Verrone challenges AMPTP statements

The saber rattling has started in earnest between Hollywood writers and employers.

In a message sent to members over the weekend, WGA West president Patric Verrone amped up the hostility with a spirited defense of the guild’s decision to spurn an offer to launch negotiations in January in favor of waiting until September. Guild’s current contract expires on Halloween.

Verrone also hit back at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers a week after the AMPTP announced the WGA’s plans to put off negotiations. He accused the AMPTP of duplicity, histrionics, bullying, manipulating public opinion, ignoring history and refusing to negotiate over new technologies.

“The recent saber rattling by the AMPTP is designed to frighten us and our entertainment industry co-workers both above and below the line,” Verrone said. “The AMPTP asserts that, by refusing to negotiate early, we will force our employers to make rash business decisions to prepare for an inevitable strike. That simply flies in the face of the last 18 years of Writers Guild history. In the past five WGA MBA (minimum basic agreement) negotiations, we have been able to reach agreement without a strike, even though, in most cases, we did not begin negotiations more than a few months before the contract expiration date.”

And he insisted WGA leaders aren’t aiming for a work stoppage — even though studio and network execs are now planning for that scenario by accelerating production and stockpiling scripts.

“The last thing we want is a strike, and we hope we won’t be pushed to that result by conglomerates that declare windfalls to Wall Street and plead poverty to us,” he said. “Rather than trying to manipulate public opinion in the press, our employers could be working with us to develop business models that make the talent community feel included, respected and reasonably rewarded. If that is the agenda they want to put on the table, we will gladly pull up a chair.”

The AMPTP had no comment Monday on the letter. AMPTP president Nick Counter had expressed frustration last week over the guild’s decision, asserting that the new tech issues are so complex that they need to be negotiated as soon as possible.

Counter also contended last week that WGA West exec director David Young had reneged on a WGA proposal in October to start bargaining in January. Counter said last week that after he had agreed to launch negotiations in January and proposed setting aside the second and fourth weeks, Young then withdrew the offer because the WGA board had decided to delay negotiations until the fall.

But Verrone’s missive portrayed a different sequence of events. He said the AMPTP had proposed late in the summer that negotiations start on Nov. 30, with the WGA then proposing starting early next year and the AMPTP responding “angrily” by saying it would not meet until September 2007 and then proposing a month later that talks start in January.

“We declined, citing the extremely odd sequence of their proposals,” he added.

Verrone asserted that the AMPTP refused to include discussions over Webisodes, reality TV, product integration and streaming video in early negotiations. And he said the WGA’s strategy is aimed at achieving the best deal at the bargaining table.

“We think that the discussion over when to begin negotiations is a test of relative power, and we are simply taking a strong position that we feel is most advantageous to writers, refusing to be pushed around by the AMPTP,” he added. “If the companies want to reach agreement, negotiations beginning later next year will provide plenty of time. As the AMPTP is well aware, our strategic leverage increases as our contract expiration date approaches and as the SAG, AFTRA, and DGA expiration dates in 2008 also draw near.”

Verrone also said it would benefit the WGA to wait for a clearer business model to emerge on downloads. And he concluded the message with a final tweak toward Counter.

“We will maintain a calm approach, even when the AMPTP engages in histrionics through the press,” he said. “If you have any questions, comments or ideas for me or David Young, please do not hesitate to call or write. We are all in this together.”

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