Start Date for WGA Contract Negotiations Imperiled by Coronavirus Precautions

Cynthia Littleton and Dave McNary

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UPDATE — The coronavirus crisis is expected to delay the start of contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that were originally scheduled to begin next week.

Insiders at the WGA and AMPTP have been trying to sort out how to adjust the negotiations schedule in light of the complications posed by the public health crisis that has shuttered a wide swath of the entertainment, sports and live entertainment business, plus film and TV production.

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The sides were set to begin talks March 23 at AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks. That was already seen as a tight timetable given the complexity of the issues at stake and the May 1 expiration date of the current contract. But there’s virtually no chance that the meeting will be held in person, given that the talks usually pack 50 or more executives around the AMPTP’s extra-long conference table. Such a move would violate the federal and state call for aggressive social distancing efforts to slow the rate of the virus that threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health care system.

The stock market’s plummet and the promise that the pandemic will send the U.S. and other markets into a recession means that the contract talks will be held in a very different business environment than the one negotiators expected to haggle in just two weeks ago.

Representatives for the WGA and AMPTP declined to comment. The leaders of the WGA West notified members on Thursday night that said, “Everyone is understandably anxious to know how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact our MBA negotiations, since our current agreement expires on May 1. The Negotiating Committee is carefully considering our options, keeping what is best for writers both now and in the future front of mind, and we are also in discussions with the AMPTP.  Nothing is settled yet, but we will let you know as soon as there is a specific path forward.”

Industry sources said WGA and AMPTP officials have discussed the possibility of a contract extension in light of the extraordinary circumstances. The AMPTP was said to be considering making a proposal to shift the talks to late summer. The disruption to regular work routines over the past week means that both sides are likely behind in preparations for the collective bargaining sessions.

The WGA West and WGA East negotiate the master film and TV contract together. Sources close to the situation said the internal discussions in both camps were fluid and there was no certainty yet as to a solution to the scheduling challenge. One source said the option of a smaller group of negotiators meeting by video or teleconference on March 23 remained a possibility.

The WGA surely has to be concerned about losing, at least for now, the pressure of the ticking clock by negotiating in a short window leading up to the threat of a strike after May 1. The deterioration in the business climate changes the dynamic for negotiators from both sides.

The AMPTP signaled its major move in the 2020 cycle of contract negotiations — a sweetening of residual fees for made-for-streaming series, to address the discontent in the creative community with the compensation structure for digital-first programming. The AMPTP already signaled its willingness to boost the fees for made-for-SVOD shows in the tentative three-year contract reached earlier this month with the Directors Guild of America.

The WGA is expected to push hard for additional gains, notably higher residuals for network and cable programs that are made available in syndication via streaming platforms. Hollywood scribes also want to see improvements in per-episode compensation and stricter rules about length of time that writers can be committed to working on shows — a thorny issue for writers that has become known in WGA-AMPTP shorthand as “span.”

The AMPTP is said to be concerned about giving WGA more time to prepare and organize for a strike. The WGA also typically tries to ensure that its negotiation come before the AMPTP sits down with SAG-AFTRA, lest the WGA have to sit on the sidelines while directors and actors drive the agenda for the 2020 cycle.

Industry sources predict that the AMPTP-WGA talks will move to later this year but the scribes will still be guaranteed to negotiate ahead of SAG-AFTRA. If that happens, that would likely mean a contract extension for SAG-AFTRA, which has a June 30 expiration date.

The WGA last went on strike for 100 days — Nov. 5, 2007 to Feb. 12, 2008 — when the guild and the studios faced a similarly tough negotiation at the dawn of the digital age for TV and film content.

Here is the message sent to members this on Thursday evening:

 

Dear Members,

We hope you and your loved ones are well and adjusting to this challenging new reality as best you can.  We wanted to give you a few updates.  

Everyone is understandably anxious to know how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact our MBA negotiations, since our current agreement expires on May 1.  The Negotiating Committee is carefully considering our options, keeping what is best for writers both now and in the future front of mind, and we are also in discussions with the AMPTP.  Nothing is settled yet, but we will let you know as soon as there is a specific path forward.  

If you feel isolated or just want to be more connected to other writers during this time, please take the opportunity to join a team led by a Guild captain.  Our captains are volunteers dedicated to keeping fellow members informed, updated, and in-touch with other members.  You can email captains@wga.org with the subject line “YES” to sign up; please indicate if you primarily work in television or screen.

The WGAW staff is working remotely while the office at 3rd and Fairfax is temporarily closed.  They will continue to carry out all the essential functions of the union, so don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance.

In particular, if you are being required to work in a group environment in conditions contrary to the recommendations of state and local government, or if you have a question about contractual or other employment rights, you can contact Latifah Salom at 323-782-4521 or email legal@wga.org.

Finally, there is an action you can take right now.  The Guild is joining other entertainment unions and the AFL-CIO to advocate for those in our industry who aren’t covered by new federal assistance legislation.  Please contact your representatives today and tell them that arts and entertainment workers need economic relief too. 

We will be back in touch soon.  In the meantime, please stay safe.  

In solidarity, 

David A. Goodman, President
Marjorie David, Vice President 
Michele Mulroney, Secretary-Treasurer, Co-Chair MBA Negotiating Committee
Shawn Ryan, Co-Chair MBA Negotiating Committee
Betsy Thomas, Co-Chair MBA Negotiating Committee 

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