Big turnout gives WGA OK to strike

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The WGA's negotiating team has its strike authorization.

The town won't know whether guild leaders will actually exercise that authority until after a current contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers expires Oct. 31. But with the strike authorization approved by 90.3% of those voting, WGA leaders now have a big green light to call a strike any time after that date that they deem a walkout would be strategically beneficial.

Industryites might get more of any idea whether an actual strike can be averted when the WGA and the AMPTP return to the bargaining table today. The parties have been talking since July 16, but the thorny matter of Internet compensation and other pay issues appear as nettlesome as ever.

Meanwhile, the guild's aggressive efforts to turn out a big vote in favor of strike authorization appear to have worked, with officials claiming that the vote, announced Friday, represents the largest turnout in WGA history.

WGA West members cast "almost 5,000" ballots and WGA East members "almost 1,000" for a total of 5,507 votes, they said.

"I am both impressed and gratified by this vote," WGAW president Patric Verrone said. "It shows an overwhelmingly engaged and activated community of writers who care about this negotiation and support our goals. It is now up to the AMPTP companies to begin to bargain seriously concerning the issues important to our members."

Verrone told The Hollywood Reporter that he feels an agreement can be reached before the current film and TV contract expires despite what he called a surfeit of "not serious proposals" still being pressed by management. Those include the notion that writers should allow the free re-use of WGA-originated content over the Internet in some circumstances, the WGAW president said.

"But we're hoping now that the resounding voice of our members will convince the (studio) CEOs and the cooler heads to prevail and to begin to bargain over these issues," Verrone said. "We have these next 10 days to make a deal, and so from our perspective a strike is no more possible or probable than it has been.

"But if the companies continue to refuse to bargain, then it does get more and more likely," he added. "In holding the strike vote when we did, we now have nearly two weeks of time when we can concentrate on bargaining. We don't have to spend any time on dealing with the vote, it has been decided, and we can get down to brass tacks in the negotiations."

The parties have been engaged in their on-again, off-again bargaining sessions for three months. Some are suggesting that the next big negotiating development will come not in the AMPTP's talks with the WGA but in those it will seek to launch with the DGA if the writers' contract expires.

"That's pretty speculative," Verrone said. "We're here; we're ready to bargain. We've done unprecedented outreach with the DGA, and share 1,400 members with the DGA. We are prepared to bargain now, and we think we can make a deal before expiration. I hope the companies think that too."

WGAE president Michael Winship said he was gratified by the "massive solidarity our members" displayed by the strike-authorization vote.

"Our negotiators can now begin the next round of bargaining strengthened by the knowledge of their hard work and commitment to a fair, meaningful contract, no matter what it takes," Winship said. "This historic vote sends an unequivocal message to the AMPTP, loud and clear. We will not be taken advantage of and we will not be fooled."

AMPTP president Nick Counter responded to news of the vote with something of a verbal shrug.

"A strike-authorization vote is a pro forma tactic used by every union in the country, and usually the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of a strike," he said. "We are not surprised with the outcome of this vote given reports of how this election was conducted. Our focus is on negotiating a reasonable agreement with the WGA."

There was some grousing among guild members over the WGA's using guild staff to manage the strike-authorization vote instead of third-party oversight. But with almost half of the combined membership of the WGAW and WGAE voting and the strike authorization passing handily, it's unlikely that any procedural second-guessing will matter much to guild leadership.

It's unclear how many of the ballots were mailed before last week's dramatic move by the AMPTP to withdraw its most controversial demand.

Management had been seeking to revise current residuals to allow studios to recoup certain basic costs on film and TV projects before paying any future residuals. The guild had rejected the proposal immediately in July, and its withdrawal by the AMPTP was widely interpreted as a big step toward getting the negotiations onto a more productive track.

The last major work stoppage by the WGA came in 1988, when writers walked the picket line for five months. This time around, strategists on both sides of the negotiations have been assessing the potential impact on film and TV production from a writers strike coming at different times in the calendar.

No strike would be without substantial pain for both sides, but some maintain a fall strike might have more disruptive effect on TV schedules than one called in the winter or spring.

The DGA and SAG are under contract until June 30, so no massive walkout by directors or actors is possible until then. Some individual directors or actors might make use of legal loopholes covering acts of conscience, but most film and TV projects already scripted still could proceed — theoretically.

Writers are needed on movie sets for scene rewrites, and actors — enthusiastic actors — are needed to promote those films once wrapped. So some "go" projects could be delayed, if not shelved, if a strike were to develop.

Many also believe that any strike would prompt a quick expansion of reality programming on the major networks.
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