Health care a bargaining priority for scribes

WGA to seek added contributions in collective bargaining

Continuing to lay the groundwork for upcoming negotiations, Writers Guild of America West prexy Victoria Riskin has signaled the guild will place a high priority on increased healthcare contributions from producers.

In her year-end message to 8,500 Hollywood scribes via the guild newsletter, Riskin focused on the need to respond to the benefit cuts and tightened requirements for members that were enacted in the WGA plan this year. Soaring healthcare costs forced trustees to increase by 51% the eligibility requirement for annual earnings, to $28,833 from $19,125, and to impose premiums for dependent coverage for the first time.

“It was a tough and painful year, and we all felt it,” Riskin said. “As a result of these cuts, our health plans will be safe through 2004, but it is essential that you also know that national healthcare costs are expected to rise at a double-digit rate annually. The only way to protect our plans now is for the companies to make increased contributions in collective bargaining.”

Riskin did not specify how much of an increase the WGA will seek from the current contract rates, set at 6% of earnings for the pension plan and 7.5% of earnings for the health plan. No timetable has been set for negotiations for replacing the current pact, which expires May 1; before the start of bargaining, the WGA’s negotiating team must first receive approval from members of its “pattern of demands.”

The health and pension plans are operated jointly by reps of the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which serves as the bargaining arm for the studios and nets.

“We alone have made sacrifices, unaided by the companies,” Riskin said. “We cannot and should not be asked to make more sacrifices. Protecting the health plans is crucial next year.”

All Hollywood labor unions are facing soaring healthcare costs. SAG and AFTRA boosted the producer contribution rate from 13.3% to 14.3% on its recently ratified pact with advertisers along with relatively moderate gains in minimums.

The pre-negotiations message is in keeping with the WGA’s tradition of being the most active among the showbiz unions in prepping members for bargaining. In her message, Riskin also singled out DVD residuals and jurisdiction over animation and reality TV as major concerns.

“As we look ahead to the new year, we must also remember that the DVD market has delivered an enormous holiday gift to the companies — a bonanza, to put it mildly,” said Riskin, noting DVD revenues hit $11 billion last year and are expected to reach $15 billion this year.

In 2001, the WGA decided to forego an increase in the homevid residual payout, currently at 0.36% of sales, in order to achieve other gains, such as making Fox a full network in determining residuals. It was able to obtain a $5,000-per-movie payment to screenwriters for the rights to include the screenplay in the DVD, but the studios were intractable in their refusal to boost any other part of homevid.

Other sectors that have been highlighted in recent months by the WGA as key concerns include preventing free rewrites and boosting pay-for-cable residuals.

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