Walkout to lockout

ABC bars NABET workers after 24-hr. strike

ABC officials reacted swiftly to the surprise 24-hour strike by roughly 2,000 NABET workers across the country Monday, saying they would lock out the employees until the union assures the net that any such future strike will be preceded by adequate notice.

Broadcast technicians and other production workers represented by the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians walked off the job at 5 a.m. Eastern time Monday, sending management scrambling to operate cameras, graphics and other aspects of live programs.

The union’s action disrupted production of “Good Morning America” and “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” both of which were technically less smooth than usual.

But ABC has for months protected its “Monday Night Football” franchise from NABET strikes by hiring non-NABET stand-by crews, and there seemed little danger that Monday’s Cowboys-Eagles game from Philadelphia would be noticeably disturbed by the latest walkout.

However, the web’s regular Baltimore-based pregame show had to be relocated to the site of the game in Philadelphia since no backup crews were available in Baltimore. Hosts Al Berman and Frank Gifford also bowed out of the pregame show, which instead was to be hosted by the regular “MNF” troika of Boomer Esiason, Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf.

NABET spokesmen said they staged the “unfair labor practice” strike — on the busy day prior to today’s national elections — to call attention to what it says is ABC’s refusal to provide workers with details of a health care plan proposed by parent Walt Disney Co.

Expiration exasperation

Relations between the union — an arm of the Communications Workers of America — and ABC have been abysmal in the 19 months since NABET’s contract with the net expired. A year ago, NABET workers staged a similar 24-hour walkout that forced cancellation of ABC’s live coverage of the Tour Championship of Golf in Houston.

Following the New York workers’ lead early Monday, union members in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., also stayed away from their duties. A NABET official said the strike would be over at 5 a.m. today, at which point, presumably, ABC’s lockout will kick in.

“It is very narrowly defined as a protest against the company’s failure to disclose information critical to our evaluation of the Disney medical plan,” union spokesman Tom Donahue told Daily Variety.

“Disney is demanding that we abandon our existing health care plan in favor of Disney’s Signature plan,” he said. “We can’t assess how much it would cost our members to visit doctors outside the network because the company won’t provide us with the negotiated rates that are the basis for out-of-pocket payments that our members might be committing to.”

Whatever is necessary

A spokeswoman for ABC issued a statement that said the company would do whatever it deemed necessary to protect its operations.

“Because our broadcasts are a perishable product, we have concluded ABC cannot run the risk of further unannounced job actions that and that it has, therefore, no choice but to lock out our NABET-represented employees,” the statement said.

“We have advised the union that when it gives us a guarantee in writing that it will provide ABC with adequate advance notice of any future job actions the union takes against the company and its broadcasts, ABC will permit NABET-represented employees to return to their jobs — but not before.”

A source said ABC was asking for at least 72 hours’ notice of a strike.

The net said it “cannot and will not allow our programming to be held hostage to sneak attacks by the union.” The job actions, according to the statement, “have only one purpose — to try to put pressure on ABC at the bargaining table.”

The strike, it went on, “is irresponsible and represents a blatant disregard for ABC’s viewers and listeners.”

Denies having data

Throughout the protracted contract negotiations, ABC has maintained that it will not accept a labor agreement that denies it the same conditions that its principal network competitors have in their agreements with broadcast unions, including NABET.

“The union’s purported ‘unfair labor practice’ strike,” the ABC statement said, “is about a refusal of the underlying insurance companies to provide to the union proprietary information about their business that the union says it needs to evaluate our contract proposal regarding ABC’s new medical program. This is information that ABC does not have and does not control.”

ABC said it advised NABET over the weekend that the insurance companies are “willing to find a way to provide certain information” to the union. “Without even waiting to learn what that information might be, the union went out on strike,” the ABC statement alleged.

At NABET, spokesman Donahue confirmed that the union sent ABC a letter vowing not to strike again on the insurance question if the net agrees to submit to NLRB arbitration on the issue. An ABC source called that “a desperate attempt to crawl out of a hole the union put its members in.”

The union believes that any proposed lockout is illegal, and Donahue said NABET will “exercise all its legal options” if ABC goes forward with the lockout today.

Alternate arrangements

The surprise strike forced producers at the web’s two live ayem shows — “GMA” and ABC Daytime’s “The View” — to make last-minute adjustments. Both shows made it onto the air using replacement workers and managers trained to operate basic equipment.

“GMA” had some minor trouble with graphics and switching between camera shots, while camera angles on “The View” seemed simpler than usual, some observers who watched both broadcasts said. The programs survived without any huge tech meltdowns, however.

At the start of his show, Regis Philbin was shown on-air instructing the control room to bring down the music so that he could begin speaking to the camera. At another point, a neophyte camera operator performed a sudden, overly rapid zoom with his lens.

ABC halted production on all four of its Los Angeles and New York-based sudsers: “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” in Gotham and “General Hospital” and “Port Charles” in Los Angeles. The soaps are taped far in advance, and with production likely to resume on some shows with replacement workers as early as today, it’s unlikely viewers will miss any segs.

Assuming it lasts through Tuesday night, the strike-turned-lockout may affect ABC News’ Election Night coverage, which is usually laden with computer graphics. The web is expected to shift some of its Election Night graphics control operations to its Washington, D.C., bureau, which contains non-NABET workers, sources said.

Gotham flagship WABC was also forced to make on-air adjustments Monday, delaying the start of its 5:30 ayemcast to 6 a.m. and eliminating virtually all live shots from its afternoon and evening newscasts. There were also occasional miscues with on-air graphics, resulting, for example, in one WABC female reporter being labeled a new father.

The station will attempt live remotes from candidate headquarters tonight during election coverage, insiders said.

In Washington, Carl Meyers, vice president of NABET Local 31 and a technical supervisor at ABC News, said the net “should change their negotiators,” adding that the current network reps do not understand the needs of the workers.

“They keep stalling and stalling,” he said of the net execs. The lockout, he went on, “is a very bad move.”

About a dozen strikers picketed the ABC News bureau with signs emblazoned in large red letters, “We want a contract.”

At KABC in Los Angeles, management-level execs were toiling in editing bays and dealing with other production chores to keep the station’s morning, midday, evening and latenight newscasts running as smoothly as possible.

Newsgathering operations were hardest hit by the strike as the station scrambled to put together crews to man satellite trucks needed for reporting from remote locations.

(Cynthia Littleton and Christopher Stern contributed to this report.)