Scheduled contract negotiations between Hollywood studios and the Writers Guild of America have hit a bump over the issue of the guild’s health plan after WGA lead negotiator David Young called his studio counterparts “despicable.”
It’s unclear whether the dispute could derail the start of scheduled talks, set for May 11.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced on April 18 that it had approved a May 11 starting date and a provision that both sides exchange their negotiating proposals on May 1. AMPTP President Carol Lombardini assented in a letter to the timetable proposed by Young, executive director of the WGA West and lead negotiator.
The potential stumbling block centers on Young’s proposal in his April 15 letter that the WGA Health Fund — which is jointly administered by representatives of the guild and the studios — extend eligibility to plan participants through the end of the year. Lombardini said in the letter to Young that she would need to conduct discussions among studio reps before she could respond.
Young responded in a subsequent letter, “There will be an agreement when both sides agree there’s one. You people are despicable.”
Lombardini said in an email sent earlier this week that she did not understand Young’s use of the word “despicable” and then asked for clarification.
“You give no reason or context for this ad hominem attack. We can only assume that you are upset that the AMPTP did not immediately agree to your separate request that the Producer-WGA Health Plan eligibility provisions be amended to extend eligibility for anyone who does not meet the eligibility requirements,” she said. “While we are willing to consider this issue as part of our negotiations, this is an issue, as you are well aware, that ultimately must be decided by the Trustees of the Plan after looking at the financial implications to the Plan as well as a number of other issues regarding who should be eligible for such an extension.”
“Certainly we, as the bargaining parties, can and should weigh in on these questions and we are willing to discuss them with you either as part of the negotiations or separately, “Lombardini added. “However, the need to deal with the issue of participants who may lose eligibility as a result of the COVID-19-related shutdowns is a separate issue from the need (and legal obligation) of the bargaining parties to commence overall negotiations for a new MBA. It is critical to get the negotiations started both because of the impending expiration date and so that when it is time to resume production, the industry is in a position to do so immediately, without concern that another shutdown might be imminent due to the absence of a contract and the possibility of a strike.”
“In sum, we look forward to exchanging proposals on May 1st and commencing negotiations on May 11th. Should you wish to do so, we are separately agreeable to discuss with you the Health Plan eligibility issue and we suggest that any such discussion include the Co-Chairs of the Plan as well as its CEO,” her letter concluded.
WGA West President David Goodman said in response to Lombardini’s letter, “On April 17th, the WGA asked the AMPTP to approve an extension of health care coverage through the end of the year for writers whose eligibility is impacted by the economic fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic. The WGA fund has sufficient reserves to cover this contingency. The extension is the right thing to do, and writers’ employers should not have to think twice about ensuring that the people who have made their businesses successful have access to quality, uninterrupted healthcare.”
Lombardini had proposed on April 8 that proposals be exchanged on April 15 and that talks start the following week on April 20. She also noted at that point that the AMPTP had agreed to extend the contract to June 30. The coronavirus pandemic had upended the business climate for contract talks, causing the two sides to scrub negotiations that were supposed to start March 23.
The WGA had considered options that included a proposal to extend the expiration of the current master contract by a full year to May 1, 2021 — including the gains achieved in the new Directors Guild of America master contract, which will go into effect on July 1. The Directors Guild of America’s new deal, which was ratified by its members earlier this month, includes a provision for a significant boost in made-for-streaming TV series residuals — an issue for both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
SAG-AFTRA’s current contract expires on June 30. The performers union has not yet set a date for negotiations with the AMPTP.