Writers win some after 14-week strike

Against enormous odds and with television and film writers united behind them, leaders of the Writers Guild of America have negotiated a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that amounts to a significant win for labor.

If you have one of those big screens you can start it up and get ready for better quality entertainment to replace the reruns and “reality” shows you’ve been watching.

America’s writers have won a deal that improves on the terms of the contract won recently by the Directors Guild of America, that guarantees substantial future payouts on digital media and closes the sores left by the 1988 contract, in which writers failed to make significant gains despite a five month walk out.

“It accomplished the main goal we wanted when we set out on strike, which was that as the business shifted from television sets and movies to new media, we wouldn’t be left behind,” said Howard Rodman, a screen writer and member of the Guild’s board of directors.

With no regular work hours, lack of benefits and other problems, writers depend upon residual payments to make a living. A health crisis, a pregnancy, child care expenses and countless other issues could not be dealt with were it not for these payments.

The biggest gain for writers in the new contract comes in the area of residual payments for material broadcast over the Internet and other digital media. As the market for network TV reruns decreases, industry bigwigs are salivating as they expect Web streaming to spit out cash in the years ahead. Writers were really concerned about this because they were cheated out of millions of dollars in DVD revenue after the surge of home videos during the 1980s.

The directors agreed recently to a flat fee for material used on the Web, but the writers, with this new contract, get something nicer. They have won a percentage of the director’s gross receipts.

This is important, first, because it is proportional. If Web streaming explodes into a profit bonanza for the entertainment moguls, writers will reap some benefits rather than collecting a fee that could end up looking like nothing more than a booby prize.

Perhaps, even more significant, writers’ payments will be calculated against the gross that’s actually reflective of retail price – say, for example, the $1.99 iTunes charges for a TV episode.

When it was clear to the Hollywood bosses that the writers meant business with this strike, they offered payments that would have been tied to the far less impressive “producers gross,” a figure writers saw as just so much bunk.

Writers were determined to never again get sucked into any kind of “net profit” deal. They insisted that this time nothing short of a contract with airtight terms would do.

The contract, despite the gains, is not perfect.

Many Guild members are unhappy about a provision that says the studios don’t have to pay any residual on streamed content for up to 24 days after its initial airing. The studios had argued that they should not have to pay every time a DVR user logs onto a show a week or two after its original airdate. Dissenters in the union feel this gives the bosses a loophole to exploit.

The new contract does not give the union jurisdiction over reality and animation writers, which union leaders had promised writers would be in the contract. Such a provision would have substantially strengthened the hand of all writers in the entertainment industry and substantially weakened the grip of entertainment monopolies on the industry.

The union is expected to boost organizing efforts in these sectors, however, particularly if the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law under a new Washington administration in 2009.

The writers and all of the nation’s unions have reason to celebrate. It has been many years since an important union in the nation’s entertainment industry went on strike for not just “bread and butter issues” but for issues of principle as well, and then was able to say the strike ended in a victory.

The Screen Actors Guild contract expires in less than four months. Let the Hollywood moguls beware!

John Wojcik is the People’s Weekly World labor editor.