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Editors Guild/Writers Guild Update

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The Motion Picture Editors Guild has scored one of its biggest victories to date in its ongoing campaign to represent postproduction workers on reality television shows, an area where other guilds have largely failed to make inroads. Local 700 of the International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees in early August announced it had organized nearly 80 editors and their assistants on three series from the stable of reality television kingpin Mark Burnett Productions: The Apprentice; The Apprentice: Martha Stewart; and Rock Star: INXS.Because the three shows were structured as separate companies, they had to be organized individually. At the end of July, a neutral third party verified that a majority of each show’s postproduction professionals had signed union authorization cards, setting the stage for contract talks. “We are pleased that Mark Burnett Productions will respect the choice these people have made to have the Editors Guild represent them, and we look forward to negotiating a fair and equitable contract,” said Ron Kutak, executive director of MPEG.The key demand when talks start is likely to be health coverage. “Most of these people want to get into or back into the Motion Picture Health and Welfare plan,” observed Tris Carpenter, national organizer for the Editor’s Guild, who spearheaded the drive. “Virtually none of these jobs carry any health insurance, and the plans for those that do are mostly pretty minimal.”Salary issues won’t figure prominently since most of the newly organized workers are already fairly well paid. However, overtime compensation for editor assistants, who are frequently required to put in long work days without getting remunerated for the extra hours, is likely to be another negotiating point.“This is important because the shows from Mark Burnett represent a kind of a peak in terms of reality television,” Carpenter said. “He’s created shows with lots of staying power, he’s built franchises. It’s been difficult along the way for us to crack stuff of this caliber, where people who work there are treated really well. The real story is the courage of the people there who were willing to step up and vote to be organized. There are always some fears that you could be risking your job. My hope is that our success here sends a message to the professionals in the rest of the reality television community that joining a union is a good idea.”Carpenter declined to comment on whether efforts are underway to represent postproduction workers on top-rated Survivor, the granddaddy of reality television shows and another Mark Burnett production. He did indicate the Editor’s Guild and the IA are continuing to work at organizing other high-profile reality shows, as well as numerous smaller-scale endeavors. In an example of the latter, MPEG recently scored another organizing victory at New York-based True Entertaiment, which produces reality shows like Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? The signal breakthrough at Mark Burnett comes on top of successful efforts by the editors guild in tandem with the IA to organize other reality shows, most prominently Big Brother and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. With the exception of Big Brother, where the IA’s muscle organized production crews, most of the success has come in postproduction where squads of editors work with story producers to whittle down the voluminous footage that’s shot into a comprehensible story lineWhile the production crews are dispersed in frequently far-flung locations, “postproduction is in one place, the people go there every day and there are a large number of them, and they want health care,” said Kutak, explaining why Local 700 has succeeded on reality shows while other unions have come up short.The organizing of the three Mark Burnett shows comes in the wake of a controversial campaign recently launched by the Writers Guild of America West to organize “storytellers” on the supposedly unscripted reality shows, with editors and producers included under that rubric. The WGA’s go-it-alone organizing approach, including threats of a strike and attempts to enlist non-writer professionals represented by other guilds, has rankled the leadership of these organizations.The Producers Guild of America, in a blunt July 25 letter to WGA president Dan Petrie Jr. and executive director John McLean, complained that the creation of the “storyteller” category “represents a significant expansion of the scope of the WGA’s mandate.”According to a new WGA mission statement, “we work in development, we are in the field, we sift through hours of tape, and we edit for story, we are called writers, editors as well as story producers, story editors, format producers, segment producers, game producers, field producers and more.”“If indeed you are seeking to redefine the roles and functions listed in your mission statement as those of writers, then you may be courting a strain of chaos for the entire industry,” added the letter, signed by PGA VP for television Marshall Herskovitz and executive director Vance Van Patten.The letter went on to suggest that it would be better for the WGA and the PGA to work together to propose a solution to the job-related issues facing workers on reality shows, with the Editor’s Guild possibly joining in any discussions, “rather than through the unilateral course the WGA has thus far pursued. In truth, this is in many ways the most distressing aspect of your Guild’s initiative.”A spokesman for the WGA said it had no comment on the Producer’s Guild letter.

Written by Jack Egan

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