WGAE Tensions Reflect An Age-Old Clash Of Labor Visions

The Writers Guild of America East has successfully organized digital journalism workers at numerous well-known outlets in the last several years, winning contract protections on things like requiring “just cause” for firing (WGAE, 1/7/19), diversity hiring (Deadline, 1/21/18) and editorial independence (FAIR.org6/18/19). Who could complain about this? Plenty of people, apparently.

The union’s governing council is going through a fraught election split between the Solidarity slate, which includes both digital journalistic writers and TV/film writers who defend the organizing drive, and the Inclusion & Experience slate, which believes that the organizing drive has steered the union away from its original mission of representing long-unionized film and TV writers.

One of Inclusion & Experience’s most vocal candidates is David Simon, creator of the HBO hit show The Wire, much of which was drawn from his time as a Baltimore Sun reporter. The Solidarity slate includes Sara David of Vice and Hamilton Nolan, the In These Times labor journalist who helped start the first successful WGAE digital organizing drive at Gawker.

As CNN Business (8/24/21) reported, Inclusion & Experience is running on a platform of moving away from the new digital organizing, fearing that TV and film writers could become a minority within the union. According to one member of the slate, Christopher Kyle, “For every $1 of dues digital members pay, the Guild spends $3 to organize and service them.”

And in a lengthy post on his own website (Audacity of Despair, 8/22/21), Simon warned that a substantial growth in digital media membership in the union was an existential crisis, as the union would lose legitimacy as a TV/film union in the eyes of the much-larger Writers Guild of America West. He has proposed that the WGAE either “spin off the digital components into a new union,” or simply leave journalistic organizing to the NewsGuild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.

Industry vs. craft unionism

At first glance, this might seem like a struggle of professional vanities—Hollywood types looking down on a younger, scruffier cohort. What’s actually happening at the WGAE is an all-too-common struggle between industrial unionists and craft unionists.

For the uninitiated, industrial unionism is the idea that a union should represent all workers in an industry. Think of New York City’s subway and bus workers, nearly all of whom, regardless of their skillset or wage—ranging from station cleaners to subway train operators—are in the same bargaining unit in the Transport Workers Union. The idea is that, from a union perspective, all workers are equal in the common struggle.

Craft unionism is where unions are organized and closed off by their specific trade. Think of a construction site, where the plumbers, electricians, sheet metal workers and truck drivers are all in their own separate unions.

Simon makes the case that craft or guild unions are good at protecting their members’ interests. He isn’t wrong. Craft unions, like those in the building trades, can more or less define who can take on a certain job. Often, by limiting how many people can become a unionized craft worker, the union can ensure that all of its members get enough work and keep wages high. Letting anyone take on a certain job title spreads everything too thin, the idea goes.

But that kind of union power is based specifically around exclusion, rather than inclusion. The idea of cross-title solidarity that the Solidarity slate is promoting isn’t just about bringing as many members as possible into the union. It’s also the hope that democratic unionism can inspire more democratic and open media workplaces, because so much of the industry is based on nepotism, going to the right school and knowing the right people.

Simon does make a legitimate criticism of his union, saying that the “aggressive campaign to organizing the digital component has delayed and overshadowed…reaching workers in sectors—animation and podcasting, for example”—that, he said, “are clearly far more relevant to the WGAE than to the NewsGuild.”

But digital media workers have already built a home within the WGAE; the two unions have had turf disputes in the past, which has resulted in the WGAE basing itself more in digital publications while the NewsGuild focuses on print-based outlets. Rather than the mutually exclusive choice Simon offers, the union could choose to expand in all of the areas he cites.

Artificial divisions

The divisions separating these types of workers are often artificial. The major television networks, like Disney‘s ABC and Comcast‘s NBC employ fiction writers as well as journalists. Writers, including Simon, drift between nonfiction and fiction work all the time. Kim Kelly, labor columnist for Teen Vogue and a WGAE councilmember running for reelection on the Solidarity slate, told FAIR:

As many of us have outlined repeatedly during this campaign, the arbitrary lines between the TV/film worlds and digital media are dissolving at a rapid pace…. Digital media journalists are TV writers are nonfiction writers. Screenwriters are podcasters are comedy/variety writers. We all work in the same industry, even if our day-to-day jobs look different.The consolidation of the major media companies has left workers scrambling to adjust and add to their skill sets as a means to survive an increasingly precarious industry, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. We have common cause, similar concerns, and occupy the same social and cultural spaces….There are, of course, differences in the way different kinds of members experience the union—and a disparity in the services and benefits offered—but that’s something to work on bettering, not hammer away at as some sort of indication that adding thousands more members has somehow harmed our union.

Kelly continued:

Shop after shop of digital media workers chose the WGAE because they saw our successful track record, heard from other workers about our incredible, dedicated organizers, and saw the huge gains we made in our contracts. We have made massive strides in organizing this industry and raising its standards, and that work needs to continue. These workers chose this union, knowing that other options were available.The question you should be asking is, why in God’s name would we turn those workers away and encourage them to join a different union, when our union has worked so hard to bring them in and to show that it is the best home for them? Why would any labor union actively choose to be small, exclusive and weak when it has the opportunity to grow, evolve alongside a changing industry and make a positive impact on the lives of thousands?

TV and film writers are right to worry about their future. The assault on unions from the right is unrelenting, and with shifts in the entertainment industry, including the disruption caused by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, these writers are looking to protect what they have.

But unions, regardless of their industry, cannot afford to be islands of privilege as union membership declines. Unions must grow, and more importantly, they must grow into places where members are not simply defined by the job titles their boss gives them, but are treated as equal siblings.