The Value of Joining the Writers Guild of America

Joel Eisenberg

I became a current member in my 50s. I wish I joined sooner.

The quest for WGA (Writers Guild of America) membership is not for the faint of heart. It requires some real dedication to your craft and even more persistence. That said, I have a few questions to ask you:

1. Would you like free healthcare with one of the top plans in the country?

2. Would you like to write for a living and earn a pension doing so?

3. Would you like to have a minimum financial threshold for which to write, with a union to back up your earnings?

4. Would you like to vote for awards?

5. Would you like to receive free screeners for film and television, as well as invitations to screenings, parties, seminars, and other exclusive member events?

6. Would you like access to an exclusive portal listing open television staff writing positions, screenwriting assignments from major production companies, and other professional opportunities?

7. Are workplace protections and job security meaningful to you? What about being treated fairly for residuals?

If the answer to even one of the above questions is “yes,” it’s time to get to work with this invaluable new goal in mind.

A Brief History of the WGA

The Writers Guild of America is a labor union that represents the interests of writers of televisionand film (including streaming, animation, and documentaries), radio, and new media. The seeds of the WGA were planted in 1921, when a group of ten working screenwriters, in opposition to announced studio wage reductions, formed the Screen Writers Guild (SWG). In 1948 the groupexpanded their reach to include television writers. The SWG became one of five such groups, in 1954, to merge into the Writers Guild of America East (WGAe) and Writers Guild of America West (WGAw). Both labor unions are distinct, and yet they work jointly towards common goals. Neither organization represents authors.

My Personal History with the WGA

I had first qualified to join the WGA in earnest in the year 2000, when I sold my first screenplay.I earned $35,000 from that endeavor, and the finished film opened a U.S. festival that would have allowed me membership entry all those years ago. However, then as now, once a writer attained Guild membership, said writer was no longer allowed to accept independent writing assignments if the hiring company was not a Guild signatory.

A company must become a signatory, or a finished film must showcase at an acceptable U.S. film festival, for the writer to become a member. There are other means of entry, and I suggest for you to visit the websites of either WGAe (www.wgaeast.org) or WGAw (www.wga.org) for those specific guidelines.

For myself, I received a similar payment the following year for a screenwriting job. I was beginning to make good money writing for non-signatory companies. I didn’t want to stop.

That, though, was a mistake. The Guild is a labor union that protects writers from issues such as one-sided contracts, late payments, and other business improprieties. I needed them. I believe allwriters within the groups covered by them do as well.

Only those writers may not yet know it.

Further, the benefits — and prestige — of being a member of the WGA is unmatchable. The networking opportunities are boundless, as are the innumerable opportunities to spend time with and be mentored by highly-established writers.

As the years went on, I did not believe I’d have the chance to join again. I was safely ensconced in my niche of independent writing assignments. Regardless, I kept striving. Finally, in 2015, television network TNT purchased my pilot and format (a mini-show bible, if you will) for what was intended to become M. Night Shyamalan’s reinvention of “Tales from the Crypt.” Ultimately, the show did not move forward but I was paid $52,000 for my efforts.

And I had earned enough units through that sale to where I became an Associate Member of the WGA … which included free healthcare for a year and a few thousand into my new pension for good measure.

I was in the door. But I wasn’t yet a full member.

Units and Requirements to Join the WGA

The WGA (both east and west) works on a unit system. Specifically, as quoted from www.wga.org:

To be eligible for Current membership a writer must acquire a minimum of 24 units in the three years preceding application. Upon final qualification for Current membership, an initiation fee of $2,500 is due, payable to the Writers Guild of America West.

As an example, my “Crypt” work earned me 18 units towards my membership, a good number but not enough for full qualification. This why I was considered an “Associate Member.” I needed six more units within three years for a full membership. I earned those six under a new media contract, and I finally earned my full membership.

For comprehensive information on the unit system, which admittedly can be confusing to newer (and established) writers, see here: https://www.wga.org/the-guild/going-guild/join-the-guild.

Note: There are modest differences in attaining Guild membership between East and West. Again, I encourage you to visit the Guild website pertinent to your geographical location to determine your Guild’s specific requirements.

Healthcare and Pension

A writer must earn $40,854 annually in the WGA to maintain their free healthcare. For dependents, the cost is $50 monthly to be added onto your plan. If you do not earn the minimum for a year, you will lose your free insurance but can replace it with a very expensive COBRA plan.

Once you’re in, in so many words, you need to continue working to take advantage of the major benefits.

Members work under our union’s MBA, or Minimum Basic Agreement, which are term agreements that must be followed by signatory companies. When a new MBA takes effect, what usually follows are increases, small and large, of various writer payments.

Reality Checks

It can take years to become a WGA member. Once I finally attained my membership, I never looked back. I run the WGA Weekend Networking Group (on hold presently due to our pandemic), and sit on several committees. I’m active, and I’m always networking.

You will need to work like you’ve never worked before to maintain current membership status, as certain benefits do drop if a writer is inactive, but for me the challenge has been immensely worthwhile.

Ending this section on a positive note, the Guild is increasingly friendly to filmmakers of low-budget films. If you are a screenwriter of low-budget independent product, contact the Guild through their websites and discuss with a membership advisor how to join based on your circumstance. It costs nothing for a hiring company to become a signatory, but I encourage you to speak to a representative first before signing your next contract.

Wrap-Up

For the current list of WGA minimums, see here: https://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/contracts/min20.pdf

I thank you, as ever, for reading. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me in the comments section.

Membership in the Writers Guild of America is no joke. You’re in a union now, and members do not always agree as to the direction of leadership. I can tell you first-hand, though, that I had never belonged to any organization that works so diligently to stand up for the rights of writers.

That to me is of the utmost importance, and a most urgent matter especially in this time of economic uncertainty.

To your success …

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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