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The Writers Guild of America East is hitting back against NBC after the network shuttered its unionized nonfiction production unit Peacock Productions in January.
In an unfair labor practices complaint filed Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board, the WGA says that it learned last month that Peacock Productions, which hired around 60-70 freelance writer-producers per year, would cease producing nonfiction television shows except for a “few remaining television shows.” The guild then alleges that it learned that NBC News would continue creating nonfiction content “in a different manner, suggesting that the Company was simply getting rid of the Union-represented workforce and therefore the Union contract.”
The guild says that it requested more information about why the company decided to shutter Peacock’s nonfiction programming, only to allegedly produce it in another way, but said the company refused to provide details about “the continued employment of, or work by, employees who have been working at Peacock outside the Union-represented unit.”
The guild says that this conduct violates section 8(a)(1) and section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act, which bars employers from meddling in employees’ rights to organize, join or help labor organizations and from refusing to work with their employees’ union representatives, respectively. NBC did not immediately respond to comment.
“Is NBCUniversal unionbusting?” WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson asked in a statement. “Writer-producers at Peacock Productions deserve an answer to this question before the company launches a ‘new’ non-union in-house nonfiction production company that, just like Peacock Productions, will produce programs for NBCUniversal-owned networks and for others. We will use every tool at our disposal to find out why the company plans to shutter a union shop in favor of a non-union shop doing essentially the same work.”
Peacock Productions originally won unionization in 2016, more than three years after nonfiction writer-producers first cast their ballots in a June 2013 vote and about four years after they first filed to unionize with the NLRB. The production house’s 40-member bargaining union ratified its first collective bargaining agreement — hailed by the WGA East at the time as a “landmark provision” given that the contract included portable health benefits that freelancers could carry with them different jobs — in 2019.
The new entity set to produce nonfiction content, per Peterson, is NBC News Studio, a production unit announced by NBC on Jan. 23, 2020, and slated to produce documentaries, docuseries, some scripted programs and programs for “emerging platforms.” NBC News Studio is led by Dateline executive producer Elizabeth Cole, who previously ran Peacock Productions. Twelve unit members were laid off on Peacock Productions’ last day in February, per the WGA.
After years of organizing in the nonfiction community, the WGA additionally represents nonfiction television production units at Viceland, Vox Entertainment, Optomen Productions, Lion Television and Sharp Entertainment, in addition to ITV’s Kirkstall Road Enterprises and Leftfield Pictures. The WGA East’s unionization of nonfiction writer-producers is notable given that the WGA West has never succeeded in organizing these freelance workers, who say they are facing stagnating and diminishing pay rates and unsteady work.
“Filing the ULP should demonstrate that the WGAE will do everything in its power to ensure that writer-producers can unionize, even in the face of long-running battles with big companies like NBCU,” Peterson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We won portable health benefits at Peacock, and we are winning them at other shops. In the long run, this will be one of the most significant gains that nonfiction writer-producers make when they unionize with the guild.”
Feb. 26, 1:09 p.m. Updated to add Elizabeth Cole’s former role at Peacock Productions and number of layoffs, per the WGA.
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