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WGA to take strike pulse

Residual demands to serve as barometer for SAG talks

A new battle opens this week on the strike front, with the focus shifting to rank-and-file union writers and whether they will be willing to hit the bricks after the May 2 contract expiration.

The Writers Guild of America West will start taking the temperature of its 11,500 members at a closed town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Sheraton Universal. WGA West prexy John Wells and exec director John McLean will lead the confab, expected to be the first of several such events.

The guild scheduled the meeting following last week’s suspension of negotiations, with WGA leaders declaring the need to lift the news blackout and seek guidance from their members. No new talks have been set, although Wells indicated that the WGA is unlikely to return until April.

Members have given Wells and his negotiating team generally strong support since negotiations stopped, citing the focus on the still-massive financial gaps between the latest offer from studios and the WGA’s scaled-down proposal.

The WGA estimates it is seeking a $99.7 million gain over three years while the companies are seeing a $2.7 million decrease; the companies say they are offering a $30 million hike while the WGA wants $112 million.

Resentment bubbles

“At this point, the key question is what is going to be gained by going out on strike,” one WGA member said. “There is a lot of resentment about how badly writers are treated.”

Strike advocates will likely argue that the companies will not make a serious offer until writers pull the plug, while opponents will contend that a work stoppage will accelerate the trend toward reality-based TV programming that can be produced without WGA writers.

Attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman of Morrison Foerster said the WGA’s disclosure of both sides’ offers may make it more difficult to reach a deal. “Once the offer is made so public, the WGA members may believe that this is what they’re entitled to, but both sides are going to have to move if they’re going to avert a strike,” she said.

A WGA rep said no date has been set yet for a strike authorization vote by members. The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists sent out authorization ballots to members a month prior to last year’s commercials contract expiration and received a 93% endorsement.

SAG and AFTRA, which face a June 30 expiration of their film-TV contract, have not yet set a date for starting talks with the companies.

WGA influence on SAG

The WGA negotiations will figure heavily in how SAG approaches negotiations, particularly on the residuals front, where the WGA has cut its demand for an increase from $161 million to $60 million over three years. SAG’s portion of residuals over the same period would be about three times that amount, although union officials caution that the writers’ and actors’ minimum basic agreements are not exactly alike.

The WGA and SAG have also not reached a decision on whether they will allow interim production deals under which members could still work after a strike. Terms of such deals contain either the final union offer or the provision that the terms will include the final settlement.

The WGA was able to sign more than 70 companies to interim deals during the 1988 strike. “That was really a turning point for us,” WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden said.

SAG’s leaders are expected to address the issue of interim deals at their national plenary meeting at the end of March.

Amir Malin, CEO of independent producer Artisan Entertainment, said he would welcome such a deal if SAG offered it. “It would be a no-lose situation for us because we could keep working but we would not be in a confrontation with the companies at the table since we’re not represented by them,” he added.

Malin said the expectation of a strike has meant that most films will have to go into production by April 15 at the latest to be completed by June 30.

“Most producers have stopped hiring writers and directors because there’s no more time for them to do prep work on films,” Malin added. “You’ll see the same thing happen to actors in two or three more weeks.”

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