Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman is urging writers to remain united in the WGA’s five-month-long agency campaign or risk losing the guild’s bargaining power in next year’s negotiations for a new film and TV contract. To prevail on both fronts, he said Wednesday in an email blast to the guild’s members, they must re-elect WGA West president David A. Goodman and his entire team of running mates.
“If we can’t hold together now, after a 95% vote in support of this campaign — in a situation where, unlike in a normal strike, writers are working! — the companies will know we have little hope of maintaining solidarity or a successful strike threat against them next year — and probably not for a long time to come.”
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In March, WGA members voted 95.3%-4.7% to authorize their leaders to implement a new agency Code of Conduct that bans packaging fees and agency affiliations with corporately related production entities. On April 13, after negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents failed, the guild implemented the Code and ordered all of its members to fire their agents who refuse to sign it.
The guild’s ongoing election is widely seen as a referendum on the guild’s agency campaign. Opposition presidential candidate Phyllis Nagy and her Forward Together slate of running mates want to return to the bargaining table with the ATA, but Goodman and his slate are determined to reshape the agency business through their “divide and conquer” strategy of picking off the agencies one at a time and forcing them to sign the code. So far, however, only two midsized ATA agencies have broken ranks. Ballots in the election will be counted Monday.
Schulman, who won the Oscar for Dead Poets Society, was vice president of the guild from 2009-2011, and served on the board of directors from 2005-2009. From 1998-2002, he served as president of the Writers Guild Foundation, and in 2008, received the guild’s prestigious Valentine Davies Award in recognition of his writing career and his service to the guild.
“Our power comes from our solidarity and our willingness to strike if necessary,” he said in his email. “Absent those, history tells us we gain little. I served two terms on the Guild board and on three negotiating committees. I’ve seen first-hand how leadership preparation and style impact negotiations.”
He then recounted examples of past leadership failures that he says have cost writers “billions” of dollars – singling out former WGA West president John Wells, who is a Nagy supporter.
“For example, in 2000-1 Guild president John Wells issued a strike threat and presented the companies with a proposal worth gains of $240 million dollars over three years. But John didn’t organize our members. Leadership didn’t take a strike authorization vote. They agreed to early negotiations with the companies on the condition that there would be no rollbacks on the table. But when the companies demanded rollbacks anyway, our leaders did not walk out. The companies realized our strike threat was a bluff, so we ended up with gains of just $5 million over three years.
“Compare that leadership to our current campaign: Last year, in the months before the agency agreement expired, leadership conducted dozens of outreach meetings with members, educated thousands on a complicated concept, and outlined for us a divide and conquer strategy. They created an effective system to help members get work during this campaign, and won a historic vote of support. They weren’t bluffing; they executed the strategy they shared with us, adjusting as needed, and it’s working. Our Guild leaders are determined, and they are doing it right. But to win they need our continuing support.
“Forward Together says they understand the importance of solidarity, and yet they claim they have never seen the Guild so divided. They say this when over 7000 members voted to support this campaign with just over 300 opposing. In my 33 years as a Guild member, I’ve never seen anything close to 7000 members turn out to vote on anything. Far from divided, we have unprecedented solidarity.
“Forward Together says they share the goals of this current campaign. But their strategy of urgently returning to the bargaining table with the ATA would fail. Don’t take my word for it, Guild history proves it. Four months into our strike in 1988, a group of writers calling itself the Writers Coalition went public demanding our negotiators go back to the bargaining table. Fearing our solidarity was dissolving, our leaders did go back to bargaining. A five month strike ended with no gains, and for the next 20 years we were stuck with a fraction of the original home video formula. Publicly pushing our leaders to the bargaining table cost us billions.
“Forward Together insists the upcoming MBA (minimum basic agreement) contract negotiations in 2020 are important, that we must be prepared, and I wholeheartedly agree. But we will be negotiating against the most powerful entertainment companies in the world, and those companies constantly take our measure. They see if we’re organizing, they see if we’re willing to take strike authorization votes, and most importantly they see how well we’re holding together. How we comport ourselves now, in this negotiation, right in front of the companies is our preparation for 2020.
“If we can’t hold together now, after a 95% vote in support of this campaign – in a situation where, unlike in a normal strike, writers are working! – the companies will know we have little hope of maintaining solidarity or a successful strike threat against them next year – and probably not for a long time to come.
“If Forward Together is serious about ending agency conflicts of interest, if they are serious about making gains in the 2020 MBA negotiations, then the best thing that could happen is for them to lose this election and lose big.
“The vote count will be made public. The margins of victory will be made public. A strong showing for our current leaders has never mattered more. Your vote has never mattered more. If you haven’t voted, it’s not too late. Please vote now and make sure your friends and colleagues vote, too.”
Besides Goodman, Schulman is also endorsing Marjorie David for vice president; Michele Mulroney for secretary-treasurer; and board candidates Liz Alper, Angelina Burnett, Robb Chavis, Dante Harper, Zoe Marshall, Luvh Rakhe , Meredith Stiehm and Nicole Yorkin.