In a step that does not mean a strike, but takes the town one step closer to one, the Writers Guild's negotiating committee sent an email Friday evening to all members, stating that the committee had voted unanimously to recommend to the union's governing boards that a strike-authorization vote be conducted. The move came after what the committee described as an "unacceptable" series of "noes" from AMPTP studio negotiators over the last two weeks of talks about a new three-year deal.
Such a vote is not a strike, but if held and successful - as is likely to be the case - the vote will give the union the ability to call a strike without further action by the membership.
The AMPTP responded, "The WGA broke off negotiations at an early stage in the process in order to secure a strike vote rather than directing its efforts at reaching an agreement at the bargaining table. Keeping the industry working is in everyone's best interests, and we are ready to return to negotiations when they are."
Talks began March 13 amid a difficult climate for screen and television writers, both groups having seen their wages decline in recent years, according to the guild - screenwriters since the 2007-2008 strike and the subsequent national recession prompted studios to reset their motion-picture business practices and television writers since the advent of "Peak TV," which has brought an explosion in the number of series but much smaller increases in the number of produced episodes (as a result of shorter average seasons).
In addition, the guild says that growth in digital residuals has not made up for losses in traditional rerun patterns. And the union's affiliated health plan has run a deficit in the last two years.
The email is below.
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March 24, 2017
The initial two-week bargaining period agreed to by your Guild and the AMPTP concludes at the end of the day today. We do not yet have a deal. We will continue to bargain in good faith to make such a deal. But, at this point, we want to let you know where we stand.
We began the negotiations with two truths about the current state of the business at the heart of our proposals:
First, that these have been very profitable years for the companies. This past year they earned $51 billion in profits, a record.
Second, that the economic position of writers has declined sharply in the last five or so years. Screenwriters have been struggling for a long time. They are now joined by television writers, for whom short seasons are at the core of the problem. In the last two years alone, the average salary of TV writer-producers fell by 23%. Those declines have not been offset by compensation in other areas. In Basic Cable and new media, our script fees and residual formulas continue to trail far behind those in broadcast - even though these new platforms are every bit as profitable as the old model.
In light of all this, we sought to tackle a number of issues that directly affect the livelihoods of all writers.
- We asked for modest gains for screenwriters, most particularly a guaranteed second-step for writers earning below a certain compensation level.
- We asked for a rational policy on family leave.
- We sought to address chronically low pay for Comedy Variety writers.
- We asked for 3% increases in minimums - and increases in the residual formula for High Budget SVOD programs commensurate with industry standards.
- We made a comprehensive proposal to deal with the pernicious effects of short seasons. This included a limit on the amortization of episodic fees to two weeks, a proposal that sought to replicate the standard that had been accepted in the business for decades. It addressed, as well, the continued problems with Options and Exclusivity. And it sought to address the MBA's outdated schedule of weekly minimums, which no longer adequately compensates writers for short terms of work.
- Finally, we sought to address script fee issues - in basic cable and streaming - but also in the case of Staff Writers. Unconscionably, our lowest paid members are now often held at the staff level for multiple seasons, with no compensation for the scripts they write.
What was the companies' response to these proposals?
No, in virtually every case.
- Nothing for screenwriters. Nothing for Staff Writers. Nothing on diversity.
- On Family Leave they rejected our proposal and simply pledged to obey all applicable State and Federal laws - as if breaking the law were ever an option.
- On short seasons, they offered a counter-proposal that addressed the issue in name only - thus helping no one.
- They have yet to offer anything on minimums, or on HB SVOD [high budget SVOD, such as Netflix and Amazon].
- They have made some small moves on Options & Exclusivity - some small moves for Comedy Variety writers in Pay TV. But that is all.
On the last day of these two weeks, the companies' proposal has barely a single hard-dollar gain for writers.
$51 billion in profits and barely a penny for those of us who make the product that makes the companies rich. But that's not all.
In response to our proposal to protect our Pension and Health Plans, this has been their answer:
Nothing on Pension.
And on our Health Plan, two big rollbacks.
First, they have demanded that we make cuts to the plan - $10 million in the first year alone. In return, they will allow us to fund the plan with money diverted from our own salaries.
More, they've demanded the adoption of a draconian measure in which any future shortfalls to the plan would be made up by automatic cuts in benefits - and never by increases in employer contributions.
This, too, is unacceptable. The package, taken as a whole, is unacceptable - and we would be derelict in our duty if we accepted it.
Therefore, your Negotiating Committee has voted unanimously to recommend that the WGAW Board of Directors and WGAE Council conduct a strike authorization vote by the membership.
Once again, we are committed to continue negotiating with the companies in good faith to get you the deal we all deserve. We will continue to update you as things progress.
The Negotiating Committee Members of the WGA West and WGA East
Chip Johannessen, Co-Chair
Chris Keyser, Co-Chair
Billy Ray, Co-Chair
Alfredo Barrios, Jr.
Howard Michael Gould
Patric M. Verrone
Howard A. Rodman, WGAW President, ex-officio
Michael Winship, WGAE President, ex-officio
David A. Goodman, WGAW Vice President, ex-officio
Jeremy Pikser, WGAE Vice President, ex-officio
Aaron Mendelsohn, WGAW Secretary-Treasurer, ex-officio
Bob Schneider, WGAE Secretary-Treasurer, ex-officio