Call it a late Christmas gift for showbiz: After two months of protracted, bitter contract bickering, Hollywood’s producers and labor unions finally pounded out a basic work agreement Wednesday, averting what could have been a crippling strike.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) got new life for its ailing health and pension plans, a solid wage package and a commitment from producers to study the contentious Article 20 of their contract, which allows studios to pick up non-union films for distribution.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) got a so-called sideletter agreement that should make it cheaper to produce one-hour TV episodics, telepix and low-budget features.

Details of the settlement were not released publicly and neither side would comment, but both parties were reportedly pleased with the pact and glad to be done before the new year.

“There is a tentative agreement between the IATSE and the AMPTP pending approval of the membership,” said Herb Steinberg, rep for the producers. “It’s a new three-year contract and it was negotiated by IATSE president Al DiTolla and AMPTP president Nicholas Counter.”

Steinberg said the final agreement was reached mid-afternoon Wednesday, the same day the IA counted strike authorization votes from its 24,000-plus Hollywood members.

Results of that count were not available, but industry sources said it was likely the union reps would have been given consent to call a work stoppage if necessary.

Union sources said the strike authorization vote had little effect on the speedy close to the talks. “I think the producers just wanted to get done by the new year, so they could clear their production slate for the new year,” one source said.

Now union members will face another vote on the contract itself, but sources said most were eager to start 1994 under a contract and would likely ratify the pact.

The last stumbling blocks Wednesday dealt with retroactive pay and whether golden (or double) time would kick in after 12 worked hours or 12 elapsed hours, so as to include meal periods.

Management ultimately agreed to retroactively pay the basic agreement dated to Aug. 1,1993, and videotape agreements to Oct. 4, 1992.

As for golden time, the AMPTP allowed for 12 hours elapsed for feature projects, but demanded the contract stipulate 12 hours worked for TV.

Sources said all the local unions but Cameraman’s Local 695 and Sound Local 659 voted for the final pact.

Both were reportedly upset over the golden time issue.

“The TV people were clearly the driving force in these negotiations,” said another union source. “That’s what the original list of producer demands was designed for.”

IA agents agree that the biggest gains for labor under the pact will be the renewed and invigorated health and pension plans.

Needing an infusion of some $ 10 million, the health plan would have collapsed by 1995 without some significant changes.

Reluctant producers agreed to increased employer contributions to the plan. They also maintained the 300-hour requirement for eligibility, which some union leaders feared would be upped.

For the pension plan, producers consented to raise pensions 20% for active participants and 5% to 15% for retirees, both retroactive to Jan. 1.

“These were huge issues,” said one union source. “We’re happy the health plan was maintained and think the pension wages were excellent.”

The accord stipulates that the health plan may reorganize once President Clinton’s health care reform plans take shape.

Scrutiny of Article 20

Another substantial gain for labor is the mandate to study the much maligned Article 20 of the contract.

That contentious clause, which the unionshave long decried, allows studios to fund indie non-union productions if they maintain no creative control.

It also says “bona fide” negative pick-ups are not covered so long as the studios give the unions 30 days notice of the deal so they can try to organize the crew.

The Article 20 committee, which is skedded to meet sometime next year with reps from both the IA and the AMPTP, will report back after 90 days with a “mutually agreeable definition of the term ‘bona fide production distribution transactions.’ ”

IA leaders, meanwhile, acceded to producer demands to address the ever-dwindling number of jobs in Los Angeles with a “sideletter agreement” for one-hour episodic TV series and pilots and for TV movies.

The sideletter basically eases restrictions on the producers for such elements as wages, vacation, holiday, overtime, transportation allowance and the interchangeability of employees on the set.

Low budget consideration

The union also consented to “give good faith consideration” on a case-by-case basis to special conditions for low-budget features.

“What we’re trying to do is save jobs in Los Angeles,” said a union source. “We won’t see for another year whether these agreements will work, but hopefully we’ve gained more jobs.”

The final wage package will provide IA members with a 3% raise for the next three years. Those figures were a far cry from the AMPTP’s original proposal of no increase for the first year of a two-year pact and a 2% hike for the second.

Concessions aside, the hard-fought agreement should mean more work for the unions and fewer headaches for the producers. Under the threat of a strike, the AMPTP erected a series of contingency plans for TV and feature projects. Union leaders still fear that those options are available to producers if this contract doesn’t work out.

“What I found in negotiations is that the producers were much more willing to make a deal than I thought they were going in,” said one union source. “But they still have their alternatives. They were interested in making an agreement, but they still have their options.”