WGA's girding for battle

The Writers Guild of America has launched a loud kickoff to its campaign to pressure and confront employers in next year’s contract negotiations.

Showing no let-up in its aggressive tone, the WGA West drew an estimated 900 members Wednesday morning to an enthusiastic “unity rally” at the Pan Pacific Park amphitheater followed by picketing outside CBS Studios in Hollywood. Although the current WGA film-TV contract doesn’t expire for 13 months, WGA West president Patric Verrone promised that the rally was only the first of a string of such events.

“As we build up to the 2007 contract negotiations, this guild will be hosting more of these rallies, more meetings, more events,” Verrone told the crowd. “We will be taking all sorts of actions as needed. Your support is vital.”

Event coincided with the season’s launch of “America’s Next Top Model” on the CW, part-owned by CBS. “Top Model” has been struck by its dozen writers for the past nine weeks over the netlet’s refusal to grant the WGA jurisdiction.

Despite the WGA’s inability to organize a single reality show, Verrone insisted the guild’s not wavering from its increased emphasis on organizing non-union work.

“The purpose of this morning’s rally is to unite writers of various disciplines — TV with features, fiction with nonfiction, live action with animation, daytime with latenight, new media with traditional markets,” Verrone said. “And it is in that regard that I announce today the WGA doctrine for the 21st century — that every piece of media with a moving image on the screen or a recorded human voice must have a writer. And every writer must have a WGA contract. For our friends in the press, that was the sound bite.”

Loudest cheers during Verrone’s speech came when he asked the crowd to recognize the striking writers from “America’s Next Top Model.” And he cited guild unity as the key factor in WGA advances — from pension and health benefits and residuals to recent deals for “The Daily Show,” “Lost,” the vidgame version of “The Family Guy” and the Fox feature “Everybody’s Hero.”

“When we win a contract for the writers of ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ and for all the reality writers and editors who stand with us today, it will be because we are united,” he added.

Verrone concluded his speech by asking the audience to fill out commitment forms and then walk to picket CBS several blocks away. He noted that negotiations between the net and CBS newswriters repped by the WGA have been fruitless, with writers working under an expired contract for 15 months.

Guild said a total of 778 writers signed in before the hourlong rally started and estimated that another 140 had attended.

In a speech, “Top Model” scribe Kai Bowe thanked the WGA for its support, which has included daily pickets at the show’s production office. And she asserted that what’s at stake with the strike is the larger issue of decent compensation for all writers.

“The resistance we’re getting is not because it’s too expensive to give a dozen writers health benefits,” Bowe said. “It’s because of all you guys.”

In another speech, board member Phil Alden Robinson recalled that the guild had splintered for two decades over the issue of homevideo residuals, with the WGA eventually agreeing to a reduction in pay rates and the current deal in which studios keep 80% of wholesale revenues.

“We did not stand united on homevideo, and we wound up with one-quarter of the residuals we could have had,” Robinson added. “We lost $2 billion.”

Reality show writer Susan Baranoff said the WGA’s efforts to organize reality writers, which have led more than 1,000 scribes to sign authorization cards to be guild-repped, has created a community among those writers for the first time. And she noted that writers continue to be underpaid, noting that a net recently offered a six-day-a-week assistant slot for $700 per week.

“I’m talking about the arrogance and contempt with which writers are treated,” Baranoff said. “Our own talents and our love of our work is used against us. We have to stand together.”

“Desperate Housewives” showrunner Marc Cherry stressed to the crowd the importance of residuals during periods of unemployment and noted he wasn’t getting job interviews during the three years before “Housewives” debuted in 2004.

“So the thing that kept me going was what previous guild members had done,” he added. “Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you’re not just fighting for the folks on ‘America’s Next Top Model'; you’re fighting for yourselves.”

Other speakers included reality editor Jeff Bartsch, screenwriter Howard Rodman and “The Shield” showrunner Shawn Ryan.

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