Negotiators back at table to break impasse

NEW YORK — Don’t hold your breath waiting for ABC and its tech employees to reach agreement on a new contract.

Negotiators for the Disney-owned network and 2,700 ABC workers represented by the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians will return to the bargaining table this morning to begin three days of talks aimed at breaking the impasse that’s left the techies contract-less since April 1997.

It’s their first formal meeting since November, when a federal mediator declared the two camps too far apart for any serious discussions to take place. But despite the seven-month cooling-off period, neither side seems to have grown any more conciliatory toward the other.

“(ABC execs) want to break this union,” NABET Local 16 (New York) president Tony Capitano charged Monday at a saber-rattling press briefing held by the union Monday. “They want to have control over the work force and the union, and we’re not about to let them.”

Nothing’s changed

An ABC spokeswoman, while more diplomatic, was equally blunt about the network’s position going into the new round of talks. She said nothing has changed since April, when ABC Inc. president Robert Iger sent union officials a letter detailing what he said was the network’s “last, best and final” offer regarding five key issues of disagreement, including the use of daily hires, pension contributions and benefits.

“We hope the union will come to the table prepared to address the current competitive conditions in the industry,” she said, adding that the network is simply “trying to get some flexibility regarding working conditions.”

In addition, NABET has rejected ABC proposals on certain key issues identical to ones the union has accepted from NBC and other networks, the ABC spokeswoman said.

Wildcat strikes

While a strike is still a possibility, NABET officials indicated the union would instead stick by its current strategy of one-day wildcat work stoppages, like one staged last fall in Houston. ABC has had to hire backup tech crews to work major live events to guard against the possibility of NABET workers calling in sick en masse as a form of protest.

“We did it once, we’ll do it again,” Capitano vowed. “Give me an opening and we’ll take a shot.”

NABET officials say the cost of hiring backup crews could soar to $11 million by February if a new contract isn’t signed, though an ABC spokeswoman said the true cost was a “fraction” of the union’s estimate.

Union employees are also losing money as the strike wears on, however. One source says workers are missing out on $1 million in pay increases for every two months the standoff continues.

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