History Of The Writer's Guild Of America

One of the most influential groups in entertainment, the Writers Guild has had a history worthy of a Hollywood plot line.

The Writers Guild of America (or WGA) is one of the most important forces in the entertainment (particularly motion picture) business. It is the union for many of the talented individuals who entertain us everyday. One might think that a writers union came about in some boring and predictable manner, but that is not the case at all. The formation of the Writers Guild of America is as interesting and serpentine as any Hollywood plotline.

For hundreds and thousands of years, writers have been informing and entertaining their fellow man. Although they are often cherished and admired members of society, passing the traditions and stories of a people down from one generation to the next, they have not always been the most respected. In 1912 a group of authors set out to better their place by forming the Authors League of America. This was not the first such "˜union' in the world, authors in Europe, and in particular France, had been organized since the Nineteenth Century. The American group (most likely with thoughts of their European counterparts in mind) got together for protection of their work, following the old "˜safety in numbers' idea. The league originally consisted of nearly three hundred and fifty members, mostly book and magazine writers with just a smattering of playwrights. Towards the end of the decade though, the theatre business had reached such a point, that a separate system was needed and so by 1921, the Dramatists Guild had been set up as a branch of the Authors League.

One medium not mentioned yet is film. As this art form matured, the role of the screenwriter expanded. It grew so much that those involved soon realized that they needed some "˜organization' and so in 1921 the Screen Writers Guild was formed and quickly signed an affiliation with the Authors League. Whatever the "˜lofty' ideals were behind its formation, they were quickly abandoned as the guild became a strong social organization (much like the Little Rascals, they even met in a clubhouse that was complete with a stage). The 1930's brought about a change to all of that though. The reasons were two-fold: First was the Depression and the emergence of a strong union "˜idea' which came from the downtrodden times. Second was the "˜invasion' of sound into film. This invention placed an entirely new set of responsibilities on the writer.

In 1933 several members of the Screen Writers Guild began to meet to look for ways that their collective power could be strengthened. When the Supreme Court found the National Labor Relations Act to be constitutional in 1937, these members found the legal backing that they needed and set up an election to begin collective bargaining within the film industry.

During this time, there was a similar organization known as the Screen Playwrights, which was largely dominated by the studios. This group gave the Screen Writers Guild some staunch opposition for "˜control' of the literary side of film but the Guild eventually won and in 1939 they began negotiating with film producers to set up a collective bargaining agreement. The negations were tense and long but an agreement was finally reached and signed in 1942.

In this same period of time radio became an amazingly popular medium which led to those writers forming the Radio Writers Guild. The Radio Guild was situated in New York and after some discussion; they agreed to become a working part of the Authors League of America (as opposed to just an affiliate like the Screen Writers Guild did).

All of these groups coexisted together through World War II but in those post-war years, times started to get a little tough. One of the things that threw the balance of these organizations was the rise of television. As television grew, those writers saw a need to have some sort of unified representation and so a Television Writers Group formed within the Authors League. With similar thought the Screen Writers Guild started to formulate their own television wing. Just to complicate matters further, a group of New York writers came together and formed the Television Writers of America. They quickly filed with the National Labor Relations Board and were awarded the right to represent television writers in their bargaining.

After some back and forth wrangling by all of the groups involved it became clear to everyone involved that the current system left no room for growth. Members felt that as new industries opened up to writers, the unions (as they currently stood) would not be able to properly represent them. The heads of each group got together and after some tense negotiations decided upon a "˜split'. From this shuffling came two entirely new organizations: The Writers Guild of America, East (headquartered in New York) and The Writers Guild of America, West (whose base is in Los Angeles) to oversee film, television and radio. The Mississippi River was to be the dividing line for the two organizations and their members. The Authors League of America kept its two branches: The Authors Guild and the Dramatists Guild. The Writers Guild then filed for a new National Labor Relations Board election for the representation of television writers. When they won this certification, the Television Writers of America saw the writing on the wall and dissolved.

When the Guilds originally split off in 1954, the screenwriters entered the Screen Branch of the WGA West and the television and radio writers became the TV-Radio Branch of the WGA West. In 1973, the membership decided to bring everyone under the same roof and voted (successfully) to pull the two branches together into one.

The Writers Guilds continued to grow and move forward. In 1985 the Guilds joined with similar Guilds in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand making one of the few truly international unions in the world.

And the growth continues. In 1989, the Writers Guild East set up an affiliation with the AFL-CIO. As boundaries continue to expand and technology presents new opportunities for writers, it is almost certain that the Writers Guild will be there.

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