WGA East Annual Report: Despite Pandemic, Members’ Earnings “Remained Remarkably Strong”

In an upbeat annual report to members released Friday, WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson said that despite the hardships imposed by the pandemic, “overall our members’ earnings remained remarkably strong.” Freelance film, TV and streaming writers, he wrote, “have mostly remained employed throughout the pandemic,” though “some members certainly lost work opportunities – series that did not go forward, pitches left unmade, potential feature projects stuck in limbo.”

Currently, Peterson said, “All writers’ rooms “remain fully remote. We worked closely with our sister unions to ensure that showrunners and other writers could have safe access to the set as production slowly returned in the fall of 2020.” He noted, however, that “shorter seasons and mini-rooms might be restricting opportunities for writers to perform vital producing duties,” and vowed to “keep an eye on this.”

Peterson also gave a preview of some of the issues that will have to be addressed when the WGA begins bargaining for a new film and TV contract in 2023. “We know there will be a lot of work to do between now and the 2023 negotiations to address very real issues faced by Guild members,” he wrote. “Comedy-variety writers work for unconscionable discounts off weekly minimums – and the Minimum Basic Agreement currently contains no minimum compensation rates for comedy-variety programs made for SVOD platforms, where comedy-variety residuals are also paltry. We know that many TV writers are concerned about mini-rooms, and feature writers complain of continued pressure to do unpaid work. Although we made some gains in equity and inclusion in (last year’s) negotiations, there is far more work to be done.”

The guild he said, “Is fully committed to the struggle to ensure that our industries overcome their long history of exclusion so people from historically underrepresented communities have a meaningful opportunity to build careers. We do this both as a matter of social justice and as a matter of the long-term health of the industries themselves, as audiences demand to see, hear, and read stories that reflect their own experiences and perspectives.”

You can read the annual report here.

Despite the pandemic and political turmoil of the past year, Peterson said that the guild remains strong. “In the last year there was much talk of fracture and division. Of political, economic, and moral collapse. Our national politics felt broken, our personal health threatened. Nothing, not even our basic institutions and principles, appeared to be safe or stable. But at the Writers Guild of America East we persevered. We made real, lasting progress on all fronts despite the fear and pain that plagued the broader world. We made concrete gains for all sectors of the membership, in all parts of our industries, engaging members, providing the highest level of professional service, crafting and executing effective strategies, working with our allies in the labor movement and in the political world.”

The guild’s office in New York City has been closed since March 2020, with all work done on Zoom and by phone. “As vaccines become available, we hope to reopen the office at some point in 2021,” he said. “Like many organizations, we will figure out the best balance between working and meeting remotely and in-person.”

For the guild’s thousands of members who work in broadcast and digital news, workplace safety issues “presented a particular challenge,” he wrote. “Most members have been able to work from home, although this has placed economic and logistical burdens that we have addressed with employers. And some members have been required to report to the newsroom. Together with our sister unions we have fought hard to ensure that rigorous testing and other protocols are in place, and honored. In digital, we faced a wave of more than 100 layoffs and furloughs, which inspired us to work hard in Washington to obtain moral, political, and payroll support.”

Peterson also highlighted many of the guild’s other achievements over the past year – chief among them, the WGA’s historic victory in reshaping the talent agency business, a battle that was led by the WGA West. As of February 5, 2021, every agency, including private equity-owned WME and CAA, had signed a new agreement with the WGA East and West. “Our unions did something no one thought was possible; and the only reason we were successful after a three-year campaign was the power of collective action.”

That new agreement, he said, “drastically changes how talent agencies work. The agreed upon Code of Conduct establishes that agents cannot collect packaging fees in lieu of commission, and that agencies and their private equity investors will be limited to no more than a 20% combined stake in any production or distribution entity. The new agreement also mandates the sharing of information between agencies and the Guilds. This allows the unions to enforce contract provisions around late pay and free work and gives us the ability to aggregate data to ensure the Guilds and agencies better address inequalities in film and television.”

He also touted the gains made last year at the bargaining table for a new film and TV contract, which was overwhelmingly ratified by the memberships of both guilds on July 31, 2020. That pact, with management’s Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, “achieved many important gains,” he said, including increases in minimum compensation of 1.5% in 2021, and 3% in 2022 and 2023, plus “a hefty increase in employers’ contributions to the pension fund” – 1.5% in 2020, with the WGA having the right to divert an additional 0.5% from the minimum increase in 2021 – a right the guilds exercised earlier this year – and another optional 0.75% in 2022. “These contribution increases will go a very long way towards ensuring the long-term fiscal health of the pension fund,” Peterson wrote.

Another win at the bargaining table was the new Paid Parental Leave benefit, funded by employer contributions of 0.5% of covered earnings. Beginning this month, members whose employers contribute to the PPL fund can receive $2,000 a week of parental leave pay for eight weeks within 12 months of a child’s birth, adoption or fostering.

The WGA also won a 46% increase in residuals for high-budget SVOD shows due to changes in several factors in the formula. Below-minimum “new writer” discounts, which the WGA says disproportionately impacted writers in underrepresented groups, were also eliminated.

On the organizing front last year, the guild organized the writer-producers who create nonfiction podcasts for three companies, each of which is now owned by Spotify: Gimlet, The Ringer and Parcast. The guild has been organizing nonfiction TV productions for more than 10 years, and now has collective bargaining agreements at five companies that create this type of series, including Lion TV, Sharp, NBC News Studios, Vox Entertainment, and the TV production unit at Vice. “There is still a lot of work to do before we have sufficient density, but we have made real gains,” Peterson wrote. “For example, at Vox, the collective bargaining agreement includes strong language on job security and equity and inclusion, paid time off, access to portable health benefits, meaningful pay minimums, and more.”

The guild also brought a number of enforcement actions in the last year against companies that failed to pay the initial compensation or residuals that were due including nearly $680,000 in underpaid residuals, plus interest, for the writers of the Showtime series Desus and Mero.

“Solidarity works,” Peterson wrote. “Solidarity among writers is what permits us to win good collective bargaining agreements and organize formerly non-Guild writers. Solidarity among unions is what enables us to win policy gains and tackle the tough issues we confront across our industries.”

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