WGA East Council Candidates Eye Next Year’s Contract Talks & Possible Writers’ Strike

Next year’s negotiations for a new WGA film and TV contract – and a possible writers’ strike – were front and center in campaign statements posted by several candidates in the WGA East’s ongoing Council elections. The WGA’s current contract, known as the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), expires on May 1, 2023.

This is the guild’s first election since its members voted overwhelmingly in June to restructure the guild to ensure a more “balanced representation” among its three newly-designated work sectors: film/television/streaming, broadcast/cable/streaming news and online media.

In one of only two contested races, seven candidates – including six incumbents – are vying for six seats on the Council representing the film/TV/streaming work sector. Here are excerpts from their campaign statements:

“As we approach the 2023 MBA negotiations, we face the serious threat of a potential strike,” wrote incumbent Monica Lee Bellais, noting that if reelected she will “continue to serve the best interests of WGAE members as our union moves forward to take on the next set of challenges, including dealing with the growing influence of the global production market.”

Many of the film/TV/streaming sector candidates agreed that eliminating the longstanding practice of free rewrites during the development of films and TV shows will be a major issue at next year’s contract negotiations. Other issues that need to be addressed, they said, include higher minimum pay rates, bigger streaming residuals, more secure pension and health benefits, greater equity & inclusion, and the curbing of mini-rooms, where groups of underpaid writers are gathered in advance of the production of a television series to break stories and write scripts.

Candidates for the WGA West’s board of directors made similar points in their campaign statements.

“The MBA negotiations are on the horizon,” wrote A.M. Holmes, who is seeking a fourth term on the WGAE Council. “We must be fully united and ready to fight – and it will be a fight. It is essential that we demand to be paid appropriately for our work and not see our income reduced by limited weekly rather than episodic fees, mini-rooms, free revisions, upfront payments with no residuals and more. Further, it is imperative that we maintain member access to health care through the Health Fund and preserve freedom of choice. In light of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, we must remain vigilant and work in concert with others in our industry to offer workplace protections, economic and emotional support as we navigate these changes.”

Gina Gionfriddo, who is also seeking reelection, said that the upcoming contract talks “must address the transformation of our industry to a streaming model. Can we preserve theatrical minimums for feature writers? How do we ensure that TV writers profit fairly from their work when streamers seek to eliminate backend profits and residuals as an income stream for us? These income streams are especially important as short seasons become the norm in TV. Fighting against the erosion of writers’ incomes also means, I believe, addressing the present crisis in free work. The industry standard for what constitutes a ‘pitch’ has ballooned in recent years. Pitch decks and look books and formats are often seen as normal steps in an unpaid development process. Writers are submitting to ‘bake-offs’ in which they spend months developing IP (intellectual property) they do not own in competition with other writers. We have to look at ways to address this epidemic of free development.

While noting that she doesn’t set the agenda for the MBA negotiations, Gionfriddo said that “What I can do is mobilize members so that they know what is at stake and what steps they need to take to make their voices heard by our negotiators. I particularly think that we have some work to do educating members on the race-to-the-bottom agenda among the streamers, the way in which media consolidation endangers our incomes. I think that we will need to take a squeaky wheel approach to advance some issues of particular concern to East members — the lack of minimums in comedy-variety and the need to gain a foothold in non-fiction and animation are goals that matter to me.”

Kaitlin Fontana, seeking a third term on the Council, wrote: “We face a serious contract fight with the MBA in 2023. We are doing more work than ever before, for less money – many times for free! Our industry’s power brokers are increasingly concentrated in a handful of mega-corporations. These fights are not concentrated only in film/TV and streaming. Our colleagues and comrades in broadcast news and online media are fighting the same fights, often for the same bosses. Our best shot at protecting ourselves and each other – regardless of sector – is to acknowledge the ways in which we are the same as well as how our needs differ, and to work in solidarity to make our workplaces safer, more equitable, and more stable.”

Tian Jun Gu, another incumbent, wrote: “I said last year if elected, I will fight for real gains for working writers. Things like script fees for staff writers, raising streaming residuals, guaranteeing more than one step for feature writers. and WGA streaming minimums for comedy/variety. This hasn’t changed. During my tenure, I worked with my fellow Council members to tackle one of the key issues of my platform: free work. That collaboration has resulted in the Free Work Town Hall. An ongoing series of meetings to tackle the insidious nature of free work in our industry.”

Just last year, guild leaders were so concerned about the guild’s shifting demographics – fueled by a wildly successful campaign to organize digital news outlets – that they talked openly about spinning off their digital news members into a separate union. That internecine feud was settled in June, however, when WGA East members voted overwhelmingly (98% to 2%) to approve changes to the guild’s constitution that are designed to ensure a more balanced representation of members by bridging the divide between those who work in film, television and news broadcasting and those employed in digital newsrooms. All the candidates in this year’s elections say that the membership is now united to confront the challenges ahead, no matter in which sector they work.

Recalling that heated battle, Tian Jun Gu wrote that “For many of you, issues like Guild governance aren’t at the forefront of your mind. There are higher priorities like free work creep, higher minimums and residuals, and continued healthcare coverage. When the last election framed the continued existence of our Guild as a question, I’m sure many of you were shocked. I know I was. When I started my first term, the divisions were so deep and toxic that I never thought we’d get to the issues that matter most to you. That matter to me. But here we are. Earlier this year, we as a Council successfully amended our Guild’s Constitution to more fairly serve our growing and diverse work sectors and brought that to a membership vote. The amendments passed with an astounding 98%. I could say the progress shocks me but in hindsight, it doesn’t. For as much chaos and outward animosity was displayed during last year’s election, it was done because each and every member on this council has your best interests at heart.”

Erica Saleh, running for a second term, wrote: “I know that our Guild can often feel episodic-TV-centric, especially when it comes to the MBA. We need to fight for the issues unique to Comedy Variety (lack of minimums on SVOD and discounts on long-term work – truly WTF) and Feature writers (endless pitch processes, free work, one-step deals – also WTF) and not let them be dismissed as fringe issues. It should be a priority to educate all of our members about the issues facing all of our members, so that we can be unified—and stronger—in all of our fights together.”

She also noted that “As a Middle Eastern-American woman, I am extremely passionate about issues of equity and access. I will fight for more opportunities at every stage for under-represented writers. We need to see BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women writers being hired more, promoted more, and in more positions of leadership. We must hold studios accountable by tracking who they are meeting with, hiring, retaining, and promoting. But there’s also a lot we can do from within. Just like studios, our showrunners (myself included) should be held accountable for who they are meeting with, hiring, retaining, and promoting.”

Gene Koprowski, the only non-incumbent running to represent writers in the film/TV/streaming sector, wrote that he “is troubled by Hollywood streamers’ treatment of screenwriters, especially when it comes to traditional back-end deal payments for successful programs,” and that he “plans to make a major issue of the matter in the coming years if elected.”

In the only other contested election, three candidates – Phil Pilato, Kathy McGee and Matt Nelko – are vying to become the guild’s vice president representing members working in the broadcast/cable/streaming news sector – an office that didn’t exist until now.

Pilato said in his campaign statement that “News members work long, hard hours to get stories right. We’re professionals and deserve decent pay and benefits. With an administration that’s a friend of labor, one would hope changes would come to help every member of the Writers Guild East – changes in labor law enforcement, net neutrality and health care. But in Washington, there are still those who cling to the failed policies of the last administration and fight to hold on to their power and prevent any change. Those are things we as a Guild must fight so we don’t lose what we’ve already achieved and that’s what I will do as your Vice President.”

Pilato added that “One of my top priorities and a top priority of my fellow Council members has also been to organize non-union shops. I’m proud to say during the last dozen years, our union has grown as a result of this effort. However, as you know, that’s also put a strain on the Guild’s resources and now the union has decided that in order to better serve the members – what’s needed is a Vice-President for each sector. That’s why I’m running for Vice-President of Broadcast, Cable and Streaming News at the WGAE. I also have worked very well with the other sectors and have been endorsed by both news and entertainment writers. I will fight with everything I know to get working news writers fair pay, good benefits and help from the Union that cares for them.”

McGee wrote that “As a candidate with experience and leadership, l value the importance of a strong and united WGA…It takes commitment and courage to fight for the future. Despite the extraordinary challenges the WGA East has faced the last few years, strength and solidarity guide us as we move forward.”

She also noted that “As a member of the WGA/CBS bargaining committee, I helped negotiate several CBS News contracts, including the bargaining sessions that resulted in CBS employees being added to the WGA pension plan. In addition, I have lobbied for contracts in streaming news at CBS News Streaming and supported organizing efforts MSNBC…As journalism evolves and we increase our ranks, we must continue to represent broadcast journalists. I will fight for benefits, protection against hostile work environments and job security by enhancing skills.”

Nelko said, “In recent years, a recurring theme has been cropping up from the company side of the bargaining tables: how we are no longer in the business of ‘broadcasting,’ and in fact not even doing ‘television’ or ‘radio’ anymore. During our last ABC negotiation, we were reminded time and again that we are, in essence, technological dinosaurs. Allow me to put this myth to rest right here and right now.

“It has been the talent, innovation, and dedication to industrial excellence of our members,” he wrote, “that has helped propel legacy media along its own supernova, neck and neck with the New Media, where we have already made impressive inroads in the world of podcasting and streaming. But we can’t stop there. It is imperative that the WGA not only be in the vanguard of this expanding new media universe, but that we be fully integrated as partners – programmers – developers – and at our most essential – writers. It has been my pleasure to represent you both in WGA Council and at the bargaining tables of ABC and CBS, and it would be a privilege to serve you as your new vice president of broadcast/cable/streaming news.”

Three other candidates – Justin DiLauro, Elizabeth Godvik and Gail Lee – are running uncontested for three Council seats representing the guild’s broadcast/cable/streaming news sector.

DiLauro wrote that once he takes office, he’ll push for stronger pension benefits. “Never again should we as a Guild have to beg for a pension increase before wage and basic-respect negotiations even begin. A financially strong pension means a stronger union at the bargaining table. Justin will represent all writers protecting and advancing our rights as working artists.”

Godvik said she wants the guild to be “forward thinking and to look at where the industry is going to best to equip our current and future members for those jobs and the challenges that come with them. I’m so proud of how our union worked together to forge a path forward to make sure members in all work areas are well represented.”

Noting that she helped unionize streaming producers at CBS News in Chicago, she wrote that “I believe it will help us in the future when digital and broadcast lines become even more blurred and contracts get combined. It will make our union stronger when it comes to future business decisions and how we approach media companies. We are stronger together.”

Lee, in her candidate statement, said that “There’s a cliché that says, ‘All politics is local.’ When it comes to union concerns, I could not agree more. The WGAE is only as strong as its membership. And member strength begins on the local level, in newsroom shops and in company bargaining units. That’s why I take great pride in having been a shop steward for many years, and serving on multiple CBS bargaining committees. I had a hand in matters that directly impacted my fellow broadcast members.

“Still, even when you get a contract, there is always so much more to be done. Current pay raises in no way match the rate of inflation. Newsrooms must do more when it comes to Covid safety. Working from home is important to many members. If it could be done during the pandemic, it can work as a business model. We have to fight to keep staff jobs, even as companies prefer workforces of freelancers. Employers must do better on diversity issues. I am thankful to belong to a union that has my back on all these problems. I am also grateful that the WGAE sees its mission in broader terms than just bread and butter issues. The guild’s efforts to promote social justice and equality remind us why the labor movement changed the course of U.S. history.”

Sara David, meanwhile, is running unopposed as vice president of the guild’s online media sector. Currently a member of the Council, she wrote that “We are at a unique point in our union’s journey: Our sectors need unity and collaboration to help on-the-ground members win stronger terms and navigate new terrain like industry consolidation, private equity, and digital escalation/strikes. We need leaders who are connected to members, who will advocate for them and be held accountable, and who can provide resources that empower workers, bargaining units, and our entire union. It would be my honor to continue this work and represent Online Media members as we grow the WGAE into what we all know it can be: an industry-changing force for real, positive impact in workers’ everyday lives.”

Two other candidates – Susan Rinkunas and Jessica Schulberg – are running unopposed for two seats on the Council representing the online media sector.

Rinkunas, in her statement, said: “I know firsthand what private equity companies are doing to digital media through consolidation and ruthless budget cuts. More strikes will happen – other WGAE shops have come close in recent years. Workers’ best chance in this environment is having a strong union presence and using our collective power on a daily basis, not just during contract negotiations.

“It would be my honor to represent members of the online media sector on Council, and I look forward to supporting members of the other sectors as they fight for better standards, including the upcoming MBA negotiations. I wholeheartedly support new organizing in podcasting, animation, and unscripted. As media companies continue to merge – and play to the whims of platforms like Facebook – workers’ responsibilities will overlap more and more. Our collaboration and solidarity are essential. Collectively, we can push back against the biggest issues our industry faces, including underpaying people for ‘new media,’ exploitative demands for free work, and unceasing layoffs. We’re all in this together.”

Schulberg said in her statement that “As wealthy media executives and private equity companies are constantly consolidating and shrinking our newsrooms in an effort to extract profits out of our work, it’s more important than ever that we work together to protect what we have won and continue fighting for better conditions.”

Voting online and by mail will begin September 1, 2022. The guild’s annual meeting and Council election will be held September 15. See all of the candidates’ full statement’s here.

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