Friday, November 30, 2007

The WGA's Dirty Little Secret

In the past few weeks, America's front pages have been heralding the actions of the Writers Guild of America. Television writers are fighting for their piece of the new media pie! But the WGA is not an equal opportunity representative. One of their jurisdictions has not had a contract in nearly three years and little action is in sight.

Television is a high-profile medium. When a labor dispute threatens the daily routine of millions of viewers nationwide, the public certainly notices. The Writers Guild was quite cognizant of the attention they could garner by calling a strike. With television cameras and microphones chasing after their every move, the Guild's leadership acted swiftly and demonstrably. The television writer's contract expired on Halloween, and by November 5th, the entire membership was on the street with picket signs. The WGA deftly attracted America's spotlight and the press coverage was vast and dominant.

Life is good when you can demand attention and importance. Not so for those who work behind the scenes in the same industry. Another WGA group, consisting of CBS television and radio news writers, desk assistants and graphic artists, has not had a contract since April 1, 2005. Almost three years have now passed and the stalemate continues. These employees last raise occurred in April of 2004! Where has the WGA been for them year after year?

The situation is complicated. The WGA and CBS are equal partners in their disrespect of these employees. Their horns locked early and have never loosened. Negotiations started shortly after the last agreement expired and no progress has been made since. Talks have not convened for months and months. The WGA is seeking improvement in pay and benefits for their constituents. CBS is looking for give-backs, such as a reduction in night differential pay, along with no retroactive pay to compensate for the lack of raises since the last contract's expiry. A well-constructed stalemate it is!

The employees have every right to be infuriated. The Guild has showed a lackadaisical approach to negotiations. Early on, many proposed meeting dates, between CBS and the WGA, were rejected by both sides. As 2005 progressed, the WGA became distracted by another potential source of press attention: nationwide negotiations with ABC. This small group at CBS went on the back burner never to be seen again. They continue to work with no contract and poor representation. So far, the duel is a draw and the losers are the workers.

CBS Industrial Relations were cool and professional in their approach. They knew from past experience that the WGA could be easily distracted. CBS held firm in their demands, offered only token concessions, patiently waited and their actions bore fruit. For all intents and purpose, CBS has broken this union. Their behavior certainly has helped their bottom line but the morale of their employees has hit a new low.

CBS certainly knows how to sail their boat. Their most cherished employees have "personal service agreements" providing plus-scale pay and other compensation. For these elite, who needs a contract? The chosen ones are all content and cared for. Only a minority of employees ever become protected by staff positions. The masses are daily hire per diem employees. What a community this creates! Work can be quite uneven in availability. CBS might as well hang a sign saying "No Work Today." A worker might be hired four days a week for a month and then see no work for weeks and weeks. It is extraordinarily difficult for people to break into this business and maintain a family in this situation. Anyone with competency eventually finds "real" work. The temporary employee turnover is rapid and endless. The employees with "personal service agreements" are complacent and disinterested with union negotiations. A perfect situation? Only in the eyes of CBS.

The WGA has not been the best of friends to this group, either. More than a union, the WGA is an expensive business to run. The WGA East, for example, employs dozens of people, including highly paid lawyers and other professionals, and operates from a prestigious high-rise location in a mid-town Manhattan office building. Their conference room features an oval meeting desk appropriate for a sequel to the movie Dr. Strangelove. They need a constant rich source of income and they find it in membership dues.

The enormous turnover in temporary employees at CBS certainly works in favor of the WGA, although they will never admit it. The revolving door of new temporary employees brings a continual stream of exorbitant initiation dues. Since CBS does not offer temporary employees benefits, the WGA provides plans for health, dental and pension for all its members. Of course there is a catch: You must meet difficult minimum requirements in yearly work hours, and then wait three months, to qualify. Contributions to these plans used to be voluntary. The WGA, needing more money to fund these plans and their overall operations, decided some years ago to make their benefit plans mandatory. Like it or not, you must contribute. Many, many temporaries feed into The WGA's plans and see nothing for it.

Fame is fleeting and the WGA knows it. More logs are needed for the press attention fire! How convenient! We have another media group without a contract. Let's add them to the blaze! Ten days after the television writers walked out, the WGA decided to revive the dead and take a new strike vote for the CBS group who had been tucked under the rug for years. Some interest was earned as the main story was running out of steam. Coverage on page three or five is better than nothing! Of course they voted to strike. Yet no strike has been called. How obscene to be used as a convenient post script to someone else's story. Will these employees ever see justice?

The WGA also needs to re-evaluate their stance as a labor union. The Taft-Hartley Act has snowballed into quite a subservient universe by the year 2007. Not only is there no solidarity between different unions in support of strike actions, there is no solidarity within a single union itself! The WGA has struck the major networks' television writers, yet WGA members, in other job descriptions, still happily march into work at CBS in spite of it all. How is this logical? How is this allowed?

I posed this dilemma to a popular on-line media chat board. I suggested that all the AFL-CIO unions at CBS should walk out for a day, or even an hour, in solidarity and support of the CBS news writers, graphic artists and desk assistants. Here is one answer I received: "That would be illegal, and members who did it would be subject to termination. WGA members who work for CBS News operate under a different contract than the screenwriters and TV writers. They didn't walk out when CBS News staffers struck in 1987, nor were they expected to. As a former WGA shop steward who helped negotiate two of the more-recent contracts, I agree that the union has not handled the last 2.5 years well. But management has done much worse, and they're trying to lower themselves even further with the contract they're after."

If this is the case, and it seems it most certainly is, labor unions, and the AFL-CIO in general, need to re-think their strategy. Their direction needs to revert to one bolder and true to course. Many organizers, during the 20th century, gave up their livelihoods and lives to establish labor unions as a negotiating force versus the greed of America's industry. Decades of accomplishments should not be lost as they sift through the grips of today's conceding unions.

The news writers for CBS television and radio news, their desk assistants and the legions of gifted graphic artists, deserve a fair shake. The complete disregard of their importance, from both their company and their union, is heinous. These employees do not have irrational requests or wishes to disproportionately enlarge their wallets. They want fair wages for good work. Nothing more. The press could provide great service to this group with a little attention of their own not related to an irrelevant high-profile dispute. Will this day ever come?

If this group continues to be ignored, their future rests with them. They must first gain solidarity within their group and then seek alternative representation. The burden of finding a fair shake is becoming solely theirs. How pitiful that both employer and union shows so little respect for loyal workers. Hopefully, this tale's ending will be happy. The story now continues. Without writers, you may never know the conclusion.

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