The Anger, Passion and Scorched-Earth Strategy of the Man in the Middle of the Hollywood Writers' War
Ryan Melgar

The Anger, Passion and Scorched-Earth Strategy of the Man in the Middle of the Hollywood Writers' War

David Young is hated by the agents — and even some writers — but will the WGA executive director's aggressive tactics of lawsuits, criminal accusations and screaming matches help lead his guild to a better day, or blow up the whole industry?

On the afternoon of April 12, in a tense conference room at the Beverly Hilton, WGA West executive director David Young sat down with CAA's Bryan Lourd, UTA's Jay Sures, WME's Rick Rosen and representatives of five other Hollywood talent agencies for what the agents assumed would be a marathon meeting to renegotiate their soon-to-expire contract with the guild. Up against a midnight deadline, the agents hoped the guild would counter their recent offer. But Young, the WGA's chief negotiator and a career labor organizer with roots in the garment worker and Teamsters unions, deployed a decidedly unusual tactic: He warned the agents to brush up on their understanding of RICO laws.

Young was likening the agencies' practice of collecting packaging fees on its writers' projects to mob world racketeering offenses, a suggestion that horrified the agents in the room and foretold the guild's extraordinary step five days later, when the WGA sued the four biggest agencies for breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition. The agents pushed back, according to accounts from seven people who were in the room at the Beverly Hilton that day on both sides of the table, with Lourd calling Young's comments "deeply offensive." Sures turned to the members of the WGA's negotiating committee who were seated with Young around the table, among them his client, WGA West president David Goodman, and asked, "Do any of you really believe we're like the Mafia?" No one answered.

When the clock struck midnight and the contract expired, writers began firing their agents. More than seven weeks later, after some 7,000 writers have terminated their agents and with the busy TV development season set to begin, the parties are scheduled to meet again June 7. Young, 60, tall and burly, with a ruddy face that reddens when he's angry, will be the man setting the tone and, say sources on both sides of the dispute, the agenda.

Among Young's more miraculous accomplishments in Hollywood has been uniting bitter rivals at competing agencies in agreement on one fact: They can't stand him. The WGA organizer's bare-knuckle negotiating style has rattled the industry's most powerful dealmakers, challenged decades-old business practices and brought long-simmering tensions between writers and agents to a boil. Young's supporters call him a brilliant tactician whose indifference to Hollywood niceties is an asset. His detractors — including a quietly frustrated but increasingly organized wing of his own guild — say Young is a hothead who relishes creating chaos and can't close a deal.

"David's tough," says Goodman. "David's protecting the interests of writers, and he's doing it at our request. We're challenging the agencies' business model and David has become their target."

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The fight with the agents is one that Young has been preparing for for years. As far back as the WGA's 2014 contract negotiation with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, "We felt like it was the third or fourth negotiation in a row where we were doing things for membership that we felt should have been done by agents," says former WGA president Patric Verrone, who sits on the guild's board of directors. "Things to do with exclusivity and term of contracts. What was becoming clear on a macro level was we were doing a job that agents were supposed to be doing. The question was, why weren't they?"

Before joining the staff of the Writers Guild of America, Young held a series of union jobs, including as assistant national director of organizing for a garment workers union, Unite, where he led a high-profile campaign that has some notable parallels to his current war with the agencies. In 1996, just before Guess Inc. was set to make an initial public offering, Unite filed a lawsuit against the apparel company and several of its contractors, accusing them of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime, and triggering state and federal investigations. Like Guess in the '90s, at least two Hollywood agencies are exploring IPOs, and on May 23, Endeavor, the parent of WME, became the first to file. In the '90s, Young, who is fluent in Spanish, convened garment workers from small shops around Los Angeles and informed them of problems they shared. The controversies sparked by Young's organizing led Guess to delay its IPO multiple times, and the company sued Unite for defamation and moved most of its L.A.-based production to Mexico. Young's union suffered financially from the legal bills for defending against Guess, and ultimately folded into another union, where he was forced out. The agencies and some skeptical WGA members see this backstory as a cautionary tale. "David's history is to go straight to the fight and to embrace scorched earth and chaos as effective means to an end," says UTA co-president Jay Sures. "But that approach leaves tremendous collateral damage among his own members, as is quickly becoming the case here."

Young, who declined to participate in this story, joined the staff of the Writers Guild as the head of its organizing department in 2004, and was promoted to executive director in 2006. Where critics see overzealousness, Young's backers at the guild see conviction. "David has a very deep-seated sense of justice," says Verrone. "There's something inherent in him that tells him this is a just cause. We would share personal tales of Catholic guilt, social good. The Irish Catholic background has something to do with this."

Young was born in Pasadena, the son of a schoolteacher mom and a construction worker dad who died of mesothelioma, which he contracted through his work on building sites. Young worked as a plumber for 10 years and studied economics at the University of San Diego before becoming a labor organizer. Although he has been on staff at the WGA for 14 years, he doesn't lead a Hollywood life. He lives in Glendale, is married to a former flight attendant and has three children: an adult son and two daughters in college. But while he has blue-collar roots, Young's work at the WGA has pushed him into a lofty earning position. Last July, the guild extended his contract four years and gave Young a one-time bonus, bringing his compensation for 2018 to $1.1 million, $733,000 of which is his base salary.

His status as a Hollywood outsider was part of what endeared Young to some members of the guild, which had seen so many organizers come and go that leadership used to refer to the position as "the drummer from Spinal Tap." Previous organizers often had come from industry jobs and seemed more interested in keeping those relationships intact than in winning gains for writers, many at the guild believed. Even the organizing department's name at the time — "industry alliances" — suggested a level of coziness with the studios. "This idea that if somebody has worked for the studios they can get us a better deal and they can understand the system better, it hadn't proved to be true," says Patricia Carr, a WGA board member and one of the plaintiffs in the agency lawsuit. "We thought we should find somebody who is adept at leading a union and less about the chumminess of, 'Hey, our kids go to school together.' What if we did act like a union? What if we had someone who subscribed to these methods?"

Among Young's heroes is Marvin Miller, who ran the Major League Baseball Players Association in the 1960s and secured the right to free agency for players. Entertainment figures are less impressive to him. "David Young has no Hollywood ambitions," says writer-producer David Slack, who sits on the WGA's board of directors. "He's not a guy who's like, 'Oh and by the way, I have a pitch.' " Adds Verrone, "When he started here, he didn't watch a lot of TV. He didn't go to movies. I used to joke that I had to teach him the difference between The Sopranos and The Simpsons, which was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much."

In 2004 and 2005, Young led a failed effort to organize reality TV writers, but he also made some important inroads, boosting outreach to members, beefing up the research department and pushing for the creation of a WGA West PAC, which has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to candidates like Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Together the WGA West and sister guild WGA have some 15,000 members. Young's diligent communications with them — including frequent meetings, mixers and emails — paid off when 90 percent voted in support of the writers strike of 2007-08, many motivated by a desire to see their work in the burgeoning digital space covered by the guild, a right they ultimately won. Still, once the 100-day strike was underway, Young's limitations as chief negotiator revealed themselves, his detractors say, and agents contend that they had to perform shuttle diplomacy between writers and studios behind the scenes. "He's great at organizing, but he has no real endgame," says one guild member. "At the end it was agents and lawyers who saved him, and that made him very angry." Goodman disputes this: "I was there. The studios didn't want to invest David with any power. That was a complete victory for the guild."

The reason behind this latest warfare lies with the agencies' shifting business models, which rely increasingly on packaging writers with other clients and financing projects themselves, a practice known as "affiliate production." As more writers began to express their concerns about the practices, Young created a strategy to combat them, starting with calling to renegotiate the writers' 43-year-old contract with the Association of Talent Agents. Together with guild lawyers, he also drafted a new code of conduct that prohibits agency practices that the guild considers conflicts of interest. The prospect of suing the agencies was on the table long before negotiations began as well. In February, two months before the guild filed its suit, at least one agency had obtained a draft of the lawsuit. To agents, this indicated that the writers never intended to negotiate in good faith. "My grandfather was a union organizer, so being at odds with the guild is incredibly uncomfortable for me," says WME partner and head of television Rick Rosen. "We're committed to reaching an agreement, but we need a willing partner in order to do so." Young also reached out to the agencies' private-equity backers, telling them the companies they have invested in are performing criminal acts.

Even some writers who voted in favor of the new code of conduct — a measure that passed with 95 percent approval in a March guild vote — say they're stunned by the tenor of the dispute with the agencies. "A lot of this action feels like it's about people who are angry at their agents and disaffected," says one showrunner. "I'm not." Others say they resent paying to sue their own agencies on behalf of some of their wealthiest peers — the lawsuit the guild has filed is not a class action. (The guild explains that while the lawsuit is not a class action, labor unions have the right to sue on behalf of all of their members. If a court orders the agencies to return profits generated from packaging, the distribution of those funds, including to the guilds' members who are not plaintiffs, will be determined by the court). "You've got people suing for obscene amounts of money because they merely made vulgar amounts of money," says one feature writer. "What the fuck does this have to do with a functioning union?" 

Where Young's supporters describe a welcome steeliness and an organizational savvy, other writers see a leader whose chief skill has been in stirring acrimony. "He's very good at harnessing a certain kind of populist anger," says one female showrunner. "In the wake of #MeToo, a bunch of old lefty white guys feel left out. They've lost their victimhood. They want it back. They want to be the aggrieved party. So all of a sudden agents are the devil." Some writers and agents call Young "Trumpian" in his response to critics, including in a recent email sent to members complaining of "a histrionic, biased trade press" and "invidious propaganda." Writers who disagree with Young's strategies blame him for creating a chilling climate. "He yells," says a guild member. "He gets red-faced. He cuts people off." Many have begun quietly communicating their frustrations about Young via a private group called Writers for Negotiation. Some say Young and guild leadership confuse groupthink with solidarity. "He only has to please his board, and it's not that hard," says one industry source. "They're very closed off from the outside world. It's an echo chamber. It's like North Korea over there."

Guild leaders say the objections to Young are not new, and will not impact his support from the board. "Even during the strike there was a great hue and cry that he's not a negotiator," says Verrone. "The other side was trying to get us to bring in an outside lawyer, somebody they knew. We didn't want to. David was our guy. He's still our guy."

He'll be their guy again when the guild resumes negotiating on June 7, and he'll be key in assembling the WGA's strategy as it heads into another major battle, over its contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which expires in 2020. But even some who supported Young during the 2007 strike are nervous about the prospects for the future. "I've struck, I've picketed, I've lost deals for this guild," says one showrunner. "Come on. This has turned into a dick-measuring contest. Get in a room, lock the door, and don't leave until you work this out."

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Agents vs. Writers: The Arguments
Dueling perspectives from a rep and his ex-client illuminate the dispute

"Agents believe in unions and know the value an effective guild has on core issues like minimums, wages and pension and health issues. But the current guild leadership — and David Young, specifically — often devalues the importance of dialogue, respect for the other side, and compromise. It's especially damaging to emerging and working writers, and when the really critical negotiations with the AMPTP are just months away." — Jay Sures, UTA co-president
 
"These agencies are supposed to work for us. Their job is to represent us. We've realized that these agencies were making huge fortunes off of the backs of our writers. I take issue with the idea that David’s style is getting in the way. When both sides are willing to negotiate, the style works fine. I don’t think the agencies really wanted to make a deal. It’s uncomfortable. It’s disruptive. I guarantee I will not be represented by UTA again." — David Goodman, WGA West president

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.