The Big Picture: Why You Shouldn't Work Non-Union

by Maureen Parker
Executive Director, Writers Guild of Canada

The WGC knows it happens. Writers Guild members take non-union contracts, especially on lower-budget productions. And, for the most part, nothing happens. Well, no more. lower-budget productions. And, for the most part, nothing happens. Well, no more.

Several months ago, the WGC began strictly enforcing one of its most basic rules: "A member shall not work for an engager who is not signatory to the relevant WGC agreements."

The bedrock on which the WGC rests is the agreement by members to only accept union work. It is what makes the guild more than just a social club.

The Writers Guild is different from other types of unions, such as the United Steelworkers of America, because there is no central workplace in our industry-no factory floor-and WGC members are independent contractors, not employees. Provincial labour legislationcomplicates matters even further by only allowing employees and not independent contractors (except for construction workers) to bargain collectively.

None of that has stood in the way of writers and producers setting up an industry based on accepted rules of fair play. Over 35 years ago, professionals working in film and television realized that the best way to ensure a viable industry is to guarantee a stable workforce. Treat writers fairly and they will work for you again.

That said, the differences between the WGC and more traditional unions require extraordinary measures to make sure writers are protected under the collective agreement.

One such measure is the Voluntary Recognition Agreement (VRA). Upon signing the VRA the producer agrees to adhere to the minimum terms of the Independent Production Agreement (IPA). If you are a guildmember, it is important for you to verify that the producer has signed and delivered the VRA to the WGC before you accept work. (In Quebec, producers belonging to the Association de Producteurs de Films et de Television du Québec (the APFTQ) are automatically deemed signatory to the IPA and are not required to sign a VRA.)

It may seem like just more paperwork, but without a VRA, you may not be covered by the IPA-you won't receive the insurance and retirement benefits due to you, and you will be working non-union. The person ultimately responsible for ensuring that the VRA is in place is the writer.

So why is the guild cracking down on this now, when work is so hard to come by?

The industry has seen a sharp drop in dramatic production, but the number of lower-budget magazine and documentary shows has increased steadily since 1999, when the CRTC eroded its definition of priority programming by allowing broadcasters to include regional programs and magazine shows in that category.

The IPA has always covered documentary production; however the WGC made sure to negotiate new rates and conditions for magazine shows years ago, when specialtychannels were just starting up. So even though the work may have shifted from drama to magazine programs, the guild and the producers have agreed to terms for these types of programs. If a producer now claims that the rates are too high, he or she should contact either the CFTPA or APFTQ, so these organizations can deal with their issues during our bargaining sessions.

The magazine section, like the rest of the agreement, has a varying production fee based on the production budget. There is no need for writers to work non-union. And by accepting non-union work, writers undercut gains the WGC has struggled years to achieve.

Recently, one of our members who had been caught working non-union valiantly offered the producer's argument that the rates in the magazine section were just too high. I couldn't understand his position, given that his complete fee under the IPA only came to four percent of the budget. How could that be too much?

It turns out the writer had misread that section of the IPA, and consequently thought that his fee was three times higher than the minimum. Even his non-union fee was much, much higher than minimum (but came without insurance or retirement benefits). The moral of the story: call the guild before you accept a job and let us show you howthe IPA works.

Some members say producers are giving them writing credits even though they aren't really writing. Hmm. Sounds implausible to me. But even if it's true, a writing credit requires a guild contract. Several years ago, the guild fought hard to expand its jurisdiction to cover series story editors and longform story consultants. For members, these jobs must be contracted under the IPA as well.

The only way to hold on to the hard-won rates and conditions in the IPA is to defend them vigorously. The WGC doesn't negotiate provisions in a vacuum. Producers have excellent representation in the Canadian Film and Television Producers Association and sometimes in the APFTQ. If the rates were really too high, they wouldn't have agreed to them.

WGC working rules were voted on and ratified by the entire membership. By coming down on you for working non-union, guild staff is not out to get you. On the contrary, we are doing the job we are paid to do: looking after the interests of our members.


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Summer 2014
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Photo by Christina Gapic

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