Striking a pose

Guild tensions keep biz on edge

The forecast looks stormy and uncertain on the Hollywood labor front.

“We’re buying the plywood and getting the water in,” declared “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf.

Even though negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and studios haven’t yet been scheduled, the town is beset by an undercurrent of worry over three potential strikes: a commercials strike by the Screen Actors Guild this fall plus film-TV strikes by the WGA in 2007 and by SAG in ’08. That worry has been fueled by growing headaches over the surging growth of new-media platforms such as iPod downloads.

The uncertainty has been underlined by concerns over the lack of progress on the separate contract between SAG and the ad industry. The ad industry’s insisting the current model isn’t feasible anymore — partly due to the explosion of new outlets — and plans to hire a consultant to create a new business model. Biz took a hard line earlier this year when it warned against shooting ads after the contract expires Oct. 29.

For their part, SAG and AFTRA have sent mixed signals. They’ve asserted actors are paid less than 2% of the costs of commercials — but they’ve also said a recent meeting with the ad industry was “productive.” Their negotiators have agreed to the outlines of a deal granting the ad industry’s request to extend the current contract for at least a year.

Still, details of that extension haven’t been hammered out, and the lack of resolution is likely a preview of far more pitched battles. That’s because of a get-tough attitude espoused by leaders of the two guilds, plus the growing complexity of financial issues in contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Even with the WGA contract not running out until October 2007, the assertiveness of the guild has already provoked public alarms from Wolf, AMPTP president Nicholas J. Counter and IATSE topper Thomas Short. Wolf’s convinced strikes over homevideo and downloading revenues are inevitable; Counter has admitted studios and nets have launched strike contingency planning; Short’s blasted the WGA for being confrontational and poaching on IATSE jurisdiction.

For its part, the WGA’s leadership has remained unflappable and proclaimed it’s not aiming to strike.

“I’m not surprised people are concerned about a potential strike,” WGA East prexy Chris Albers said. “Everyone involved is concerned, but I think such talk is premature. There’s plenty of time to address the new-technology issues and get a fair contract for everyone. It’s far too early to be discussing a strike.”

Most of the town’s worrying has focused on the WGA, since its contract expires before SAG’s and because the winning slates in last fall’s elections promised they’d be more assertive about negotiations and ramping up organizing efforts. But observers are troubled by the close relationship between the WGA and SAG, where control of the boardroom shifted last fall to a more assertive faction.

Were the WGA to strike, series TV would feel the most immediate impact, with nets turning to news shows and non-union reality shows to fill timeslots. Under the worst-case scenario, a WGA work stoppage would inspire SAG to take a hardline negotiating stance and walk out when the current film-TV contract expires in June 2008.

The DGA’s contract expires at the same time, but the helmers are viewed as far less likely to strike.

Since last fall’s elections, WGA leaders have fired WGA West exec director John McLean and other top staffers, beefed up the organizing department, threatened to ask the FCC to seek a formal probe on product placement, disrupted panel discussions and organized the response by all guilds blasting Disney and ABC for choosing the lower homevideo residual rate on iPod downloads; SAG’s taken a similar tack, firing CEO Greg Hessinger and granting strike authorization in basic-cable negotiations.

WGA West president Patric Verrone, an Emmy-winning animation writer, isn’t at all perturbed by Hollywood’s angst. He’s even open to the idea of early negotiations.

“We began planning and preparing for the 2007 negotiations the day we took office,” he told Daily Variety. “We will commence negotiations with the AMPTP many months prior to the expiration date of our contract and would be thrilled to achieve our objectives via an early negotiation. However, failing that, we will have to negotiate to the traditional deadline and be prepared, as all unions must, to defend our members’ interests.”

The issue of when to negotiate is a divisive one in the world of Hollywood unions. The DGA and IATSE opt for wrapping up deals at least six months prior to expiration; the WGA’s current contract was negotiated five months after the previous contract had expired.

Advocates of early talks contend that employers are willing to make a better deal because it’s easier to achieve objectives without a looming deadline and unions can obtain a premium in exchange for labor peace.

Opponents believe that going early de-leverages a union’s negotiating position by removing the strike threat. “Which is why our employers keep encouraging us to do it,” Verrone adds.

Counter refused to comment on upcoming WGA negotiations. Ivy Kagan Bierman, a partner in the entertainment and labor departments at Loeb & Loeb, believes going early makes strategic sense for the guild. 

“It is a good strategy for the WGA to go to the bargaining table early because the issues have become so complex, and the two sides are so far apart, that they need a lot of time to negotiate,” she said. “Additionally, in the event that the WGA seeks strike authorization from its members, it will be able to maintain that it did everything it could to reach agreement before it sought drastic measures.”

But Albers is skeptical, saying: “We’d consider early negotiations, but only if the companies are willing to have serious conversations where they address our concerns about new technologies. If their idea of negotiating is saying ‘no’ to everything important to us, then I don’t see the value.”

After the WGA last struck in 1988, its leaders opted for fast-track early negotiations for the next three contracts. But by 1998, members were dissatisfied with the results, leading to the dismissal of Brian Walton as WGA West exec director.

Verrone insists going fast-track isn’t out of the question if it could achieve contract goals or expand jurisdiction in one of the areas in which the WGA is trying to organize non-union work.

As for the dispute with IATSE — which centers on organizing reality-show and animation writers — Verrone insisted relations have improved during his tenure.

“We continue to be willing to work side by side with IATSE (the way we are with SAG, DGA, AFTRA and the Teamsters) to improve the wages and working conditions of our respective members and to organize the unrepresented in reality, animation, cable nonfiction and comedy-variety and independent film,” he added.

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