Reps for studios and the Writers Guild of America will hold so-called “fast track” negotiations in an attempt to come to terms on a new contract well before the current agreement’s May 1, 1998, expiration date.

Hollywood’s guilds and unions have held such talks in recent years, in part because they are conducted without the threat of an imminent strike. They also avoid a production slowdown, in which studios scale back their output in fear of a labor stoppage.

But the sides limit themselves to issues that they feel they can reach agreement on, foregoing far-reaching demands. The writers and studios used a similar format for the talks in 1992 and 1995, and reached early agreements without work stoppages.

The board of the WGA West and the council of the Writers Guild of America East have appointed a committee to try to come up with a fast-track agreement. Carl Gottlieb, a board member of the guild, will be chair, with Al Ruben as vice chair.

The decision to go with a fast-track negotiation came after lengthy, passionate discussion among the board, the WGA said in a letter to its members. Three former guild presidents, the WGA said in its letter, argued that the traditional negotiation manner “establishes and demonstrates the unity of the membership like nothing else can.” They “vigorously expressed” the opinion “that in the 10 years since the 1988 strike, the membership may have grown out of touch with the guild and with each other.”

But the board voted unanimously in favor of the early talks, noting gains made in such an approach in the past and the chance to direct the guild’s resources to negotiations for a shorter period of time. And they argued that the possibility of a strike is still there, with the traditional talks as a fallback should the early negotiations fail.

“In exchange for the incentive of avoiding the brink of a strike, the companies may offer a favorable contract,” the letter to members said.

The early talks will be held through the Contract Adjustment Committee, a forum that was originated in the guild’s 1992 negotiations. The guild-studio group is convened to make changes in the contract during the term of the pact.

The guild is conducting a phone poll to gauge members’ opinions on the contract and wages and working conditions. And they also planned two meetings to get member input, the first of which was to be held last night and the second tonight.To be sure, at this early date, it is unclear what specific issues will be brought up in the upcoming talks.

In recent negotiations the guild has pursued “creative rights” issues, only to clash with the Directors Guild of America over topics such as the writers’ desire for a viewing period in which to comment on a director’s cut of a film.

But the WGA, along with the DGA and the Screen Actors Guild, recently announced that they have formed a tri-guild committee, where staffers talk over a wide range of issues, including collective bargaining.

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