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Representing Knowledge Workers In The New Era

1:50 pm in Uncategorized by Lowell Peterson

"Free Labor Will Win," 1942 - 1945

Recent ideologically-driven attacks on collective bargaining have inspired a national conversation about the role of organized labor in 21st Century America. The headlines have focused on teachers and other public employees, on whether it is unseemly for people who work for the government to assert any rights on the job. But the same hard-right forces that want to wipe out public sector unions oppose the very idea that employees can band together to advance their own interests. There are so many ways to rebut the shrill complaints about organized labor – so many good things unions have done for the average American over the course of decades. But perhaps this is a good opportunity for us to take stock of ourselves, to examine where we are today and what we might need to do to remain relevant in the future.

Less than ten percent of the private sector workforce in this country is unionized. The percentage is significantly higher in the public sector – which might explain why billionaires like the Koch brothers are financing the political attacks on unions that represent government employees. Union density is at or below pre-New Deal levels. Much of the decline has been due to concerted corporate attacks on the right of employees to engage in collective action, but a lot of it is the result of the hollowing out of heavily-unionized industries such as steel, auto, consumer durables (refrigerators and so on), printing, and related sectors. Millions of jobs have been lost to imports and technological change. Construction of large projects in major urban areas remains heavily unionized but the Great Recession put most projects on hold, costing hundreds of thousands of good union jobs.

Manufacturing and other unionized industries will probably rebound, at least to some extent, but presumably not to their former levels. I think we should assume that the post-World War II model in which very large numbers of employees toiled in very large facilities to make physical goods like cars and washing machines, and in which a union’s task was to harness the collective power of those employees to muscle better wages and working conditions, is unlikely to be dominant in the future. Instead, vast numbers of Americans will be, to some extent, knowledge workers. That is, people who work directly with information rather than with stuff. I do not have the wisdom to proclaim whether a national economy can be sustained on the basis of moving around pieces of paper representing capital, or on the basis of creating and selling innovative ideas without actually making physical products. But I do think the economy will be based on services for quite some time.

The Writers Guild of America, East knows how to represent knowledge workers. To some extent our members are the ultimate knowledge workers. What they build is stories for television, radio, movie screens, and the internet. They write drama and comedy and news and documentaries. For most, employment is contingent, job-to-job, script-to-script, show-to-show. And, except for our newswriter members, they work in small shops or in the solitude of their own homes. In our news shops technology is transforming the way the work gets done, and more and more of the jobs are “temporary”. Most of the employers with whom we bargain are huge multinational conglomerates. In other words, our members already know what it’s like to survive as contingent knowledge workers in the Brave New Economy.

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Why Fanboys/girls Want Net Neutrality

9:25 am in Uncategorized by Lowell Peterson

The WGAE represents content creators – people who write programs for the internet and other digital distribution systems (e.g., to mobile devices). We have argued in favor of Net Neutrality because our members want the opportunity to reach audiences directly, without major studios and other large corporations deciding what to distribute. But what about the audience? The public? Why should they care about Net Neutrality?

For the same reason: the internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for people to experience the widest possible range of programming. Not just shows that make money for networks and studios. Programming made by independent creators – indie films, off-beat comedies, short-form mysteries, programs that address important niche audiences who aren’t well-served by the current media conglomerates. Programming that presents unique viewpoints on important public issues such as race, sexuality, immigration, the economy.

If Net Neutrality fails, if a handful of large corporations effectively decide what people watch on the internet, these independent voices will not be heard.  The culture and the nation will be the poorer for it.

There is an important aspect to the Net Neutrality debate that people should keep in mind: “paid prioritization”. This would permit Internet Service Providers to set up channels where content flows faster and with better quality. People are far more likely to watch programs on those fast lanes, rather than waiting for pokey downloads and suffering through images and sounds that stutter or freeze. Net Neutrality must apply to the entire internet. And that includes wireless digital distribution as well as wired.

With an FCC vote scheduled for December 21st, the future of Net Neutrality is uncertain. If the FCC chooses to abandon the principles of Net Neutrality an even stronger social movement will be needed to find other ways of protecting the open internet, be they legislative or otherwise.

It’s time for Net Neutrality advocates to redouble our efforts to court web video watchers, indie film fans and people who love web comedy sites to take action. These are the people who rely on the unbridled content of the open internet.

And it’s not just fanboys/girls who are tuning in. In fact, over 70% of internet users world-wide watch online video (A Global Nielsen Consumer Report). If even a fraction of those viewers understood what was at stake in terms of entertainment value alone, we’d be in a better position to win this fight.

The WGAE is not the first group to take the Net Neutrality campaign to YouTube, but please watch our new PSA by member Axel Giminez. He is one of the independent creators who depend on an open internet. I don’t want to imagine a world without stop-motion-animated absurdist videos and I hope you don’t either (watch the video)!  Please join us in sending a message to the President by visiting WGAEast.org/SaveTheInternet. Let him know that viewers want him to act to preserve REAL Net Neutrality.

Verizon and Google: The Deal of the Titans

2:29 pm in Uncategorized by Lowell Peterson

The world’s biggest media companies want to define how people will get content over the Internet. Money talks; independent content creators: take a walk. A mega-deal is reportedly in the works in which Verizon will favor Internet content from Google because Google has the spare cash to pay for preferred access. And this is being touted as the model for how content providers and Internet service providers will do business. We have seen the future, and it is exactly like the past.

The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO represents people who write, edit, produce, and create graphics for television, film, radio, and digital media. Our members write television drama, comedy, news, and public interest programs; they write movies for major studios and for independents; they create original content for the web, for mobile applications, and for other digital platforms. Our members know first-hand how an open Internet permits them to create more innovative, informative content and to distribute it directly to the public.

The Internet and other digital media offer an unprecedented opportunity for creators to reach consumers and for people to watch and read what they want, when they want. This is very different from traditional media in which major studios, distributors, and television networks control the flow of movies and programs. Digital technology presents a vast range of possibilities to content creators and consumers alike, and it would be a tragedy to squeeze all of that into a narrow commercial band. But that is exactly what will happen if the Federal Communications Commission and Congress permit the Verizon-Google deal to become the blueprint for the digital future.

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Breaking news in court case on documentarian rights

10:34 am in Uncategorized by Lowell Peterson

Documentary filmmakers and journalists may breathe a partial sigh of relief today as the Court of Appeals has issued a largely positive order in the case of documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Attorney Michael C. Donaldson filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of the Writers Guild of America, East, as well as 22 other industry organizations and individuals, who saw an earlier court order for Berlinger to turn over footage he filmed making CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil as a grave threat to the future of investigative documentaries.

Donaldson evaluated yesterday’s ruling as

“a partial victory for both sides. Chevron gets some but not all of what it wants. Berlinger has to turn over some, but not all 600 hours of footage. The many hours of footage that Joe gathered alone with the plaintiffs and their families, friends, and neighbors has all been protected. What is important to the documentary community is that – for the first time in this kind of case – the court is restricting Chevron on how it uses the footage. Chevron can only use the footage for litigation, arbitration, or submission to official bodies. Chevron can’t use the footage in publicity or promotional materials. The documentary community is awaiting the final order of the court because it should give detailed discussion of the court’s thinking and provide guidelines to help documentary filmmakers in the future."

“It is important to note that the many hours of footage that Joe gathered as he talked to the victims and their families does not have to be turned over pursuant to this order. In terms of the trust and confidence that is at the heart of investigative filmmaking, this is a very important element of the order.”

A lower court had ordered Berlinger to turn over 600 hours of raw footage he shot producing the documentary CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil to Chevron. Chevron went to court to gain access to the footage because it is defending itself against a massive Ecuadorian class action lawsuit brought by workers and residents of the Amazon who are seeking redress for years of environmental pollution.

The Independent Documentary Association explained that the earlier ruling to turn over the footage “will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand” because "If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely.”

The Amicus Brief filed on behalf of the WGAE and 22 other industry organizations and individuals was considered invaluable by Berlinger’s legal team.

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Lowell Peterson is the Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East. This piece was co-written with the President of the WGAE, Michael Winship.