EXCLUSIVE: The WGA East is facing a digital divide that its future officers say poses “an existential threat to the guild” that could lead to it “collapsing.”
Only a few years ago, the vast majority of WGAE members were film and scripted television writers. But over the past five years, an aggressive campaign to organize dozens of digital news outlets including Salon, Slate and HuffPost has changed its demographics dramatically, with its news sectors — broadcast and digital — now approaching 50% of the guild’s total membership.
That digital news organizing campaign has now been put on hold while the guild weighs its options, which includes the possibility of spinning off its digital news members into a completely separate union.
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This change in the WGA East’s demographics has become a key issue in the guild’s ongoing election, which has seen two camps emerge: the Inclusion & Experience ticket, whose leaders pushed for a pause in the organizing of digital newsrooms, and the Solidarity slate, which argues that “it’s important that we continue to organize the entire industry.”
The guild will have three new officers come September 15 – president Michael Winship, vice president Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, and secretary-treasurer Chris Kyle – all of whom are running unopposed on the Inclusion & Experience slate. That group has nine candidates who are squaring off against seven Solidarity candidates for the Council, which is the guild’s governing body.
Deadline sat down for a Zoom interview Thursday with the guild’s three future officers, who expressed concerns about what could happen if a majority of the guild’s membership no longer consists of film and scripted TV writers. Kyle said that news writers – both digital and broadcast – will reach 50% of the guild’s membership “in another year or two at the current pace of organizing.”
The WGA East and the WGA West are two separate unions, but they have a reciprocity agreement that allows members to move from one guild to the other. “Our fear is that if the digital news representatives gain a majority on the Council, many of our members who work in TV and film might take the option to move to the West and take their dues with them,” Kyle said. “And if that were to happen in significant numbers, it would be a serious financial hit to our guild, and could well lead to its collapsing. So that’s why we don’t feel that we’re exaggerating when we say that figuring out how to solve this problem is an existential threat to the guild.”
The problem, the guild’s future officers say, stems from the unforeseen consequences of the guild’s much-ballyhooed drive to organize digital media outlets, which has brought in hundreds of new members. Since 2016, the WGA East has grown from just under 4,000 members to nearly 6,400 today, and many of those new members work at digital news sites.
“About six years ago,” Winship said, “we were approached by Gawker about the idea of helping them unionize and coming together to be part of our union. We were able to make that happen and made a deal with them in 2016. And that triggered a flow of employees at other digital news organizations coming to us and asking us for help. We’re totally in favor of anyone who wants to join a union to be able to join a union. But what happened in our case is that so many employees of these digital news operations came forward that we reached a point where we realized it was just becoming a lot of people, and that we needed to stop for a while – just pause for a while – and access where we are.”
That pause in organizing, he said, does not include the ongoing drive to secure contracts for writer-producers at MSNBC, which completed an NLRB-supervised vote on Tuesday that will decide whether or not the guild will become their bargaining representative for all of the network’s shows. The organizing drive at Hearst Magazines is also continuing. “We’re still working with those groups, but we decided to take a pause and not engage any others at the moment until we determine what we want to do,” Winship said.
He noted that a subcommittee of the Council has been formed “with the idea of examining what all the alternatives were in terms with dealing with this, and the possibility, for example, of spinning the digital writers off as a separate union, which we would financially help for the first three years or so to help them get on their feet. But it’s just been a case where we were concerned that the people who have been the bedrock of this union since its creation decades ago have been the film and television writers and broadcast news writers of TV and radio – and that it was important that their interests still be a part of very much who we are.”
The subcommittee, Winship said, “is meeting and will make recommendations to the Council, and then depending upon what the Council decides to do, we will present those recommendations to the entire membership so that everybody gets to discuss and debate what we should be doing in the future.”
All three of the guild’s future officers said that if it ultimately comes to spinning off the guild’s digital members into a union of their own, the WGA East will help them to do so financially. “We’re not kicking them to the curb,” Kyle said.
If that happens, it would be done “with our financial support,” said Cullen, the guild’s next vice president, who noted that the digital news members “are not anywhere close to being financially self-sufficient, and according to our staff’s estimate, won’t be so for another three years. So that has been one idea that’s been presented.”
Breaking down the guild’s demographic numbers, Cullen said that “since our inception in 1954, the WGA East has been 80% film and TV writers and 20% broadcast news members. And just to be clear, we have always had news members in our guild. And since we began organizing in digital news five years ago, we have had success after success in that sector, to the point that we now have more than two dozen digital news shops under us. And as of May, digital media now makes up 26% of our membership. In a year, it will be 36%, and a year after that they will gain majority. And all of that happened in just five years.”
“There have been a lot of very strong opinions on either side, whether that was a good thing or whether that was a bad thing, but we all have to agree that that’s a fundamental shift,” she said. “And there are some real implications for that.”
Said Kyle: “Basically, it comes down to a governance issue. Film and TV writers are reasonably concerned about a guild that has a majority of digital news writers, because the Council decides very basic things that only affect film and TV writers, such as picking the members on our negotiating committees or the trustees on the boards of our health and pension plans. They also get to decide whether MBA [Minimum Basic Agreement] writers have a referendum on a strike or other collective action. So we’re concerned that we would have a guild where film and TV writers wouldn’t be able to control their own destiny, in a way. So we’re looking for a solution – a restructuring of some kind, or spinning them off as a new union so that we can continue to control the parts of our guild that only affect our workers.”
Asked if they favor the option of spinning the digital members off into their own union, Cullen said that “the option that we favor right now seems to be the most obvious one, and that is talking to our members first. The guild has not been transparent with our members, old and new, about what’s going on. The TV and film and broadcast news members have not been told that they will soon become the minority in the guild, while still paying the bulk of our revenues. Currently, our television, film and broadcast news writers make up 87% of our revenues. The guild has also not been transparent, we believe, with our digital news members, who have come to expect that we would keep up this extremely rapid pace of organizing, because they have not been told otherwise. They can’t be blamed for being upset that our executive director, Lowell Peterson, has instituted a pause. And we need to be clear on that: it is the discretion of the executive director, not the Council, to decide the when and where and who of organizing. And he has currently paused organizing while the leadership, and soon the membership, decide what the best path is to go forward that will protect all of our members, including our digital news members.”
Broadcast news members, they pointed out, would not be part of any option to spin off the digital news members into a new union.
“Broadcast news members,” Cullen said, “have been part of our guild since its very inception. We share similar workplace concerns and similar financial concerns, and most importantly, we share employers, and therefore we share our pension and health benefits, as well. Our interests have been closely aligned from the beginning. Our digital media members have quite different needs and issues and concerns, and we want to be able to take a minute and figure out how exactly we, as a guild, are serving them, or aren’t serving them. And as we go forward with these very different demographics, how all of our members will be cared for.”
“We have a real fear,” she said, “particularly our film and television members, when they realize that they have become a minority in a guild that no longer serves their interests, that they could take their dues and simply join our sister guild in the West” – the WGA West. “We believe strongly in our right to have an independent and healthy guild here in the East for film and TV and broadcast news, and digital news writers, too. So we will fight very hard for the survival of the WGA East.”
Winship, who was president of the WGA East during the writers’ strike of 2007-08, noted: “We have a very, very healthy, congenial and collegial relationship with the West Coast guild. And it took a long time to achieve that. Back in the early 2000s, it was very rancorous. Partly it was the strike that brought us together, but we have such a good, positive relationship with the West, and a respect for each other’s individuality as unions. Beyond the geographical differences, there are cultural differences, as well. But we really work well together; we negotiate together and I’m really happy about that relationship.”
Council candidates on Inclusion & Experience slate include Tracey Scott Wilson, Greg Iwinski, Lauren Ashley Smith, Kathy McGee, James Harris and incumbents David Simon, Bonnie Datt, Tian Jun Gu and Phil Pilato.
The Solidarity slate’s Council candidates are Benjamin Rosenblum, Kim Kelly, Sara David, Hamilton Nolan, Lyz Hynes, Sasha Stewart and Josh Gondelman.
“Everyone deserves a union,” their platform says. “We strongly support organizing new members in media, nonfiction television and film, podcasts, animation, and other relevant areas of opportunity. Growth is a vital part of our power. Our union includes members from different industries. That should be a strength, not a weakness. We are all storytellers. We value the collective mutual support of all parts of our union for one another.”
On the issues, they pose and answer three questions:
Why don’t digital journalists join some other union?
The WGAE in 2015 made the decision to get into organizing this space because they saw it was non-union and that all our industries are ultimately connected. WGAE approached Gawker to unionize and that’s how it all got started. Now that we have a lot of media people in our union already, it’s important that we continue to organize the ENTIRE industry. The more of the industry we get in our union, the stronger our union is for all of our members in that industry. All of our members benefit from us organizing the media industry as much as possible. We would love to one day have a pension and a health plan too—but we can’t get that until we first achieve union density in the industry.
How does the WGAE benefit from having digital media writers?
All of these writing jobs are in fact connected. Journalists become TV writers, people move from job to job, podcasts are everywhere—it’s smart and strategic to recognize that these strict industry lines aren’t actually how everyone experiences a writing career. The union benefits by being everywhere, just like the workers are. Secondly, we now have a lot of digital media writers in our union already. In a sense this question is already settled. Media people *are* the WGAE, just like screenwriters. This is not a question up for debate: 2000 members of our union already depend on us continuing to build strength in media.
The financial answer is: All new organizing requires a big investment up front, to organize the people into unions, and then once those people win contracts, dues start coming in. In the long run the spending on organizing evens out and makes the union more income. We have all seen the projections and know this is true. We just have to stick with it. Also, it’s important to note that the WGAE is not in any financial trouble. We are very well managed and well-capitalized.
How can we finally unionize the nonfiction television and film industry?
The WGAE campaign to unionize the nonfiction television and film industry has dragged on for over a decade with minimal progress. The storytellers of nonfiction have been exploited for far too long, and an industry-wide union is needed now more than ever. Accomplishing this will require solidarity throughout the WGAE, as well as an organizing effort to boost involvement and membership from the nonfiction writers and producers so that the workers themselves can lead the charge, which has been severely lacking and holding back progress. We must work together as a union to fight for all industries that need vital support in the Guild, which very much includes the nonfiction television and film industry.
See all the candidates’ statements here.