WGA leaders call for strike

Writers would walk on Monday

The Writers Guild of America is going on strike as early as Monday.

In a lively meeting of 3,000 guild members Thursday night, the WGA’s negotiating committee announced its unanimous strike recommendation, a pronouncement that generated an enthusiastic response from the SRO crowd at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The decision also is sure to cause ripple effects within the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild as they negotiate their contracts within coming months.

A final decision on striking could come as early as today via meetings of the WGA West board and the WGA East Council. Leaders stressed throughout Thursday’s meeting that they could not specify how soon a strike will start. Attendees were instructed that they should go to work today and wait for a call or email from strike captains.

But it’s a foregone conclusion that the WGA panels will OK a strike and the consensus is that they’ll probably select Monday as the starting day.

There’s still a chance of re-launching the negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers over the weekend. But that scenario’s doubtful , given the vitriolic rhetoric that’s dominated in recent days.

AMPTP president Nick Counter, who has blasted the WGA as being strike-happy and unprofessional, issued a statement saying it was expecting the strike recommendation.

“By the WGA leadership’s actions at the bargaining table, we are not surprised by tonight’s recommendation,” Counter said. “We are ready to meet and are prepared to close this contract this weekend.”

WGA negotiating committee chair John Bowman told the audience that back-channel communications are taking place in hopes of salvaging the talks but did not indicate whether any more official negotiations have been scheduled.

Bowman also blasted the AMPTP for being unresponsive to the WGA’s proposals, adding, “We’ve been negotiating with ourselves.”

WGA West exec director David Young detailed the current state of bargaining, asserted that the guild has taken nearly half of its 26 original proposals off the table. He noted that the AMPTP has not yet submitted an economic proposal.

Young also went over the companies’ proposal that programming delivered streaming video be considered “promotional” – under which writers would not be paid. That provoked an especially hostile reaction from the crowd.

WGA West president Patric Verrone prompted a standing ovation from the scribes when he asked all the strike captains to stand. SAG president Alan Rosenberg received a similar response when he pledged solidarity – though SAG’s advised its members that they must cross picket lines if they’re under contract to work.

“Stay strong,” Rosenberg declared. “We’re with you all the way.”

SAG has been more closely aligned with the WGA during negotiations than any other union. The actors union is expected to launch contract talks next spring to replace their current deal, which expires June 30.

Hopes for a settlement cratered Wednesday night — a few hours before the WGA contract expired — amid bitter recriminations from both sides. The meltdown occurred when companies insisted that the WGA drop its demand to increase homevid residuals, including Internet downloads.

“Due to overriding business reasons, no further progress can be made because of the WGA’s continuing efforts to substantially increase the DVD formula,” Counter said Thursday in an earlier statement. “We are ready to meet at any time and remain committed to reaching a fair and reasonable deal that keeps the industry working, but the DVD issue is a roadblock to these negotiations.”

The WGA accused the companies of being unresponsive toward a compromise package of proposals, including a concession on DVD. The WGA offered to keep the current DVD rate in place for discs with less than $1 million in sales, but is still asking to double residuals for any disc with over $1 million in wholesale revenues.

Scribes currently receive less than a nickel for each disc sold but studios and nets contend that DVD revenues are critical for film and TV projects to break even amid sharply rising costs.

CBS topper Leslie Moonves told analysts and investors Thursday that he was not worried about a strike.

“We are prepared with a full slate of firstrun programming now and at midseason,” Moonves said in a conference call about third quarter earnings. “The bottom line is this: In the event of a strike, we anticipate no material impact on the company for the remainder of the season.”

The impact of a strike would be felt most immediately on latenight TV, with scripted shows getting hit in a couple of weeks. But once the WGA strikes and starts picketing, the town’s focus will shift to the start of negotiations between the Directors Guild of America and the AMPTP.

Though the DGA’s current contract won’t conclude until June 30, the directors tend to start their talks at least six months prior to expiration, and it’s widely expected that talks would begin in the next few weeks. The DGA’s leaders indicated last month that the guild was nearly ready to start bargaining.

Jim Johnston, a partner specializing in entertainment business at the New York firm Davis and Gilbert, said the prospect of a DGA deal that addresses thorny issues such as new-media compensation will undercut the WGA’s position. “If the DGA can get analogous issues resolved, that’s going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the WGA,” he added.

Support for the WGA from the other Hollywood unions has been tepid — except for SAG and the Teamsters, who have over 4,000 drivers, location managers and casting directors through Local 399. Three days after Local 399 secretary-treasurer Leo Reed urged individual members to honor WGA picket lines, the notion received a ringing endorsement Thursday from national president Jim Hoffa.

“I encourage the members of WGA to stand strong and fight for what you believe is right and fair,” he said. “The Teamsters support your cause. Without the content these proud union members provide, the television and motion picture industry would come to a grinding halt.”

Hoffa noted that although Teamsters are contractually bound to continue to work active productions if the WGA does go out on strike, each and every Local 399 Teamster has the right to honor any picket line if it is raised at their place of employment without fear of reprisal from the studios.

“If there is one thing that can be said about the 1.4 million Teamsters across this country, it is that our union is one that believes in strength through solidarity,” he added.

The prospect of Teamster drivers has already prompted studios and nets to look for alternatives and issue warnings to employees that they could be fired. ABC circulated a memo to Local 399 employees this week in the wake of Reed’s announcement — which asserted that the Teamster contract prevents producers from disciplining employees who honor picket lines.

“Local 399 cannot discipline you for making the decision to work,” the net said. “If you make a decision not to cross a picket line by another union such as the WGA, know that you are refusing to perform your duties on a day that you have a call and that the Studio has the right to replace you because we have a right to try to operate while the WGA is on strike.  As such, the studio will take all necessary action in order to ensure that we continue to operate.”

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