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Guild girds for battle

Writers dig in on healthcare

The Writers Guild has issued an early warning to Hollywood that healthcare costs and reality TV will be its top priorities in upcoming contract negotiations.

The announcement, issued in a letter to members by WGA West prexy Victoria Riskin, comes two years after the guild forced Hollywood into massive stockpiling with its aggressive contract proposals and down-to-the-wire negotiations.

“There are critical issues left unresolved from 2001 and important new concerns that have emerged in the last two years,” Riskin wrote in a letter to WGA West’s 8,500 members. She said the WGA will hold a pair of outreach meetings in May with members to begin the process of hammering out proposals to replace the current contract, which expires May 1, 2004.

Riskin’s missive serves as a likely bellwether of major issues for the other key unions. The SAG/AFTRA basic contract expires July 1, 2004, and the DGA’s expires a year later.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, had no comment about Riskin’s letter or when negotiations might commence. Leaders of the Directors Guild and IATSE have urged the Writers Guild and SAG to launch talks as soon as possible to avoid a repeat of the last-minute bargaining by both orgs in 2001.

Healthcare costs climb

All Hollywood labor unions are facing soaring healthcare costs. The plans for SAG, WGA, AFTRA and DGA — each jointly administered by reps of the individual union and the studios — have been forced to tighten eligibility and cut benefits.

“Our health fund is threatened,” Riskin said. “The national crisis in rising health costs has reached our doorstep.”

In a revealing disclosure, Riskin said the sacrifices made by WGA members make it essential for the AMPTP to make “reasonable” increases in its contribution to the WGA plan. “Once we’ve done our part, they must do theirs,” she said.

Riskin noted costs for the WGA plan jumped 12% last year, to $69.4 million, and are projected to rise 9.2% this year, leading the trustees to boost deductibles, raise the co-pay for prescriptions and reduce infertility coverage. Even after the cuts, the plan is forecast to end 2003 with a $9 million deficit, rising to $13 million at the end of 2004.

Adding to arena of influence

The prexy also pointed to extending WGA jurisdiction as an “important” issue, singling out reality TV, animation and independent filmmaking. And she accused the entertainment congloms of duplicitous behavior on the reality TV front, pointing out that they also produce mainstream scripted TV programs.

“They deliberately form doppelganger companies with the sole purpose of avoiding the terms of our contracts,” she said. “It is simply not right that writers doing the same kind of work are denied the basic wages and protections the guild was founded to achieve 70 years ago. This injustice must be redressed at the bargaining table.”

Other key issues identified by Riskin include late payments, arbitrary replacement of original screenplay writers and boosting residuals for homevideo and made-for-pay-cable TV.

In 2001, the WGA was able to obtain a $5,000-per-movie payment to screenwriters for the rights to include the screenplay in the DVD, but the studios were intractable in their refusal to boost any other part of homevid payout, currently at 0.36% of sales.

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