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Memo to Prez Candidates: Here’s Something Good You Can Do This New Year

Photo credit: WGAE  
  Members of the Writers Guild of America, East, walk the picket line in New York.  

Last year, a group of television workers at WMUR in New Hampshire voted to join a union—Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1228. But management didn’t want to negotiate a contract with them—and there’s nothing in U.S. labor law that says employers must agree to a contract. So, until this month, the workers had no contract.

Then, one after another, the Democratic presidential candidates started writing letters to WMUR-TV General Manager Jeff Bartlett urging him to go back to the bargaining table and work out an agreement.

Guess what? He did.

After months of deadlock, the WMUR technicians and drivers now have a contract that includes wage increases ranging from 18 percent to 35 percent and improvements in the pension and vacation benefits.

So here’s a proposal for candidates of any party running for president: As long as you’re raising millions of dollars and talking with thousands of people every day, why not do some good along the way? And in the case of the six Dems who wrote letters to the WMUR station manager, why not take the opportunity to do more good. (The six Dems are Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.)

The presidential candidates have many options for sending a good word on behalf of workers struggling for contracts and union recognition. Jane and Thers have done great work here describing the struggle by striking television writers to get fair compensation for their work on new media. And the Firedoglake action campaign enabling people to write to the CEOs of their favorite shows and urge them to bargain fairly with the writers deserves huge kudos.

Several Democratic candidates have walkedthe picket line with the writers, and the Democratic National Committee canceled Dec. 10’s debates in case CBS television writers went on strike, because the Dems said they wouldn’t cross the picket line.

So let’s ask the aspiring presidents to take the next step and send a letter to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the umbrella organization representing Big Media, whose members have twice walked away from the bargaining table.

The striking writers and their supporters are on the picket lines at major studios in New York and California in a drive to win an equitable contract that addresses how writers get paid as new media plays a bigger and bigger role in the entertainment industry. They are seeking a formula for fair compensation when their work is broadcast on the Internet, downloaded to iPods or cell phones or distributed via DVD. (Get daily strike updates here.)

The writers have a basic request: Employees should get paid for what they produce. But there’s a lot of money to be made by big corporations if they can prevent the writers from receiving compensation from the growing new media. And that’s why these fat cat producers and CEOs are refusing to negotiate—and one way to accomplish their goal just might involve breaking the union. As David Carr wrote in his New York Times column:

Jorge Zamacona, a Guild member and writer-producer who got his start on “St. Elsewhere” and most recently served as a writer-producer on “Wanted,” since canceled, said that by refusing to negotiate on the future revenues of digital outlets, the studios seemed to be trying to rub them out of the picture for good.

“They are absolutely trying to break the union,” he said. “My daughter watches streamed versions of ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ and they all include commercials. Why should writers not be paid a small part of that?”

In a YouTube video posted by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and WGAE member Tim Kazurinsky tells a Chicago TV station:

This is the big, bad writers versus the poor producers. Who are the poor producers? They are G.E., Sony, Time-Warner…the little guys.

Corporations across the board are trying to shut out workers from getting their fair share of compensation from the new media—including Verizon, which set up a "separate" wireless company to literally wall off those workers from the higher-paid, unionized workers at the company’s landline facilities. Shutting the writers out of the new media is one part of the attempt by major corporations to deny workers a voice on the job in industries that increasingly are replacing their 20th century predecessors.

So, it would be great if the presidential candidates could send a few letters to AMPTP and urge the industry to bargain in good faith and reach an equitable agreement.

Hope you can join me in urging presidential candidates—Republican and Democrat—to take the next step.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell