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Negotiations starting Monday

Setting the stage for contentious bargaining, leaders of the Writers Guild of America have told members that production companies are proposing $60 million in rollbacks at upcoming negotiations.

The letter, sent Thursday by negotiating committee co-chairs Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Chip Johannessen (“Homeland”),  asserts that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have proposed a $32 million cut in pension and health contributions and an $11 million reduction in screenplay minimums over the three-year term of the successor deal.

The AMPTP had no comment. A spokesman for the WGA said he could not comment on an internal communication with members.

The WGA announced earlier this week that it would launch contract negotiations with the studios on a new master contract on Feb. 3 — three months prior to the May 1 expiration of the current deal. The negotiations will take place at the Sherman Oaks headquarters of the AMPTP.

“Are you surprised?” Ray and Johannessen asked the letter. “We were.” The duo explained that the companies are proposing the cuts at a time when profits have soared for the AMPTP member companies.

“These proposed rollbacks for writers come at a time of unprecedented prosperity for the studios,” the missive asserted. “The collective profits of our 6 major bargaining partners (Disney, CBS, Comcast, Fox, Time Warner and Viacom) just hit a record $40 billion. This prosperity is based on our work, we are the creative force driving it. Are $60 million in rollbacks a just reward?”

The letter also said that the WGA negotiators are placing a premium on hiking compensation for cable shows in order to achieve parity with primetime network shows.

The Directors Guild of America went first in the current round of negotiations, reaching a deal with the AMPTP in November. Members ratified the deal — which goes into effect on July 1 — earlier this month.

The AMPTP is likely to assert that the terms of the DGA deal should be applied to the WGA deal as part of “pattern bargaining.”

Gains in the DGA deal include an annual 3% wage increase; increased residuals bases; significant improvements in basic cable; the establishment, for the first time, of minimum terms and conditions for high-budget new media made for subscription video-on-demand such as Netflix; and establishment of a formal diversity program at every major TV studio.

But the DGA, in keeping with past practice, has not disclosed the value of the increases over the term of the contract.

The WGA staged a raucous 100-day strike in 2007-08, led by WGA West president Patric Verrone, but then took a more moderate course by electing John Wells over Verrone ally Elias Davis in 2009 and current president Christopher Keyser over Verrone in 2011. Keyser was re-elected without opposition last September.

One member said that the choices of Wells and Keyser have inadvertantly sent a message to employers that the WGA leaders are disinclined to call a strike.

In recent years, the DGA, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have remained on relatively good terms with employers and the last round of negotiations in 2010-11 with the AMPTP was completed largely under the radar and without controversy.

In all three successor contracts, the key gains were a 2% hike in minimums and a 1.5% increase in employer contributions to the pension and health plans. Concessions included a freeze on primetime residuals and the end of first-class air travel to sets.

 

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