The Schism at the Writers Guild

A slew of digital news shops have joined the union in recent years, and screenwriters like David Simon aren't happy about it

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 21:  (L-R) WGAE President Michael Winship and Writers Joe Weisberg, Joe...
Ron Adar/FilmMagic/Getty Images

For the past month, the council of the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), a labor union representing exactly 6,666 writers, has been engaged in a very public and frequently idiotic fight over which kinds of writers belong in their guild. There have been some callouts; a bit of name-calling; endorsements granted and rescinded. At one point, The Wire’s David Simon, whose myriad literary innovations include coining the term “fucksquib,” doxxed an outlet that had been organizing in secret; at another, the future council president blocked his own members on Twitter.

The fight began on July 29, first on email and then spilling over to Twitter. The WGAE council, an elected body of 21 representatives, sent a blast to the entire union announcing a “pause” on organizing, or the process of adding new members. Specifically, they wanted to pause adding writers in digital news. This decision was not unanimous. That much became clear a few hours later, when eight dissenting council members tweeted a statement, claiming the message was riddled with “factual inaccuracy and distortions.” You can read it in full here, but this was the thrust of it:

The current “pause” on digital organizing is not the result of a decision by the Executive Director. It is a result of political and philosophical disagreements among elected Council members about the value of organizing. More to the point: This issue is not a budgetary one, but a conflict between Council members over who belongs in the WGAE and who does not.

For many guild members, this cryptic statement was the first they’d heard of the rift between their representatives. The council tends to operate in apparent unanimity; suddenly, they aired a major disagreement in full view of the internet. But less apparent were the catalysts for the feud or its stakes — namely, that digital news membership has ballooned over the past six years; that those changes stoked fears in some older members over what they call, quite ominously, the “news-to-freelance ratio;” and that tensions will come to a head in an upcoming election, starting today, that some see as a treatise on the union itself.

The hostilities within the council stem largely from its own success. Though the WGAE represents several fields, including film and broadcast news, TV writers long made up its majority; digital journalism didn’t factor in for most of the guild’s existence. That changed in 2015, when the earlier version of this website voted to unionize, kicking off a wave of media organizing across dozens of newsrooms desperate to slow the bloodlet of corporate consolidation. Since then, the WGAE alone has ratified contracts with 15 news companies and begun negotiating with six more. There are now over 1,700 digital media members — a pretty substantial increase from six years ago, when there were, per a guild spokesman, zero.

(Full disclosure: The labor movement Gawker triggered has come full circle: one of the latter outlets is Bustle Digital Group, the current owner of this website, which unionized last November and is now hashing out the fine print — putting both the company and this blog in a kind of electoral purgatory. While BDG employees are union members, and thus will not be impacted by the organizing pause, they are not eligible to vote until they finalize a contract. Gawker is in still more of a limbo. Because the BDG union drive predated the current version of this website, Gawker staff were not technically included when we launched on July 28. We have the option to join, but we could also go right-to-work mode if we want. This seems unlikely; most of us, including myself, have already signed union cards.)

In recent years, the rapid expansion of the WGAE to include digital news organizations started to alarm some screenwriters, who feared they might lose their majority. “In 70 years,” Michael Winship, a frequent writer for Bill Moyers who is running unopposed for council president, told Gawker, “we never have had a situation in which freelance members (movies and TV) are in a position to lose their majority on the council.” The anxiety became so explicit that, when a newly organized outlet tried to join the union earlier this year, the council voted to turn them down (Gawker has withheld the name of the publication, as they haven't gone public). This was a departure from the typical procedure — usually member approval lies with the guild’s Executive Director Lowell Peterson — and one that triggered the back-and-forth still playing out on Twitter.

The divide became apparent during the protests last summer, when some newer council members proposed a motion calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from police unions. It later passed unanimously, but only after prolonged pushback from a faction of screenwriters. One member suggested that some opponents, who write for Law & Order, were worried about straining their relationship with cops, although Hamilton Nolan, an ex-Gawker writer and council member who is running for reelection, told us this theory was “too simplistic.” A similar fight broke out when a couple council reps on the Solidarity side broached the idea of participating in a general strike if Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, noting that some reporters might still need to break news. “The digital media members argued they themselves would be exempt from such a strike,” recalled Winship, “as their work was more important.” (The motion was voted down).

The tension has now hardened into partisan combat. Nine of the 21 council seats are up for grabs in an election this month, as are the three officer positions (President, Vice-President, and Secretary-Treasurer). On Aug. 26, when mail-in voting opens, union members will be able to choose from two “slates'' of candidates — the “Inclusion and Experience” slate, a coalition of mostly screenwriters who support the organizing “pause,” and the “Solidarity” slate, a smaller mix of journalists and TV people, who oppose it.

At the crux of the clash is a concern over internal power distribution. Within the WGAE, there are two contractual designations that determine how council seats are apportioned: freelance and staff (sometimes called “news”). Freelancers — mostly screenwriters — usually negotiate under what’s called a Minimum Basic Agreement, which sets standards for salaries, benefits and protections. By contrast, news workers primarily hold staff positions and thus sign contracts with a single employer. Freelancers still make up the majority of WGAE and, accordingly, its council. A guild spokesperson said there are currently 3,897 freelancers to 2,769 staff; of the 12 seats up for election, three are for staff and six are for freelancers. Three candidates are running unopposed for officer positions; they are all freelancers.

Like congressional seats, however, council positions are determined by census, which the WGAE holds every five years. The next one, which begins in 2022, will be the first to factor in most of the new members (a union spokesman declined to confirm the date). “There will almost certainly be a reallocation of seats, but if [the union] keeps organizing there could be even more,” one guild member said. “By shutting it down, they’re trying to ensure screenwriters have the most say on council and dictate where the WGAE’s priorities are.”

Kim Kelly, a council member running for reelection on the Solidarity slate, countered that any changes would be minimal. They might pick up two seats; more likely one. “Out of a 21-person body, that certainly doesn't seem like much!” she told Gawker in an email. “We are a distinct minority on the council, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, even after those new seats are added.”

But the possibility of replacement figures unambiguously into the union election. On the Inclusion & Experience slate website, in a section titled “Why We Are Running,” the candidates explicitly cited it:

The WGAE is in serious danger. Due to aggressive organizing in digital media over the past five years, film and TV writer members are about to become a minority in their own Guild — while still footing the bill.

They later amended the language, but the claims are the same — some of which merit clarification. The math that screenwriters could become “a minority” comes from projections combining the current digital membership and those still negotiating contracts (like the Gawker staff), with the broadcast news sector, though the latter group aren’t new to the union and won’t be impacted by the pause. The bill-footing part concerns dues, which operate like a vaguely progressive tax. Everyone pays a basic rate, but members who sign big contracts give the guild a cut. Here’s Winship, the screenwriter running for president:

Many [members] pay more dues than others when you include percentages of their contracts for a film and TV show, not to mention residuals, etc. So in the aggregate, film and TV writers pay more. This is why film and TV writers account for 75 percent of our revenues. Combined with broadcast news members, we account for 87 percent.

At first glance, the two sides of this schism seem to boil down to TV writers v. digital journalists, or freelancers v. staff. But the reality is more muddled: many freelance screenwriters support continued organizing, while some who oppose it hold staff news positions. To get a sense for each side, we reached out to all the sitting council members, candidates from both slates, and members who’d endorsed them.

The Solidarity side, which has the handy modus operandi of advocating for people with my exact job description, was predictably forthcoming — they accounted for four of the five council members who agreed to talk to us (four others didn’t respond). The I&E side was understandably harder to reach. In addition to the council, we emailed everyone on their slate and just under 100 of the 200-odd members who endorsed them — of those, six people responded. Two declined to comment; a third, TV writer Kashana Cauley, told me she had rescinded her endorsement (this turns out to have been the case for more than one person).

“I was led to believe that they were really a diversity initiative, which as a black female television writer, I support wholeheartedly,” Cauley said. “When I learned that a main thrust of the slate was to restrict news workers from organizing with the WGAE, I withdrew my support.”

A fourth member scheduled an interview, but then canceled the call citing Gawker’s ongoing negotiations with WGAE. The reason for the radio silence may have had something to do with this email, sent by council member and I&E candidate, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, shortly after I reached out:

Some of you have reached out to let us know that a reporter from Gawker contacted you for an interview "about the endorsement and your rationale." Please feel free to forward to us, or ignore. We are aware of the conflict of interest, as this person is a member (WGAE is currently organizing Bustle, its owner; Gawker was the first digital media shop organized by WGAE, but fell out due to its bankruptcy). Our sincere regrets for the hassle.

By all accounts, the divide between sides predates the organizing pause by at least a year. Winship, who has been a member of the WGAE since 1981 and intermittently served in leadership since 1988, said it started “when digital media representatives joined [the council] and created their own faction.”

“Never in Guild history has our Council been divided into factions,” Winship said. “The digital media representatives have used this faction to push for actions that seem focused not on helping their constituents and with no consideration of how their demands could harm the rest of us.” (The I&E website claims this cohort is called the “Digital Caucus;” the Solidarity site denies that: “If it were true, we would have thought of a much cooler name”).

The Solidarity slate candidates frame it as more of an intergenerational clash. According to Nolan, the ex-Gawker writer and council incumbent, resentment has “been building up” — not between screenwriters and reporters, or freelancers and staff — but between older centrist members and younger progressive recruits with competing visions of the union’s purpose.

“We had ideas and opinions, too, and unfortunately, it became apparent that the experiences and political views of a bunch of working class 30-somethings did not always line up with those of our more established, privileged peers,” Kim Kelly wrote. “The divide is generational as well as one of class, money, and politics.”

If there is an ideological split between writers who view the union as a purely professional institution and those who see it as a means of organizing political solidarity, it is largely contained within the council. “For the average member, that's not really what is in the forefront,” said Larry Cohen, a screenwriter who endorsed the I&E platform. His concern was more pragmatic — namely, that the consolidation of streaming companies has hit middle-income TV writers hard; he worried a union with dueling priorities might be less equipped to protect them.

Outside the broader philosophical questions, the real divide within the WGAE is whether those priorities are a weakness or a strength. For Josh Gondelman, a comedy writer and Solidarity slate candidate, they are firmly the latter. Gondelman, who didn’t respond to Gawker’s request for comment, wrote in a public statement that professional distinctions within the guild were “getting blurrier and blurrier:”

At this point, as far as audiences are concerned, a TV network is a website is an app. A radio show is a podcast is a livestream. The studios know that already, and… acknowledging this reality will help us to secure fair residuals and minimums for comedy/variety writers and feature writers working for streaming platforms. It will help compensation for narrative writers catch up to where it should be even while a “season” of television can look increasingly different than it used to. And it will help protect our members who work in the news, whether it be for television, radio, or the internet (or some combination of the three that has not even been invented yet, but somehow Joe Rogan has already made $15 million from.)

Ultimately, that is the main question on the ballot — at least until Sept. 14, when elections are over.