Although the coronavirus pandemic has brought production to a virtual standstill, writers, unlike directors and performers, are still able to work on development. While they shelter in place quietly plying their trade, their union has continued to make news.
The breaking story is a ruling in the California District Court case between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major talent agencies William Morris Endeavor (WME), Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and United Talent Agency (UTA).
The bone of contention in this litigation was the agencies’ practice of collecting packaging fees on television series. These are fees paid directly to the agencies by networks rather than by the agency’s clients. The union’s belief was that this created a conflict of interest. The Guild was also alarmed that agencies were becoming producers and thus potentially hiring their own clients. The Guild directed its members to fire their agents unless they agreed to discontinue these practices, and the agencies sued, alleging an illegal group boycott.
The WGA asserted multiple counterclaims against the agencies, including federal and state price fixing, racketeering and breach of fiduciary duty. In a ruling on April 27, District Judge Andre Birotte, Jr. dismissed eight of the nine claims asserted by the WGA against the agencies. What remains in the case from the writers’ side are state price fixing claims and the claims of individual writers for breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition. The agencies’ claims are also still standing.
Things haven’t been all bad for the WGA, however. The union has had surprising success in getting most of the important agencies other than WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners to agree to give up producing immediately and to give up packaging in 2021 if the big four have given it up by then. As a result, those agencies are back in business with their writer clients.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
The collective bargaining agreements of all three above the line guilds are up this year as well and once again the WGA is making headlines. The DGA, in typical fashion, had a orderly negotiation and closed a deal on April 2 that included an increase of nearly 50% in directors’ residuals for made-for-streaming programs. SAG-AFTRA, the performers’ union, began its negotiations on April 27.
Things were not so simple with the WGA.
After some back and forth, the employers’ bargaining unit, the AMPTP, announced that the parties had agreed to extend the current contract from May 1 to June 30. Negotiations for the new agreement would begin on May 11.
What complicated this arrangement was that the WGA lead negotiator, David Young, also proposed as a virus relief effort to extend eligibility for the WGA health plan through the end of the year for writers who would not otherwise qualify. Carol Lombardini, the AMPTP lead negotiator, responded that she would need to discuss that proposal with the studios she represents, not least because the WGA Health Fund is an independent entity jointly managed by labor and management. Young responded to Lombardini in a letter that said in part, “There will be an agreement when both sides agree there’s one. You people are despicable.”
It is not certain as of today the effect that this will have on the timely commencement of negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP.