Turnout yields 90% approval from voters

With nerves stretched to the breaking point by a possible strike as early as Nov. 1, the town’s focused on this week’s make-or-break negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

WGA negotiators return to the bargaining table today, propelled by Friday’s announcement of a strong 90.3% strike authorization from members. Nearly half of WGA members voted, with 5,507 casting ballots, for the highest turnout in its history, surpassing the 4,128 in the 2001 contract ratification.

Though the strong endorsement may have emboldened the guild, WGA West president Patric Verrone insisted guild leaders are not looking to strike once the current contract runs out Oct. 31.

“We’ll do it only if it’s the last remaining alternative,” he added.

Still, Verrone noted, the authorization makes it officially possible for the WGA to go on strike. The balloting was the first time the guild had asked for a strike authorization since 1988, when it struck for 22 weeks.

Today’s session at WGA West headquarters will be the first since studios and nets took their controversial residuals revamp proposal off the table Tuesday — in what’s been the only movement so far at negotiations.

Nick Counter, president of the AMPTP, explained last week that the withdrawal was designed to break the logjam — or as, he put it, remove “an emotional impediment” that was being used by the guild as an excuse not to bargain.

During the past three months, Counter’s repeatedly blasted WGA leaders for unprofessionalism, stonewalling and posturing.

For his part, Verrone said he believes the withdrawal was probably spurred by the WGA’s Oct. 1 announcement of the strike authorization vote. And Jonathan Handel, an attorney with TroyGould and a former WGA associate counsel, said the residuals proposal — which would have tied payouts to the recoupment of basic costs — may have had the unintended effect making the guild look reasonable by comparison to the AMPTP.

“The only word dirtier in this town than ‘net profits’ is ‘casting couch,’ ” Handel added.

Verrone has also declared the authorization vote means guild negotiators have the backing of their members, and that studios and nets need to take a serious look at the Guild proposals — which seek a doubling of DVD residuals, spelling out terms of new-media work and broadening WGA jurisdiction over new media, reality and animation.

“I am both impressed and gratified by this vote,” Verrone said in a statement. “It shows an overwhelmingly engaged and activated community of writers who care about this negotiation and support our goals. It is now up to the AMPTP companies to begin to bargain seriously concerning the issues important to our members.”

“Writers do not want to strike, but they are resolute and prepared to take strong, united action to defend our interests,” he added.

WGA East president Michael Winship said, “This historic vote sends an unequivocal message to the AMPTP, loud and clear. We will not be taken advantage of and we will not be fooled.”

For his part, Counter downplayed the results, saying the level of support for a strike authorization was not surprising. He also noted that concerns had been raised over how the Guild had conducted the balloting — which included contacting members who had not voted and not bringing in an independent party to count the ballots.

“A strike authorization vote is a pro forma tactic used by every union in the country and usually the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of a strike,” Counter said. “We are not surprised with the outcome of this vote, given reports of how this election was conducted. Our focus is on negotiating a reasonable agreement with the WGA.”

Handel said the vote reflects “enormous frustration” by WGA members over the key issue of homevideo residuals. The rate’s been unchanged since 1985, with payout calculated from a base of 20% of wholesale revenues.

“They are unwilling to make what they perceive as another bad deal,” Handel added. “So the question now is, ‘What’s a reasonable deal?’ What you may see is a move toward a base of 25% or 30% of wholesale revenues.”

Studios have contended repeatedly that DVD residuals can’t be altered, since the revenue stream’s crucial to staying in business amid soaring costs.

Today’s session will be only the 11th day of face-to-face negotiations since the formal bargaining began in mid-July.

The WGA does not have to strike if a deal’s not reached by Oct. 31, and can instruct its members to continue working under terms and conditions of the expired contract. However, the strike authorization vote and the recent issuance of strike rules convinced much of Hollywood that the guild was going out as soon as possible.

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