unions in other industries.
Three years in, it’s fair to say that they haven’t done much for us. And our reality organizing campaign has had more misses than hits, most infamously the suicide run of the
So we went into our strike without having regained that hammerlock over prime time network programming which Patric Verrone and David Young -- and I -- had believed essential.
Here’s the thing, though:
We were wrong. We're not a toothless dog.
What none of us were taking into account was that a writers strike was never going to be about the imposition of sudden economic impact on the conglomerates, but rather about a long war of attrition -- in other words, which side could hold together longer. What would divide us, and what would divide them?
Toward that end, as the strike dragged on for more months than we’d anticipated, we started offering interim deals -- waivers, really -- to certain companies and not others, in hopes of sowing dissent on their side.
Little had we realized, reality programming had all along been operating precisely like a strike waiver. It meant that FOX, with lots of reality on their schedule, could withstand the strike more easily, but it also meant that CBS, with little reality and suddenly losing ground to FOX, would be pushing harder internally to make a deal.
So we struck. We stayed together. A deal got made. We got what we needed.
And not having reality turned out not to mean a damned thing.
But what is the Guild focusing on this week? A reality rally in
As a means to an end, toward reinvigorating our strike threat.
I think we’re off course.
Instead of actually analyzing what we all went through together, and asking what we can learn from that, this leadership is automatically interpreting the painful events of the past year to fit its own original ideology-driven narrative and the composition of its current organizer-heavy staff.
There’s a better play for us right now -- one which stands a much better chance of doing what’s best for the reality writers themselves, while allowing us to move forward and apply our finite resources to things which will help current members. And I’ll get to that in my next post.
Monday, July 14, 2008
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On Unity, Demonology, and the Legend of the Dirty Thirty
We have in the Guild our own demonology, mostly rooted in the fractious Eighties, with its legacies of the Union Blues, the hated home video rate, the DGA which settled too easily, and the devastating five-month strike of 1988 whose only triumph was that for nearly two decades both sides went to great lengths to avoid another one.
So as this year’s strike wore on, and as members tried to read the tea leaves and speculate on the negotiations (or lack thereof), helped little by a leadership and Negotiating Committee necessarily constrained in its candor, demons were invoked, analogs assumed, fears raised, anger stoked. Much of this was probably unavoidable. But as this all winds down and the first draft of history is being written, some clarifications are in order, toward understanding who we are as a Guild, what we accomplished and how we did it, and how much we have to build on going forward.
A good number of our members approached this round with a certain fatalism, a belief that no matter what we did, the DGA was going to make a deal first, and that we’d get the DGA’s deal. It was assumed, too, that the DGA -- historically strike-averse and willing to settle for less -- would take “a bad deal.” Of course, we on the Negotiating Committee and Board would tell members on the picket lines that we wouldn’t have to take their deal if we didn’t like it. That was indeed true, but everyone knew that the strike would get immeasurably tougher if the DGA settled first.
In retrospect it’s clear that, unless we were willing to settle for a mere extension of the last contract, accepting the DVD rate on electronic sell-through and leaving all other new media issues tabled for another three years, the AMPTP was never going to negotiate seriously with us before they made a deal with the directors.
That put the DGA in a tough position. They could take the kind of basic no-frills extension we were offered (perhaps with a most favored nations agreement which assured them new media jurisdiction and residuals comparable to ours, once we settled). Or, they could do the harder thing, negotiate more aggressively than they’ve traditionally done, and try to land a deal good enough to provide an acceptable template for our own. This latter choice would be highly complicated by the dysfunctional relationship between the two Guilds. They had to be asking themselves, how much would the writers really want, or need, to settle? Our Pattern of Demands, of course, was a high ask, and didn’t provide much of a clue. Moreover, mistrust between the two leaderships precluded the WGA’s confiding in the DGA with any kind of acceptable “bottom line.”
Nonetheless, the DGA stepped up to the moment, used the power of our strike as leverage, bargained hard, and landed a better deal than we expected.
It can’t be emphasized enough that this year, the traditional, anticipated pattern was turned on its head.
This year, we didn’t get the DGA deal. This year, the DGA got our deal.
All would be better if the relationship between the Guilds were healthier, and this should be a primary area of attention over the next few years. For starters, we owe them a big, public thank you, which we’ve yet to give them. They owe us one, too.
Anyhow, two days after the terms of the DGA deal were announced, the WGAw members of the Negotiating Committee met informally at John Bowman’s house, and agreed that we were moving into the endgame. There were still some things we’d need to negotiate beyond what the DGA had attained, but it was now clear to us that our strike had been a great success.
But we chose not to talk about that. Whether because some of our leaders truly thought they had a shot at getting a lot more out of the studios, or whether they thought that any positive talk would undermine our chances of getting even the crucial smaller points we needed, or whether merely because of (understandably) bruised egos, the official word on the DGA deal was no word at all.
And in our deafening silence, the Guild began to polarize.
The more militant, weaned on the stories of past DGA sell-outs, assumed this to be another one. At the same time, the more strike-weary, hungry for a way out, wanted us to embrace the deal without delay. And our membership’s two edges began to get angry at one another. You could feel it on websites like WriterAction, and you could feel it on the picket lines.
John Wells’s widely read internet piece in praise of the deal became one of the lightning rods for the polarization. About this, a couple of things need to be said. First, critics should compare Wells’s written comments about various deal points with John Bowman’s at the Shrine on Saturday; we on the inside didn’t love everything in the deal as much as Wells seemed to, but in truth we were satisfied with the great bulk of it, and just didn’t feel like we could say that yet.
Second, I spoke to Wells the day his e-mail hit the internet, and he explained to me why he supported the DGA deal as a basis for ours, and why he’d been willing to make that support public. I’ll leave it to John to say more about all this himself, but it should be known that he was acting on principle and in what he deeply believed to be the best interests of writers.
(In a sort of parallel, those same things can and should be said about Board member Phil Alden Robinson, who, with the clock on salvaging the TV season ticking down, wrote a tough, militant piece for United Hollywood, scaring the bejeezus out of writers desperately hoping that a settlement was close at hand. Like John, Phil explained his motives to me the next day. I think that when more is known, both of these men will be widely appreciated for their contributions to this negotiation, and for their courage and willingness to brave personal vilification in the interest of bringing writers the best deal possible. Both of these men deserve to be regarded as heroes of the Guild.)
The other lightening rod for polarization was the rampant rumor that, even before the DGA announced its deal, thirty A-list feature writers and showrunners had threatened to leave the Guild unless we accepted whatever the DGA negotiated. Again, this played into the post-Eighties demonology: now our generation had its own dreaded Union Blues, selfishly determined to leave us screwed on the internet, just as we’d been screwed on VHS and DVD in the bad old days.
Only this time, it wasn’t true.
Because I’d come onto the Negotiating Committee as a rare, self-described “moderate,” and so retained some credibility with critics of leadership and of the strike, I’d fallen into a role as sort of a liason to them, someone who could make the case to them for the need to strike, and who could, when appropriate, voice their point of view internally as well. Speaking from that vantage, I can say that the “thirty A-listers” rumor above was off base in three significant ways.
First, and most important, it wasn’t anything like the Union Blues of 1985: the “dissidents” of 2008 weren’t organized, and refrained until the end not only from public criticism, but from any private petitioning of leadership, for fear that even that would leak out and undermine the negotiation.
Second, there were far, far more than thirty. If we’re counting writers who, after the DGA deal was announced, were angry at the thought that we might still blow up the TV season and wait for SAG to join up with us, then I heard personally from over one hundred.
Third, the people I heard from were not, for the most part, “A-listers.” They were mostly writers at points in their careers where they were making (and sacrificing) a lot of money, but usually without the long histories of high earnings which gave them the wherewithal to withstand a lengthy strike.
It’s been too little talked about that while in some ways the strike appealed to our democracy and egalitarianism -- we were all equal on the picket line -- in other, crucial ways, the strike was not egalitarian at all: the real costs of the strike were not borne equally. Not even close.
Some writers have been fortunate enough in their careers that three months without paychecks wouldn’t cause a material change in lifestyle.
For others -- remember, over half the active, current members of the Guild are without WGA covered work at any given moment, and that doesn’t even count post-current or caucus members -- the last three months of unemployment won’t be much different from the next three.
But for some writers in the middle, this strike threatened their homes and changed the ways their families would have to operate -- real costs, hard costs. It’s a painful irony that, even as we struck for middle class writers of the future, it was the middle class writers of the present who got clobbered hardest on their behalf.
And for all the many things we did well during this strike, it’s been a grievous failure of ours not to have acknowledged that, publicly and often. We’ve rightly celebrated the people who worked for the strike, but we haven’t done nearly the same for the people who paid for the strike.
That recognition was absent Saturday night at the Shrine, and it’s been absent all along, and it’s inexcusable.
Which brings us back to one meeting in January, and the group which came to be called the “Dirty Thirty.”
In mid-January, at my own request, fellow Neg Comm member Robert King and I went to the home of a writer to talk with about three dozen members whom I’d heard were deeply unhappy with the strike and the leadership. My primary hope was to keep them from doing anything public which would undermine the Guild’s negotiating strength. My secondary hope was that Robert and I could provide a channel for them within the system, and to make sure they were heard, and felt heard.
A bunch of those writers had been force majeured out of their deals that very afternoon. And listening to the way we had all been talking to the membership, it was not unreasonable for them to fear the possibility that what was, at that point, a ten-week strike could turn into eight months, at which time SAG would join us and the real strike would begin. These writers were hurting already, and they were afraid, and they were angry.
It wasn’t the easiest afternoon for Robert and me. But in the end, it was successful. They now had a way of communicating with the Guild, and they didn’t take their grievances public.
Which is, ultimately, the point. Because any discussion about “dissidents” in the strike of 2007-08 really ought to begin and end with this remarkable truth: when given the opportunity to be heard inside the Guild rather than outside, they chose that route, in almost all instances. They wanted to influence the process, they wanted us to reach a settlement, but they wanted to make that influence felt in a way which would not compromise the Guild’s bargaining position.
Personally, I think the reason that was true this year, unlike 1985 or 1988, is that the cause was so just, so clearly important, that the few in the most extreme opposition to leadership realized that they weren’t going to find much traction among even relatively conservative members, who might under other circumstances speak out against a strike.
And this, by the way, was the deepest meaning of Patric Verrone’s fine battle-cry, “We’re all in this together.”
When you’re dealing with a large Guild of free-thinkers like ours, “unity” can’t be a matter of raising a small tent and telling everyone to stand under it. It has to be about building a big tent, and finding room inside for all, from the writers who advocated the DGA deal before anyone had even heard it, to the writers who’ll vote no on the contract now because they feel we should have stayed out longer and demanded more.
I’ll confess that when I was asked to join the Negotiating Committee, I had doubts about our ability or even willingness to build that big tent, and to let everyone be heard, to “listen” as well as to “educate.” In the end, though, I think we did it damned well. And the happy result was the deal that we needed.
SAG played a role, and so did the DGA. Militants played a role, and so did conservatives. Strike captains played a role, and so did the middle-class, working writers who contributed perhaps more than anyone before they even came to the picket lines. We were indeed all in it together.
Now, in the aftermath, let no one create false demons, or stories which suggest divisions like those which compromised our Guild in the past.
This time, we were better than that.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
I've been in the Guild since 1988. I've spent about half my career in television, half in features.
I'm coming off a pretty heavy duty Guild experience as a member of the 2007-08 Negotiating Committee. If you don't know me by name, you might know me from the speech I gave at the Convention Center on the eve of the strike. You can see it by clicking the top box at the right.
I've been on a couple of other Guild committees, too, and I've also followed and commented on the Guild and its political landscape for the last four or five years from the outside, much of that on WriterAction. I find myself thinking often about Guild matters: what we want, what we need, how we can best get it.
Anyway, I'm starting this blog to let you know who I am, and how I think, with more depth and specificity than the booklet campaign statements will allow. I'll try to add something every day or two.
I'm not setting the blog up to take comments, but I do want to hear from you, so feel free to e-mail me at HMGforWGA@aol.com. I've never blogged before, so be gentle.