Federal mediator called in for WGA contract talks

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Now they're really making a federal issue of it.

With the contentious contract talks between the WGA and studio reps approaching the eleventh hour, the parties have decided to meet with a federal mediator during their next session.

"We worked very hard to narrow the issues and reach an agreement, but many issues remain unresolved," Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers president Nick Counter said. "We will meet on Tuesday with the federal mediator, who has been assigned by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service."

It was unclear how much progress was marked in the latest session beyond a notably detailed discussion of the parties' respective proposals. But the Friday meeting certainly was a busy one.

On Thursday, the AMPTP tweaked its previous proposals by sweetening offers in some areas, such as health and pension contributions, and streamlining proposals in areas where the parties might mutually agree to stick with status quo contract provisions.

A day later, the WGA responded by issuing their own similarly detailed breakdown of matters best described as important but perhaps not central to an agreement. The AMPTP then responded with a few counterproposals.

The current WGA-AMPTP contract expires Wednesday, and guild leadership already has secured the authority to strike any time after that date. Negotiations could go on beyond the contract expiration, with writers continuing to work under terms of the old agreement.

That's what happened three years ago, when writers worked for five months under an expired pact. The last big writers strike was in 1988, when Hollywood was effectively shut down for five months.

The next bargaining session -- to be held at AMPTP headquarters in Encino -- will bear watching both for tone and substance. The latest session featured lots of talk but little evidence of improved relations between the negotiating teams.

The presence of the mediator, while a new twist, is hardly a game-changer. Mediators observe and occasionally make suggestions, but they have no independent power to impose terms of a settlement on the parties.

"The suggestion for mediation came from Nick Counter," WGA West spokesman Neal Sacharow said.

An AMPTP spokesman took exception with the claim.

"The suggestion for mediation came from the federal government, but Nick Counter was the first to agree that mediation was necessary to move these talks along," the spokesman said.

A section of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Services' Web site explains how contact with the agency originates.

"In collective bargaining mediation, FMCS mediators are in touch with both parties even before negotiations actually begin," it reads. "The contact is triggered by the legally required notice of intent to open a collective bargaining agreement."

The WGA also addressed several other aspects of Friday's talks.

"This morning, we responded to the package presented yesterday by the AMPTP," the WGA said. "We agreed to several of their proposals and withdrew or modified a number of our own proposals in order to narrow the areas in dispute. We also proposed a smaller working group to address several enforcement proposals made by both sides.

"The AMPTP caucused for more than four hours and returned with a package that included new rollbacks related to our pension and health funds," the WGA continued. "They rejected our modified proposals and ignored our working group offer. They then informed us that they are not comfortable meeting at the WGA and insisted that negotiations return to the AMPTP. They declined to meet again until Tuesday."

Completing an assessment clearly critical of the management's attitude in the session, the guild added, "This means only two days remain to resolve the substantive issues of this negotiation before Wednesday night's contract deadline."

The negotiations have alternated between the AMPTP offices and guild headquarters in Los Angeles.

After the WGA circulated its statement, an AMPTP spokesman said the date for the next session had been the subject of mutual discussion. The AMPTP had been prepared to meet Monday at a neutral location or at AMPTP headquarters, the spokesman said.

"Due to board and committee meetings the WGA had scheduled for Monday at their headquarters, we were prepared to meet anywhere that could accommodate the business needs of our large committee," the AMPTP said in an unusual Saturday statement. "They did not want to leave the WGA, so we mutually agreed to meet Tuesday at the AMPTP to accommodate our committee and theirs."

The latest public exchanges highlighted well how little agreement there has been to date in the negotiations.

Still, with the parties now engaged -- arguably for the first time -- in actual back-and-forth discussion of detailed particulars, some might be tempted toward a glass-half-full reading of the situation. Whether any new momentum in the talks will carry over into discussions of difficult core issues like Internet compensation remains the big question.

The issue was central to a statement delivered by WGAW executive director David Young at the start of Friday's session and later posted to the guild's Web site.

"For a few decades now there has been a growing feeling among writers that they are slowly being left behind," Young said. "Every new technology or genre, instead of being treated as a new opportunity for mutual growth and benefit, is presented to us as some unfathomable obstacle that requires flexibility from writers -- meaning a cheap deal that remains in place.

"This happened with home video," he said. "It happened with basic cable. It has happened with reality TV. Now you want it to happen with new media and the Internet.

"We have to find a way in this negotiation to deal with all of these issues in a manner that is fair to writers and fair to the industry."
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