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After Gawker became the first major digital newsroom to form a union in 2015, affiliating with the Writers Guild of America East, a wave of online journalism organizing ensued. Now, six years later, with dozens more digital media shops welcomed into the fold, the union’s council is split over its next move. Namely, does the Writers Guild East prioritize issues most important to the television, film and broadcast news writers who traditionally have been its constituency, or keep growing its burgeoning online media membership in the same way?
That question is at the center of this year’s council election — voting began Aug. 26 and will conclude Sept. 14 — as two candidate slates with different visions of how to move the WGA East forward vie for power.
The Inclusion & Experience slate, which is backing three top officers who are running unopposed as well as nine council candidates, maintains that a sharp rise in digital news members threatens to transform the union’s priorities while the organizing costs could damage its finances, as long-dominant film and television writers will be reduced to about half of the membership by 2022 (the union itself does not confirm these figures). They want the union to be restructured after a survey of members is conducted.
Meanwhile, the Solidarity Slate — which is supporting seven council candidates — counters that growth in digital news in part is fundamental to increasing the organization’s influence. The WGA East now represents online writers at Vice Media, Vox Media, Hearst Magazines, Gizmodo Media Group and 22 other companies. More than 700 digital media workers joined its ranks between early 2020 and May 2021 alone, with total guild membership at nearly 7,000.
It’s that rapid growth that is fueling an existential debate at the guild. (Late August layoffs at Vice Media, where editorial staff is represented by the Guild, gave added fuel to members who argue there’s a pressing need for more worker protections in online media.)
“We’ve reached a juncture where we feel that the breakneck pace of growth in that one sector, as well as our shift in demographics and its implications on costs, have brought us to a point — really long past a point — where we need to talk to our members,” says Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Inclusion & Experience-affiliated incoming vp, current council member and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit consulting producer. In contrast, In These Times reporter Hamilton Nolan, an incumbent staff council member running for reelection with the Solidarity Slate, says, “It’s not a zero-sum game where we’re all trying to take a bigger piece of the pie.”
Though guild members only recently began publicly quarreling over online news, those on the council say tensions have been brewing for over a year internally. Last winter, guild leadership took action, forming a small working group — half composed of digital news members — to brainstorm some potential paths forward. Options discussed included creating a bifurcated union with separate councils or spinning digital news members off into a separate union initially subsidized by the Writers Guild East. However, when Writers Guild East staff were apprised of these discussions, some expressed concerns, and the working group eventually did not come to a resolution, according to current council members.
The Solidarity Slate claims that digital media efforts are not undercutting those in other mediums. Its platform maintains that “all of these writing jobs are in fact connected.” Solidarity Slate staff candidate and Vice editor Sara David says that digital journalists and film and TV writers share much in common amid a shifting media landscape requiring workers to write for multiple platforms. (David herself writes for both Vice TV shows and its news site.)
The Inclusion & Experience candidates do not believe digital media worker and film, TV and broadcast news writer interests are so aligned — its platform maintains that the union’s bylaws were tailored to the latter writers and that those members generally work for the same employers and share health and pension plans, while digital news writers do not. “What I don’t believe in is an amalgamated union as being the most effective means of representing labor,” adds The Wire creator David Simon, an incumbent freelance council member running for reelection with Inclusion & Experience. If reelected, he would like to open discussions with the NewsGuild, another major union representing cross-platform journalists, and re-explore a bifurcated union.
The two slates are also sparring over the impact online news organizing has had on the guild’s finances. According to Inclusion & Experience, the funds expended on the effort have reached a tipping point, and this spending has reduced services for film, TV and broadcast members and delayed organizing in other mediums. (Both sides are publicizing figures about the union’s financial state and expenses that the union does not confirm.) Their platform also expresses concern that, if online media organizing continues as it has in the past, “film and TV writers will become frustrated with these trends and switch their membership to the WGAW.” The Solidarity Slate counters that “all new organizing requires a big investment up front” that pays out in the long run in dues, and “the Guild is in a healthy, stable financial position and is projected to remain financially healthy and stable in the future, even with continued organizing.” The slate reframes concerns about WGA East members fleeing to the West, saying that the success in digital newsrooms actually gives TV and film writers more leverage and assets for their own labor efforts.
Whatever path the guild chooses by Sept. 14, both slates say they want to make more organizing gains in unscripted entertainment, podcasting and animation. Incoming secretary-treasurer, Writers Guild Initiative treasurer and Serena screenwriter Christopher Kyle, who is affiliated with Inclusion & Experience, maintains that digital news organizing “crowds out [these] other priorities” while the Solidarity Slate argues that the union can continue to organize all these sectors simultaneously and would do so more effectively if it built more cross-industry solidarity. “I guess we’ll have to see how serious [the Inclusion & Experience slate] are about wanting to organize and if it continues in this lackadaisical way,” says Benjamin Rosenblum, a Solidarity Slate freelance candidate and nonfiction story producer who decided to run in part because he’s dissatisfied with “stagnant” nonfiction organizing. He adds, “That to me proves they don’t necessarily want any more people asserting themselves in the union.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are also at stake in the debate over online journalism, according to candidates. Solidarity Slate members argue that more organizing in digital newsrooms will lead to better protections for historically marginalized writers most impacted by workplace conditions: “If they’re voting anti-organizing, what are they doing actually to protect their most vulnerable colleagues?” asks Vice editor David. Inclusion & Experience slate members, meanwhile, tout that seven out of 12 of their candidates are people of color, and that if elected, they will bring real, non-token representation to bear in contract negotiations and decision-making. “I would just say, look at our ticket and look at their ticket,” Inclusion & Experience freelance candidate, former council member and Respect screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson says.
Even after September’s election, the future council officers for the next two years — during which period the union’s next Minimum Basic Agreement will be negotiated — are aligned with Inclusion & Experience and, as such, will be prioritizing this issue. These future leaders say that their initial goal is simply to survey members about organizing in the sector and make decisions from there. “We don’t have a preconceived notion of what the best solution to the problem is,” Kyle says.
If members of the Solidarity Slate succeed in landing and/or retaining council seats — and even if they all win, digital news members will only occupy five seats on a 21-seat council, their platform is quick to point out — both sides say that they’re going to have to transcend this election’s heated rhetoric and work together. “It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the dynamics shift when the new council takes shape post-election, but I believe we can find a way forward,” writes incumbent staff council member and independent journalist Kim Kelly, aligned with the Solidarity Slate, in an email.
Incoming president and current council member Michael Winship, The Power of Protest writer who steered the union during its 2007-8 writers’ strike, says he will work with Solidarity Slate writers “with an eye toward how we can all work together and move forward in very good and positive ways.” He adds, “There will be a very frank exchange of ideas, and we’ll see what the bottom line is.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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