Writers, employers at standstill

Who will blink first?

That’s the key question, with negotiations between union writers and employers virtually stagnant while an Oct. 31 contract expiration looms.

Two days of talks last week yielded little more than finger-pointing by the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. Each side accused the other of acting irresponsibly; neither backed off from their initial proposals, first unveiled nearly three months ago.

The only area of agreement was that the next session is set for Tuesday — 22 days prior to expiration of the current contract. Most observers had predicted that the talks would not lead to a deal by that point, but the level of hostility engendered by the bargaining has been unprecedented.

The two sides are so far apart on key issues — such as how to pay writers for work on new-media platforms — that the next key development probably won’t be at the bargaining table but rather on the WGA’s strike authorization vote. It’s a given that members will approve the request, but what will be most closely watched is how many of the WGA’s 12,000 members vote and whether a significant number vote no.

A strong endorsement of a strike –any number above 90% — would likely embolden WGA negotiators to maintain their hard line at the bargaining table. A lower level of support could help the AMPTP nudge the guild toward a deal sooner rather than later.

There was no public comment after Thursday’s bargaining session, at which actual discussion of proposals took place. Both sides went on the attack after Friday’s meeting, with AMPTP president Nick Counter attempting to portray the WGA as irresponsible and unprofessional.

“We have had six across-the-table sessions and have been met with only silence and stonewalling from the WGA leadership,” Counter said. “We have attempted to engage on major issues, but no dialogue has been forthcoming from the WGA leadership. This is the most frustrating and futile attempt at bargaining that anyone on the AMPTP negotiating team has encountered in guild negotiation history.”

Counter also accused WGA leaders — who have pledged for the past two years to take a harder line at negotiations than the guild took in 2004 — of not wanting a deal but simply using the talks as a pretext to strike.

“The WGA leadership apparently has no intention to bargain in good faith,” Counter added. “The WGA leadership is hidebound to strike. We are farther apart today than when we started, and the only outcome we see is a disaster engineered by the present leadership of the WGA.”

In response, members of the WGA’s negotiating committee said the AMPTP is asking for something that guild members will never approve — a change to a residuals system under which writers would receive payments only after basic costs had been recouped.

“While the WGA remains determined to make a fair deal, at this stage of the negotiations the AMPTP is still stuck on its rollback proposals, including profit-based residuals,” the guild said. “Our members will not stand for that. The entertainment industry is successful and growing like never before. Writers, whose creativity is at the heart of that success and growth, are committed to sharing in it. Tuesday, we will return to the table and once again present our serious and fair proposals.”

The statement was signed by negotiating committee chief John Bowman and committee members Neal Baer (“Law & Order: SVU”), Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”).

The WGA East then asserted over the weekend that the AMPTP had mischaracterized the guild as being strike-happy and abandoning negotiations.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the WGA East said. “This is a ploy by the AMPTP to manipulate our membership into voting no on the strike authorization. We have been bargaining with energy and dedication, which we will continue to do. At this point in negotiations, the AMPTP repeatedly reiterates the same proposals. We hope that next week they will start bargaining. Their claim that we won’t bargain on our proposals is untrue — we welcome that discussion. What we cannot do is contemplate the end of residuals.”

Counter was particularly perturbed that Friday’s session lasted less than an hour. Guild reps left at 11:30 a.m. after AMPTP negotiators tried to get them to discuss the WGA’s proposals.

“The WGA leadership stated that they would not be available again until Tuesday, leaving us with only three weeks to deal with these incredibly complex issues,” he added.

With a strike authorization, the WGA could stop work as early as Nov. 1 if there’s no deal. The WGA has already acknowledged that many expect the guild will continue to work under current terms and conditions for several more months, waiting for the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild to make acceptable deals and then incorporate those improvements into a new WGA contract.

Still, the possibility of a WGA strike is likely to cause studios, networks and producers to ratchet back the number of writing assignments in coming months.

The WGA will hold a pair of members-only informational meetings this week in Los Angeles — Tuesday night at the Century Plaza and Thursday night at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. The WGA East will hold a similar meeting in Gotham on Thursday.

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