Writers Guild Strikes Back

Nov 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Storming high-profile industry events with shouting, flier-toting activists is only the beginning of the Writers Guild of America’s plans to assail television’s powers that be.

In the coming months WGA plans to disrupt more public functions, create Web sites mocking embedded advertising and take its complaints to key industry investors in its quest to establish a dialogue with networks on key WGA issues-namely, representation for reality storytellers and compensation and guidelines for writing product placement into programs.

“We’re just getting started,” said WGA west Executive Director David Young, the labor leader behind the guerrilla tactics. “We’re going to put pressure on them in every way possible.”

The moves so far have at a minimum drawn attention to the WGA’s point of view. Mr. Young said he expects the guild’s continuing campaign to ultimately effect real change in WGA’s favor.

He said the radical protest efforts, which longtime industry observers say have not been used by any of the major entertainment guilds in recent decades, are the result of months of trying in vain to bring about discussions with producers.

“Being nice and asking politely for six months didn’t get us anywhere,” Mr. Young said. “We’ve respectfully asked for a dialogue, but haven’t gotten one. Since we’re not invited for a seat at the table, we’re inviting ourselves.”

Whether the tactics will sway the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the guild negotiating arm of the industry, remains to be seen. But Mr. Young claims the efforts are already having an impact.

WGA west President Patric Verrone, Mr. Young said, has recently been invited to appear on three major industry panels, presumably to avoid having the party crashed by protesters.

“We have no reason to think that we would have been invited otherwise,” Mr. Young said.

Also, five of the six networks represented at a recent International Radio and Television Society panel discussion crashed by protesters discussed the issue with Mr. Young after the event. Granted, the discussion mainly consisted of how unhappy the executives were with the WGA. “But they weren’t calling us back before,” Mr. Young said.

The AMPTP had no comment on the tactics. But one studio insider described the current WGA leadership as out of touch with reality.

“This industry has long-established forums to discuss these issues and they’ve been discussed during contract negotiations and during ongoing research studies,” the insider said. “I don’t think their tactics are all that unique. What’s unique is that the radical fringe now seem to be in charge. They don’t understand the business and fired all the level-headed professionals because they didn’t get their own way.”

Thus far the WGA has invited itself to three industry events, each resulting in a more contentious confrontation than the last.

The first was Sept. 27, at an Advertising Age Madison + Vine conference at New York University. The guild hired comedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade to stand outside the venue and impersonate Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, their body parts designated as advertising space, and slipped a plant into the audience to interrupt the talk.

The second was in October, during a panel on reality television (sponsored by TelevisionWeek) at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. About 20 WGA members walked into the panel to pass out leaflets and demanded to know why reality storytellers are denied overtime and health benefits.

The most recent was earlier this month at the IRTS breakfast at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. About 20 WGA members stormed in, shouting and passing out fliers, and one protester took to the stage. The broadcast network executives on the panel-including Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori, UPN President Dawn Ostroff and ABC Primetime Entertainment President Stephen McPherson-were visibly startled. The protesters were escorted out of the building.

Mr. Young’s tactics appear to have the support of at least some high-profile WGA members.

“I think they’re effective,” said Jonathan Rintels, president of the Center for Creative Voices in Media and a WGA member. “Inevitably, it does annoy [executives]. But does that prevent both sides from then sitting down and trying to discuss the issues in a serious way? I don’t think it does. It’s not like they’re setting fire to buildings and taking hostages.”

The aggressive stance follows last year’s contentious employer contract renegotiation, which led to widespread dissatisfaction with the current agreement within the writers’ guild rank and file.

Instead of waiting until the next round of negotiations, set for 2007, in recent months the organization has tried to address gripes through alternative measures. The WGA filed two class-action lawsuits against reality producers and networks alleging sweatshop working conditions, and released a policy paper calling for a code of conduct regulating product placement on television programming.

In September the guild elected a new president, Mr. Verrone, whose campaign promised to end guild infighting and adopt a more assertive stance on key issues. Mr. Verrone fired WGA west Executive Director John McLean and promoted veteran labor organizer Mr. Young to his post. Mr. Young said his tactics were inspired by his 1990s work representing garment industry laborers who disrupted retail clothing events.

One longtime guild observer said the tactics are more the style of Teamsters than modern entertainment guilds.

“It’s like old-time unionism,” he said, “like when the projectionist guild members would throw smoke bombs into theaters. Not dangerous, not violent, but not always welcome.”

A top broadcast network executive who was a panelist during a disrupted event said he took the protesters in stride.

“It’s America. As long as nobody breaks a law, they are open to expressing what they want,” he said. “It was a little rude, but no one got hurt. It is interesting that they are getting more militant.”

Christopher Lisotta contributed to this report.