Unless overwhelming offer made, no talks 'til February

Hopes have diminished for early negotiations between writers and the town’s major studios and networks.

The Writers Guild of America gave a strong endorsement Thursday of traditional, rather than fast-track, bargaining for a new contract to replace the current pact, which expires May 1. The move had not been entirely unexpected, given strong opposition within the union to the early negotiations Contract Adjustment Committee process used for the last three contracts.

The WGA’s move, formally endorsed this week by the WGA’s East Council and its Western board of directors, means there is virtually no possibility that discussions will commence before their expected February start unless studios and networks make an unexpectedly overwhelming offer.

Since the studios are wary of having projects halted mid-way because of a walkout, they’ll likely stop launching productions in February or March, thus creating a de facto strike situation. The studios and TV nets have already boosted production to lessen their exposure to possible strikes next year.

In meetings this week at WGA West headquarters in Los Angeles, the union’s panels voted unanimously to back traditional negotiation. WGA East prexy Herb Sargent predicted the Eastern board and Western council will ratify that vote in coming weeks.

“At the meeting we were all pleased to discover that the East and West were indeed on the same page,” Sargent said. “We are both deeply committed to responding to the many needs of writers in the 21st century and in order to succeed we need the unity of purpose that was evident at our meeting.”

Had early bargaining been backed, it would have probably started in October or November. The announcement follows unofficial overtures from top studio execs seeking to preclude the double whammy of strikes next year by the WGA and union actors, who face a TV-film contract expiration on July 1.

“We have had informal conversations at the request of studio executives and have heard that there is interest in meeting,” said WGAW prexy John Wells. “We have not heard that the companies are prepared to move in our direction on any significant economic issues.”

Wells, who promised an aggressive bargaining stance in winning the presidency last year, has been warning members that they need to prepare for a strike, but has continued to insist a work stoppage can be avoided.

“There are significant creative and economic issues that must be addressed,” he said. “While we anticipate difficult negotiations, a fair contract can be achieved without a strike if the companies join us in a negotiation of mutual respect and are willing to address the issues.”

J. Nicholas Counter, head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, said in response Thursday, “The AMPTP is prepared to meet as soon as the Guild is ready. We intend to engage in good faith negotiations.”

The fast-track process emerged as a way of avoiding the financial devastation from the five-month strike in 1988. Former WGAW chief exec Brian Walton was ousted two years ago over the issue of fast-track negotiations by hardliners who believed the process gave away the union’s leverage because it largely eliminated the threat of a strike.

The guild has targeted improvements in foreign, cable, Internet, made-for, pay TV and homevideo markets as goals for the upcoming contract along with network residual rates for UPN, the WB and Fox and gains in creative issues such as elimination of the possessory credit on films.

Screen Actors Guild prexy William Daniels has insisted that an actors’ strike next year can be avoided. SAG rep Greg Krizman said the WGA’s action does not preclude the possibility of early negotiations by SAG for next year’s contract.

“The attendant publicity about the possibility of a strike next year will make everyone focus on doing everything possible to see that a strike does not occur,” Krizman said.

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