Writers try one-on-one talks

The level of brinkmanship in the war between scribes and studios increased another notch over the weekend as the WGA confirmed it will seek to bargain with the companies individually in an effort to break its negotiations impasse with the AMPTP.

The WGA said in a message to members on Saturday it will make a “legal demand” Monday that individual members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers schedule individual bargaining meetings with the guild. Not surprisingly, however, there was a dispute between WGA and AMPTP insiders as to whether the companies have a legal obligation to engage in individual negotiations with the guild.

David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants could be the first beneficiary of the WGA’s new tack. Letterman’s production banner owns the CBS latenighters “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” and the company confirmed Saturday that it is seeking an interim agreement, separate from CBS, that could put the shows back into active production early next month.

“Since the beginning of the strike, we have expressed our willingness to sign an interim agreement with the guild consistent with its positions in this dispute,” Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett said in a statement. “We’re happy that the guild has now adopted an approach that might make this possible. It is our strong desire to be back on the air with our writers, and we hope that will happen as soon as possible.”

A WGA rep declined to comment on the statement.

Move by Worldwide Pants follows rumblings that NBC’s Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien are planning to return to work early next month, with an announcement of that decision expected as early as Monday (Daily Variety, Dec. 14). ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has also been mulling a return, with or without the WGA’s greenlight.

The prospect of a inking an interim pact with Worldwide Pants has pros and cons for the guild.

Cutting a deal with Worldwide Pants could allow the WGA to claim it’s not as unreasonable as the AMPTP claims, though insiders said such an interim deal would not address any of the new-media compensation issues that led to the guild’s walkout.

Such a deal also would allow the guild to put a positive spin on what would otherwise be a PR defeat if the latenight hosts resume production early next month.

The downside is that by making a separate deal, the WGA would also help ensure that one of CBS’ big profit centers — latenight — is fully functioning. Worldwide Pants owns its shows, but CBS controls the ad time.

Even though CBS has much to gain from the return of its latenight slate, the Eye’s response to Worldwide Pants’ move was lukewarm.

“We respect the intent of Worldwide Pants to serve the interests of its independent production company and its employees by seeking this interim agreement with the WGA,” an Eye spokesman said. “However, this development should not confuse the fact that CBS remains unified with the AMPTP and committed to working with the member companies to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with the WGA.”

The guild’s bid for individual bargaining sessions with the majors was viewed by many as posturing. The decision to shift gears toward individual talks will be discussed by guild leaders and negotiating committee members at a WGA membership meeting set for tonight at 6:30 at the Santa Monica Civic Center.

AMPTP insiders strongly disputed the assertion that the guild has a legal right under federal labor law to demand separate bargaining sessions. Moreover, AMPTP partisans said individual bargaining is impractical because the guild’s contract sets industrywide minimums and standards, and because the guild is seeking jurisdictional expansion — on the hot-button issues of the guild covering reality and animation writers — that are by definition a multiemployer issue for the majors.

WGA West general counsel Tony Segall said Sunday that federal law stipulates that multiemployer bargaining as conducted under the aegis of the AMPTP requires the consent of both sides. If the guild asks for individual sessions, companies are obligated to respond to the guild within in a “reasonable” amount of time, Segall said.

That said, even if they did meet with the guild on an individual basis, the majors and other AMPTP signatories can designate the AMPTP and its prexy, Nick Counter, as the bargaining unit — which wouldn’t do much to break the impasse the WGA is facing with the majors as a group. And the majors would be free to have reps from other companies sit in on any individual sessions, AMPTP insiders said.

Still, WGA insiders believe the AMPTP majors — CBS Corp., Disney, NBC Universal, News Corp., Sony Pictures, Time Warner and Viacom — have conflicting core business priorities that have hampered efforts to reach consensus on negotiation stances with the guild.

There is precedent for a split among the majors. During the WGA strike of 1960, Universal, then in precarious financial condition, struck a separate deal with the guild that allowed scribes to resume working for that studio months before the rest of the studios (though the pact had a favored nations clause that allowed it to shift to the industrywide contract terms when the strike was over).

This time around, however, the majors have made no secret of their collective disdain for the guild’s stance in the bargaining room and tactics during the now 6-week-old strike.

In its official response, the AMPTP dismissed the WGA’s effort as a ploy that will have no impact on the resolve of the org’s key members.

“This is merely the latest indication that the WGA organizers are grasping for straws and have never had a coherent strategy for engaging in serious negotiations,” AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand said Saturday. “The AMPTP may have different companies with different assets in different businesses, but they are all unified in one common goal — to reach an agreement with writers that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace.”

On Sunday, the AMPTP posted an ad on its website signed by the CEOs of its eight largest members (including MGM) that aimed to erase any doubts about the companies’ own sense of solidarity.

“Different assets … different businesses … different companies … one common goal. To reach a fair and just agreement with writers and get back to work.”

The guild’s latest move capped a week of maneuvering and a deepening of the divide between scribes and their primary employers. Thursday saw the filing of a charge against the AMPTP with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the majors violated federal labor law in issuing the ultimatum for the guild to remove six of its demands — chiefly the jurisdictional issue of reality and animation scribes — as a condition of continued bargaining, which sparked the Dec. 7 blow-up of the most recent round of negotiations.

Meanwhile, the DGA also formally put the biz on notice that it intends to sked its contract talks with the AMPTP after the first of the year if the WGA and majors haven’t made any progress toward inking a deal.

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