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Roger Wolfson

Roger Wolfson

Posted: February 12, 2008 08:23 AM

How the WGA Won: A Behind the Scenes Look at the WGA Strike


The writers strike that shut down Hollywood for more than three months officially began in November, but the groundwork was laid much earlier. It started with something the town rarely notices: a routine, biannual WGA election.

Back in 2005, there was already a growing consensus that the negotiations in '07 would be a turning point in the Guild's history, one way or another. As this awareness took shape, WGA members were approached by an unlikely group of leaders.

In 2005, Patric M. Verrone and David N. Weiss ("Weiss"), the candidates for President and Vice President of the WGA, were successful, but relatively unknown writers with the bulk of their work in animation. When Weiss, a friend of mine, told me he was running, I told him he was insane. To really appreciate how insane, you'd have to meet his wife, Eliana. Some writers manage to marry above themselves. Weiss is a good example. You'd also have to meet his kids. Coming from a political background myself, I asked Weiss why he would want to risk losing them in exchange for something as inconsequential as the Guild.

Weiss' response was to convince me to come meet Patric and the rest of the Writers United slate of candidates for the WGA Board. Meeting Patric didn't help assuage my concerns about Weiss' sanity. Patric seemed very serious and even shy. Vulnerable to being overshadowed by more outspoken members of his own Slate. This was the man who Weiss was willing to spend more time with, for the next three years, than Eliana? Something was seriously amiss.

David Young, at the time the Guild's head of organizing, I thought polite, but stubborn. I tangled with him almost immediately by recommending the involvement of a friend of mine who David did not approve of. I learned right away that David was not someone I would want to negotiate against. If Patric and his slate were to be the builders of a new WGA, David Young and his team of labor specialists were going to be the architects.

I became a volunteer political advisor for Writers United, and made even that small commitment with reservations.

But two things struck me, right off the bat. First, Patric and his team were quick to absorb and integrate guidance. Second, they built enthusiasm around them. Not necessarily with grand eloquence or lofty ideals. Moreso by demonstrating that they had their shit together. It slowly became clear to the already motivated Membership, by Patric's ability to involve recognizable writers, his even temperament, and his expenditure of personal capital, that he knew what he was doing. And this was in no small part because he knew to listen to people like Young, who had done this before.

Long before the WGA election of 2005, it was clear to the majority of the Guild that something unusual was underway

By September, 2007, after two elections with the highest turnout and largest margins of victory in the history of the Guild, Writers United had won over even many of its detractors. Writers United had turned out the vote by training a huge team of vote captains and honing a singular message of bringing the Guild into the new era. They had held hundreds of meetings at house parties, at TV shows, at restaurants, educating writers about the issues. The Writers United Slate managed to focus the energy of the membership and gave voice to their concerns about the impending negotiations. Not only did this lead to victory, it demonstrated an organizational structure that would prove invaluable in the case of a strike.

The media companies may have paid some attention to the groundswell. But as November 2007 rolled around, the companies still felt that it was financially feasible to test the WGA's resolve before offering them a fair deal. It was a proven tactic. The WGA's resolve had turned out to be brittle in the past, and breaking it had saved the companies billions.

While the WGA did not welcome this contingency, they prepared for it. Some of their most prominent members stepped forward to serve on the negotiating committee. David Young brought in an experienced team of seasoned organizers and event planners to supplement the Guild's already active legal, research and communications staff. As a fly on the wall during several planning sessions at the Guild, I can attest that I never heard anyone on our side say they wanted a strike. But we all knew we had to be ready.

When the Companies twice walked out in the middle of negotiations, Guild members shelved their disappointment and responded with an investment of energy on the picket lines that surprised everyone, even the volunteer strike captains and Guild staff that worked their asses off to get them there. The WGA is a small guild. Yet it managed to field, on average, over 1,500 picketers a day. I've practiced Labor Law, and worked for the Senate Labor Committee. I'd never seen anything like this before.

When it was hard to get our message out because the media companies owned much of the press, Guild members responded with United Hollywood, and hundreds of videos of original, high quality content uploaded to the Web. Including the speechless campaign, which must be considered a joint project with sister union SAG.

When all seven media companies responded by consolidating their PR operations under the guidance of Sony's Jim Kennedy, a former White House spokesman - and eventually, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, two of the highest paid and previously most sought-after media consultants in America - Guild members bolstered the Guild's communications department with a media room of its own. At four PM on Thursday, November 8th, we put out a call for writers with PR, political, or journalistic experience. Within an hour, the room was staffed by a rotating group of thirty WGA members, many having worked for National campaigns or major newspapers, and they worked nearly full time for the rest of the strike.

And in countless similar ways, Guild members, strike captains, and Guild staff exhibited a determination and flexibility that survived countless hours of faux negotiations, until the company CEOs finally shoved aside the AMPTP two weeks ago so that real negotiations could begin.

Three years ago, Patric and his team had almost nothing to gain, personally, from running for the leadership and putting in the kind of hours they did. In fact, they had almost everything to lose. They faced the very real potential of being blacklisted by the studios and/or shunned by their peers if they didn't succeed at a job that looked impossible from the start.

On the third day of the strike, I took Patric out to lunch, because he hadn't eaten since the previous day and I wanted to be the guy who fed Patric. I ended up being the guy who tried to feed Patric, but forgot his wallet. When Patric offered to pay, I said I would only let him if he charged it to the Guild. That's when I found out that Patric doesn't get an expense account. He, the Board Members, the Negotiating Committee members, make nothing for their time.

To use just a little bit of hyperbole, the hypothetical financial size of their donation of hours, at fair market value, can probably only be matched in obscenity by the FMV donation of hours the membership provided on the picket lines.

I've asked Patric, and Weiss, and most of the Board Members, why they were willing to put in this kind of time. And I couldn't believe the answer: they truly believed that their profession was in jeopardy, and someone had to step up. Believe it or not, their service to the Guild was about good citizenship. It was right to run. It was right to work hard. It's what you do.

And when I made it out of the media room and got to spend time with my colleagues on the picket lines, or loading trucks, or manning the phones in strike HQ, I found they were there for the same reason. They stood shoulder to shoulder for each other and our craft, not out of a sense of self-preservation - but because it was the right thing to do.

And thus, the WGA went from being offered a proposal with thirty-nine different rollbacks worth millions of dollars of losses, to a contract with millions of dollars of increases. Of course Writers didn't get everything they wanted. But they began to lay claim to their rightful share of influence in this industry, and took what may be the first step in a series of contractual improvements that will extend to SAG, the DGA, IATSE, and the creative side of the creative community for years to come.

The WGA comes away from this strike with an army of trained foot soldiers ready to be captains, and captains ready to be generals. In many ways, the Guild's 2011 contract negotiations have already begun. It stands to reason that the media companies will be watching the Guild closely between now and then. They will pay attention to see if we continue to organize and inform ourselves and prepare for the future. Hopefully they will continue to see us as partners, as they did this week. And hopefully, they won't try to test our resolve again because our resolve will be so apparent.

In the end, it's clear that Patric and the Writers United slate's immense investment of time even did turn out to be worth it on a personal basis. When Patric announced the deal at the table at the Shrine Auditorium Saturday night, I saw a very different man than the one I met three years ago. And he was presiding over a very different Guild. In his own words, Patric and Writers United wanted to lead a Guild, and they ended up finding a Guild of leaders. I would add, that by living up to their name, Writers United found out what they were made of. And so did we.


__________________


The Writers United Slate was composed of Patric M. Verrone, David N. Weiss, Elias Davis, Phil Robinson, Tom Schulman, Howard Rodman, Dan Wilcox, Robert King, Nick Kazan, Peter Lefcourt, Joan Meyerson, and Scott Frank.


The media room volunteers included Carleton Eastlake, Craig Miller, Brad Markowitz, Peter Sears, Andrea King, Linda Burstyn, Jon Greene, Josh Herman, Ric Arthur, Scott Burn, Speed Weed, Stuart Sender, Eli Attie, Lindsay Sturman, Carl Kurlander, Bonnie Garvin, Daisy Gardner, Cinque Henderson, Rafael Alvarez, Kathy Kiernan, Peter Blake, Michael Jann, Tom McAlister, Gina Gold, Ari Rubin, Yahlin Chang, Pam Pettler, Nell Scovell, Jon Macks, Ellen Byron, and myself. The staff assigned to the Media Room were Kristin Palombo and Michael Arkof. We were ultimately joined and managed by consultants Kam Kuwata and Bill Carrick, and we operated under the supervision of the Guild Communications staff of Jeff Hermanson, Neal Sacharow, Gregg Mitchell, Helena Yohannes, Laura Watson, and Sharline Liu.