WGA boards OK tentative contract

Pact will go before membership for ratification in mid-June

The governing boards of the Writers Guild of America have voted to recommend ratification of a new contract agreement with producers, although the votes were far from unanimous.

The WGA East council in New York on Thursday voted six in favor and four against, with four abstentions. Seven of the 21 board members were absent.

The previous evening, in Los Angeles, the WGA West board approved the pact with a little more enthusiasm — 13 pro and three con, with 1 abstention. Only two of the 19 board members did not attend the late-night meeting.

Having gotten the blessing of the boards, the pact goes to the membership in mid-June for ratification.

Board members who were present described the meetings as difficult and contentious, an analysis in keeping with the contract’s arduous path from its inception last year, when members failed to ratify it by a narrow margin. The three-year contract, fundamentally unaltered, was negotiated again, with the two guilds managing to extract some further concessions from management. Even so, by the time the boards got to it this week, the contract did not remotely please everyone.

Spirited debate

“It was very visceral — a long and spirited debate,” said a WGAW board member. “Some people just can’t approve the deal. They’re part of a faction that believes the only way to accomplish anything is to strike.”

Particularly bothersome to some in the WGA hierarchy was the belief that their hands were tied by an agreement made with producers by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The agreement, which stipulated that both management and the two unions would embark on a wide-ranging study of aftermarket TV economics, and particularly on the question of foreign-market and basic cable residuals, precluded any real progress on the issue in the WGA negotiations just concluded, some believe.

Resume negotiations

Nevertheless, writers’ and producers’ reps will resume negotiations on foreign and basic cable residuals no later than seven days following ratification of the contract. The WGA also has the option of joining in the residuals study with SAG/AFTRA, but that has not been decided, a WGA spokeswoman said.

In New York, where the vote was taken Thursday at about 1:30 p.m. EST, a source close to the talks said there was “very intense discussion on the issue of this contract vs. the original proposal.”

One difference over last fall’s document was an agreement by producers to sunset a provision agreed to in the first round of talks last summer. Employers had wanted to decrease their six-and-a-quarter percent contribution to the guild’s health plan by one-quarter percent — primarily because the health fund has plenty of money already — with the amount going instead toward increasing minimums. Under the new arrangement, the money will be restored to the health plan when the new contract expires, or it could be negotiated again.

The sunset provision was attached to allay the concerns of eastern members who believed that removal of the money from the health fund constituted a rollback.

“We are pleased that, if implemented, the decrease in the employers’ health fund contribution will be eliminated at the expiration of this contract,” WGAE president Herb Sargent said in a statement. “However, there was considerable dissatisfaction regarding the failure to achieve results in both the residuals and creative rights areas.”

Writers meeting

The companies agreed to have their CEOs meet with a special Committee on the Status of Writers to discuss issues such as a writer’s entitlement to participate in the rewriting of his or her work, view a cut, visit a set or be consulted on the work. The committee will meet at least six times a year — three meetings each for TV and theatrical. The CPSW’s first meeting will be on June 2, prior to the ratification vote.

Management, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, also consented to send a bulletin to producers to remind them to pay writers on time and warn that they are not permitted to insist that writers undertake free rewrites.

In addition, management agreed to extend its participation in the Tri-Guild Residuals Audit Program, which keeps track of producers and companies that do not pay what they owe to members of the WGA, SAG and the Directors Guild of America. The audit program, which had expired, will now benefit from faster arbitration procedures, under which, for instance, all three guilds can join to arbitrate residuals disputes resulting from the audits when the disputed contract provision is common to all three guilds.

Re-acquisition issues

There will also be expedited arbitration on re-acquisition of screenplays, situations in which a writer wishes to re-assume ownership of his or her project after a producer or studio has failed to do anything with it over a period of time. Such arbitration must now be completed within three to four months.

The new contract provides an increase in minimums of 3.5% each year, compounded for a total of 10.9% for the three-year term of the deal. The increase would effectively boost foreign and domestic TV residuals.

There will be increases in residuals formulas for made-for-pay-TV and made-for-video programs, as well as hikes in residuals from Fox, which has a lower residuals formula than the main three networks: The Fox formula includes two 10% increases, this month and in May 1999, which bring Fox to 66.6% percent of what CBS, ABC and NBC pay.

The contract establishes a “boomer fund” to assure retiree health coverage for the baby-boomer generation. Funds from the existing healthcare fund will be put into long-term bonds and other investments. “As far as we know, it’s the first such fund in the country,” a WGAW spokeswoman said.

New voting rules

The pact will be the first contract to be voted on under new nationwide voting rules, which, among other things, requires common voting materials for both the eastern and western guilds and stipulates that elections on both coasts be held within 36 hours of each other.

“I think it’s been well worth it,” said WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr., referring to the protracted negotiations. “I think we’re well equipped to capitalize on every gain in this contract, but we also come to the negotiations on residuals and creative rights issues with tremendous moral authority from our members.”

Petrie said the guild had made improvements in the deal since it failed in September, “but we’re going to be very careful not to spin them as though it’s night and day,” he said. “The differences are very small, but we believe they’re significant.”

Petrie acknowledged that in the wake of the failure to ratify the contract last fall, “east and west went through a period of horrendous differences, but we’ve taken huge strides down the road of repairing those differences.”

He predicted that members “will come behind this deal and ratify it,” although they will be closely watching the negotiations on residuals and other matters.

“I believe,” he said, “the companies must know that if they don’t bear fruit, in three years’ time they’re going to be facing a very united and quite angry membership.”