WGA unveils list of demands

Org spells out 22 key issues for negotiations

Hollywood’s seen a low-tension, rhetoric-free negotiating season so far, but that’s likely to change considerably in the coming months.

Three years removed from a memorably acrimonious 100-day strike, showbiz scribes have started gearing up for another serious confrontation with the congloms as the Writers Guild of America unveiled Wednesday an ambitious list of official demands for its master contract.

The WGA’s spelled out its key 22 issues at the upcoming contract negotiations — including increased minimums, higher contributions for pension and health, increased residuals for basic cable and new media, boosting pay rates at the CW to match those at other networks, increasing homevideo residuals and expanding WGA jurisdiction to motion capture, animation and videogames.

Guild leaders stressed that no demand carries top priority, unlike during the strike, when boosting the cut of new-media revenues was the WGA’s paramount focus.

As is typical, the WGA isn’t in any hurry to start negotiations; no start date’s been set for talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — even though the current master contract expires May 1. By contrast, SAG, AFTRA and the DGA have already reached tentative deals on successor contracts, despite all having June 30 expiration dates.

The WGA sent out an eight-page “pattern of demands” Wednesday to its 12,000 members, a step required by the union’s constitution as a prelude to starting negotiations. The missive provides far more detail than the DGA and SAG did during the run-up to their contract talks.

It’s likely that WGA members will endorse the list: They did so at rates of 96% and 94% before the last two negotiations. As they have in the past, studios and nets are likely to show rock-hard resistance to expanded jurisdiction and any sweetening of the homevideo formula.

Still, the rhetoric’s remained dialed down considerably from the feverish levels of the previous round. The AMPTP had no comment about the “pattern of demands” Wednesday — a notable change from 2007, when late AMPTP prexy Nick Counter blasted the WGA’s wish list as a nonstarter, calling it “an assault on the entire industry.”

Carol Lombardini, Counter’s successor, has opted for a lower-key style with a minimum of public comment.

WGA members were told Wednesday to return the ballot by Jan. 24. Notably, the cover letter from WGA West president John Wells and WGA East prexy Michael Winship singled out pension and health as a key issue — without naming any others — and acknowledged the gains from the strike.

“Your sacrifices during the last negotiation and the WGA’s 100-day strike led to historic advances in the areas of new-media residuals and jurisdiction over writing for new media,” the duo said. “While there is no such single galvanizing issue in the current negotiation cycle, this does not mean there is a lack of important objectives to be achieved in the upcoming negotiations. The new minimum basic agreement must address the long-term financial stability of the WGA Pension Plan and Health Fund, provide increases in our wages and improve working conditions. These objectives, and a number of others, are reflected in the enclosed pattern.”

The WGA announced in July that it tapped John Bowman and Billy Ray as co-chairs of its negotiation committee. Bowman chaired the negotiating committee during the last contract talks with the AMPTP, which began in July 2007 and concluded seven months later at the end of the strike.

The WGA also revealed Wednesday the other members on the negotiating committee, including screenwriters Andrew Bergman and Stephen Schiff, “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof, “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan and Mike Scully, a longtime writer and exec producer on “The Simpsons.” Others on the panel include Alfredo Barrios, John Brancato, Patti Carr, Jonathan Fernandez, David A. Goodman, Chip Johannessen, Ron Moore, Jeremy Pikser and Thania St. John. Bergman and Pikser are members of the WGA East Council, and Goodman and Johannessen sit on the WGA West board.

Besides Bowman, Goodman and Ryan are the only members who also sat on the negotiating committee three years ago.

The move came two months after the WGA West issued a “Contract 2011 Bulletin,” which outlined key issues that were under consideration by the scribes’ leaders. Since then, the WGA has held several town hall meetings for members but it’s also avoided making public comments about the negotiations.

For its part, the AMPTP reached tentative deals last month on the feature-primetime contacts with SAG, AFTRA and the DGA. The pacts contain a 2% gain in minimum salaries, a hike in pension and health contributions from employers and the elimination of requiring first-class air travel when creatives must journey to sets.

The congloms are certain to contend that the WGA will have to accept the same basic deal as part of “pattern” bargaining. The AMPTP set a hard line this summer in talks with Teamster drivers, insisting it would take a strike rather than boost wages more than 2%.

“The WGA obviously believes that they have the most leverage at the wire,” said Alan Brunswick, a labor attorney with Los Angeles-based Manatt Phelps Phillips. “Obviously, the WGA has some issues that are unique, but they also have to do deal with the companies having already negotiated deals with SAG, AFTRA and the DGA. So the concrete is hardening fast.”

The master labor contracts for SAG, AFTRA and the DGA covering film and primetime were sent to members earlier this month for ratification. The major gains for the actors and directors came in pension and health contributions.

Labor insiders believe that another strike isn’t nearly as likely as it was in 2007, when the WGA galvanized its members for a work stoppage in the name of obtaining a fair share of revenues from digital media platforms.

“I don’t think the members are in any mood to strike again in this economy,” one union leader noted. “With SAG and the DGA having set the pattern, the companies are really in the catbird seat right now.”

WGA West members took a noticeably moderate turn last year when they returned Wells to the presidency following the turbulent four-year tenure of WGA West president Patric Verrone, who was termed out but remains on the board of directors.

The WGA West board’s still dominated by allies of Verrone. That faction ousted John McLean as exec director in 2005 and replaced him with organizing director David Young, who managed the 100-day strike without any significant public dissent within the guild membership — though there was private grousing about just how effective the work stoppage was.

But the WGA’s now at the tail end of the negotiating cycle, assuming that the SAG, AFTRA and DGA contracts are ratified.

As for the upcoming talks, there’s bound to be plenty of hostility when negotiations start due to the intense feelings raised by the strike. Negotiators will have to work hard not just to make a deal but also to craft a public position acceptable to their respective constituencies.

Labor’s expectations have been hammered by the still-shaky economy. The DGA, SAG, AFTRA and the Teamsters have all agreed within the past five months to contracts with 2% salary increases — even though 3% gains were the norm as little as two years ago.

The WGA’s already signaled that it’s due for hikes in employers’ contributions to pension and health, noting in October that the plans are the “cornerstone” of the master contract and that the employers’ current 6% pension contribution hasn’t been changed since 1982.

One of Wednesday’s demands also asked for companies to address long-standing complaints about working for free via such devices as “prewrites,” sweepstakes pitching and one-step deals.

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