Why WGA East's Digital News Organizing Spree May End Under New Leadership

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Why WGA East’s Digital News Organizing Spree May End Under New Leadership

Tuesday’s election has become a referendum on the union’s future as screenwriters rebel at the prospect of becoming a minority in their own guild

Over the past six years, the Writers Guild of America East has driven a wave of new unions for digital news organizations in a time of constant media layoffs. Now the question of whether to continue that organizing lies at the heart of the WGAE’s council elections, which end on Tuesday and could dramatically change the future of both the guild and digital-media organizing.

Michael Winship, who is running unopposed for president, and incoming vice president Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, are backing a pause on any new media organizing efforts and a reconsideration of guild membership — including possibly spinning off digital news writers into a separate union altogether. That’s raised alarm from the thousands of such writers from 26 media companies have joined the guild in the last six years, with writers at MSNBC and Hearst Magazine currently in the process of unionizing and negotiating contracts.

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The friction at WGA East has emerged as distinctions between digital news reporting and Hollywood production have blurred. Vice Media and Vox Media have expanded into multimedia ventures that include producing nonfiction TV shows for CNN, PBS and Netflix. “Everybody that works in all these industries should see that they are not only changing but consolidating,” said Hamilton Nolan, WGAE council member and labor reporter for In These Times. “The lines between media and entertainment are fictional at this point. There’s so much crossover of news companies making shows for streaming services now and there’s plenty of TV writers who got started as journalists, so if a writers guild is going to maintain power, it needs to be as flexible as the industry is.”

But Takeuchi Cullen, who got her start in journalism before becoming a writer-producer for “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” doesn’t believe that those lines have disappeared just yet — and wants WGA East to refocus on traditional members in film and TV writing. “The reason that the WGA exists is to protect the interests of TV, film and broadcast news writers,” she said. “The interests of digital news writers are different and important and we should regard them as important; but to conflate those different interests and say ‘We’re all writers here and I’m a HuffPost writer that might write a podcast down the road’ blurs the issues that we talk about.”

But in July, WGAE’s council sent a memo calling for a pause on any new organizing efforts and establishing a subcommittee to consider stopping future drives altogether. The memo also suggested changes to the guild’s membership structure to reflect the ever-increasing number of digital media members. Hours later, WGAE council member and Esquire article director Kelly Stout released a dissenting statement co-signed by seven other council members saying that they did not vote to approve sending out the memo.

The current ‘pause’ on digital organizing [….] is a result of political and philosophical disagreements among elected Council members about the value of organizing,” the dissenting statement read. “More to the point: This issue is not a budgetary one, but a conflict between Council members over who belongs in the WGAE and who does not.”

Guild insiders say the debate over media organizing had been going on within the council as far back as 2018, but has now spilled out publicly amid the new council elections and preparations for a transition of leadership. Winship, a longtime writer for Bill Moyers and progressive news site Common Dreams who previously served as WGAE president from 2007-17, is replacing “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willimon. He has been running, with Cullen and Secretary-Treasurer Christopher Kyle, on the Inclusion and Experience slate that opposes more digital-media organizing. The slate’s other council candidates — which include seven writers of color — include “The Wire” creator David Simon, playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, and comedy writers Lauren Ashley Smith and Greg Iwinski.

Winship, Cullen and Kyle stressed that any changes regarding digital news membership and organizing won’t be decided until after the council election is held and leadership has had several meetings to get input from members. Several options are on the table, including spinning off the digital news unions organized by WGAE into a separate guild that would be financially supported by WGAE until it could be sustained on its own.

Another option would be to transfer some of the digital unions over to NewsGuild-CWA, a longtime union for journalists that represents newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, with AFL-CIO potentially serving as a mediator for such a transfer. Yet another option would be to follow the example of IATSE, the union representing entertainment-industry craftspeople and technicians, and establish locals for digital news writers and more traditional film/TV writers.

But whatever action is taken, the incoming officers are adamant on changing the existing structure of the guild. Kyle argues that the Writers Guild was created decades ago to protect the interests of screenwriters and that if media organizing continues, those screenwriters would soon find themselves in the minority among the membership. He also argued that organizing efforts are taking away funds for other guild ventures, such as organizing in podcast companies.

One major concern is that the guild’s constitution was set up to serve film and TV writers. For example, officers are automatically on the negotiating committee for new contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “We don’t feel that it would be appropriate for a digital member to be on a negotiating committee for a contract that they don’t participate in,” Kyle told TheWrap, adding that “only digital people are involved in negotiating digital contracts.”

Some writers have considered moving their membership to WGA West, which has not engaged in media organizing, ahead of the next round of contract talks with studios in 2023, Winship added. “So much of the money that has come in for this organizing has been from dues contributed by film and TV writers. If we lost those revenues, we wouldn’t be able to continue any organizing,” he said.

But the Solidarity Slate, which opposes any changes to the guild’s handling of digital-media writers, argues that WGAE needs to continue organizing writers of all kinds at a time when media layoffs have been rampant. Vice Media, one of the media companies organized by WGAE, laid off 17 employees last month after cutting 155 mostly digital employees last year.

Nolan, who is running on the Solidarity Slate, was one of the very first digital news writers brought into WGAE as part of Gawker in 2015. The interests of screenwriters and digital writers are in closer alignment than the rival slate believes, he said, and the guild should continue to organize writers of all kinds to build cross-industry strength in numbers.

“What the Writers Guild has done with this very successful run of unionizing is create a lifeline for so many publications,” Nolan said. “There’s writers I know who have been able to pay the rent or cover hospital costs because of a union contract. And with all the layoffs happening, these unions are the only reason hundreds of writers have gotten any severance pay.”

Nolan recognizes that even if all seven of Solidarity Slate’s candidates are elected to the council, Winship and the guild leadership will still push forward with their plans through subcommittee meetings. But he hopes that a larger presence on the council will give a larger voice to guild members who support continued media organizing.

The dissension with the WGA East also reflects the challenges within the larger labor movement as it seeks to protect the shrinking pool of existing union workers while expanding its numbers. With media consolidation continuing to fuel interest in union organizing and the entertainment industry expecting a big showdown over streaming residuals at the next contract talks, WGAE is facing big questions about the role it will play in the paradigm shifts to come.

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