Mediator to the rescue, maybe

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With a federal mediator joining the WGA's film and TV contract negotiations for the first time in 19 years Tuesday, Hollywood is holding its collective breath that the move will actually prove meaningful.

But while industryites are waiting to exhale, Juan Carlos Gonzalez of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service will be watching for signs that the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers are willing to listen to his suggestions. The parties resume their film and TV negotiations at 10 a.m. Tuesday at AMPTP headquarters in Encino.

"The mediation will depend a lot on the will of the WGA and the AMPTP to make it work, and there has to be a willingness to make things work and to compromise," said Steve Katleman, a labor attorney with Greenberg Traurig in Los Angeles. "There has been such brinksmanship up to now, and it can be difficult to back down sometimes, so this could possibly provide a face-saving opportunity for one side or the other. But it's a voluntary process, and it will be all about the power of persuasion of the mediator."

That process could take awhile, warned Alan Brunswick, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

"Typically, the mediators don't know anything about the entertainment industry, so the parties have to spend a good amount of time educating them," Brunswick said. "The issues here are so complex, it could take some time for them to do so."

For now, WGA West president Patric Verrone told The Hollywood Reporter, it's safe to say a strike won't be called at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. That's when the WGA's contract with the AMPTP expires, but no strike will be called at least until after WGAW brass meets with membership on Thursday.

"The stated purpose of the meeting is to update membership on the status of negotiations and to discuss where we should go," Verrone said.

WGA East president Michael Winship said his guild also would hold a membership meeting to update the troops on negotiations, but it likely would come sometime after Thursday.

It's unclear to what degree, or if, the entrance of a mediator two days before contract expiration will weigh on any WGA decision regarding any imminent strike action. AMPTP president Nick Counter suggested the parties begin meeting with the mediator, who has been monitoring the talks, and WGA negotiators agreed to do so.

Some negotiation-watchers are taking a somewhat jaded view of the latest developments.

"Mediation is something that both sides use to tell their higher-ups or membership that they've done everything they can to do a deal," said a onetime negotiator with a dim view of the process' merits.

Still, the industryite added, "Mediation can be of most benefit when the parties have had a hard time talking to one another."

Indeed, the last time mediation was used in high-profile Hollywood talks was after the WGA went out on strike in 1988, and a mediator helped the guild and studios re-engage in a dialog that eventually led to a deal -- five months after the walkout began.

"My prediction is that the federal mediator will be able to persuade the WGA to continue negotiations beyond the Oct. 31 contract expiration," Loeb & Loeb labor consultant Ivy Kagan Bierman said. "However, I don't think the WGA will be willing to extend the contract, and so, unfortunately, I predict it will call a strike after a short amount of time of meeting with the mediator and the AMPTP, anywhere from a week to two weeks."

The WGA-AMPTP negotiations began July 16 but have resulted in only 14 contentious sessions, almost all marked by a notable absence of clear progress.

John Bowman, chair of the WGA negotiating committee, didn't do much to inspire optimism Monday that the mediator's entrance into the process will goose things along.

"I frankly don't expect much to happen," Bowman told KPCC-FM chat show host Patt Morrison.

Verrone told THR, "I don't think the mediator is going to add much, because I expect this to be a negotiation between the parties. So we have two days to make this deal, and I think we still can, I'm optimistic we will, but I think it's the parties are going to do it."

Added Winship, "It can't hurt to have a fresh perspective in the room."

Separately on Monday, a debate developed over how broadly Teamsters Local 399 can interpret a clause in its contract allowing individual members to honor any WGA picket lines (HR 10/25).

The language suggests Teamsters who have safety concerns over crossing a picket line stay off the job. But Counter fired off a letter Monday to the heads of local crafts unions, warning them not to interpret that language too broadly.

"(T)he basic craft unions' agreements contain no-strike clauses, which require (a) union 'to order its members to perform their obligations to the producer," Counter said.
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