Labor fight down to wire

As IATSE digs in for its last day of negotiations with the producers alliance today, things look mighty grim for a midnight contract settlement.

The union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are deadlocked on a host of problem points, ranging from the ailing union health plan to whether members of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees should get night premiums.

The biggest issue driving the two groups apart is the union’s health plan. IATSE has one of the best in the country in terms of benefits and payments, but it’s expensive and will require a major infusion of cash in the next year to stay afloat.

The producers are unwilling topony up additional per-hour donations to the plan, opting to shift $ 24 million from the pension plan to cover health losses. Other AMPTP demands include significant wage cuts of up to 25%, elimination of “golden time” payments and experience roster lists, and a decrease in health contributions along with an increase in eligibility requirements.

Sources involved in the talks say it will be tough just to address, much less resolve, the plethora of issues on which they still disagree in one day. “To be perfectly frank, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” one union source said Thursday. “We’re hoping that there will be a lot of movement on Friday.”

If a settlement is not reached, IATSE leaders have vowed an industry-wide strike, aimed at halting many TV and feature projects, as well as pushing start dates for future pix into limbo.

Sources said a work stoppage could come as early as Jan. 15. But a strike could be as harmful to the union as to the producers, leaving tens of thousands of grips, electricians, makeup artists, cameramen, sound technicians and other craft workers on picket lines and without paychecks. Anticipating problems, film producers loaded up production charts this fall, which should carry them a few months.

But TV production could suffer, especially if the union struck for more than four months. “We can withstand a strike for the short term, but if that thing gets out of hand, there will be a lot of money lost in this town,” one producer lamented.

TV producers have concocted an intricate series of contingency plans that would maintain production — at least for a while. “Probably the biggest impact would be the TV produced in Los Angeles,” said one high-ranking TV source. “They would have to make arrangements to hire replacement crews or move the shows elsewhere.”

Half-hour TV programs, specifically sitcoms, would be most adversely affected. Hourlong episodics and movies of the week shot in Los Angeles would suffer, but the nearly 50% of MOWs shot outside the city could easily handle it with non-union crews, sources said.

Scrambling producers will essentially face three choices: Stop production altogether; hire non-union replacement crews in L.A.; move productions outside of L.A., where it would be easier to hire non-union without the glare of the IATSE picketers.

Some producers claim that feature pix already in production would not close down because their in-place contracts have no-strike clauses. Union leaders have a different interpretation. “There are no sweetheart deals,” one union honcho said. “If we shut them down, they’re going down.”

Ironically, a strike may save TV producers money. “It just stops your deficits for a while,” an AMPTP source said. “I think the majority would just shut down. Others would try to produce around the strike.”

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