News talks drag at ABC, CBS

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A two-network labor stalemate stretching back to early 2005 looks likely to linger into 2007.

ABC wrote to more than 200 newswriters and other employees last week charging that the WGA East has forced an inexorable impasse in contract talks, while the guild also remains deadlocked in similar negotiations with CBS. A proposal to remove certain employees from guild jurisdiction appears key to the ABC stalemate, while the WGA blames money issues for the stall in negotiations at CBS, affecting about 450 guild employees.

Management-side sources also give low grades for style to a top guild executive, who they claim has thwarted progress in talks. Management insiders suggest WGAE executive Mona Mangan has been overly rigid in her approach to negotiations and wedded to outdated positions.

Mangan disagrees.

"I've done eight negotiations with these people, and all of them have closed (successfully)," the long-serving WGAE exec said in a recent interview. "ABC still wants to take show producers at local television out of the unit. That's the issue, and the flexibility that they are asking for on that issue is how many people will we trade in exchange for making a deal."

The chief objection to CBS' latest proposal involves the network's offer of lower pay raises for local radio employees than for those in network operations and local TV, she added.

A trained litigation attorney who joined the WGAE staff in 1979, Mangan is described as a determined personality with a penchant for tough stances at the negotiating table and a disinclination for sidebar haggling.

"They can talk about me, and they can talk about the weather, but the bottom line is what are you going to give these people?" Mangan said.

In a letter dated Dec. 12, ABC briefed union employees directly on a range of issues that remain to be negotiated.

"We are hopelessly deadlocked over wages and fees, temporary employees, the length of the workday at our radio network, night shift differential and the proposals affecting graphic artists and WABC-TV and network productions, as well as other items," the ABC negotiating committee wrote. "The conclusion is inescapable that we are at an impasse."

The committee also acknowledged its desire to remove some employees from guild jurisdiction.

"With respect to our producer proposals, we believe that nearly every affected producer at WABC-TV -- and there are only eight -- has reason to welcome the changes we proposed and intend to make," the letter said.

ABC's most recent proposal offers wage increases amounting to 9.5% over three years for newswriters and 10.5% for graphic artists, and desk and production assistants.

CBS has offered a 12% wage increase over 45 months for TV and network radio employees and 8% for those in local radio. The CBS proposal was rejected in a 277-3 vote of WGA members last month (HR 11/30).

There also is considerable tension over the matter of retroactive pay hikes. Network negotiators in both sets of talks have refused to make wage increases completely retroactive.

"You could just never do that," a negotiator said. "There would be no reason for the union to make a deal the next time you sat down, if they knew they could delay and delay and still get retroactive increases."

On Friday, a WGAE spokeswoman said the guild intended to mail a response to the ABC letter to membership.

A draft copy of that letter included the claim that the primary reason for talks dragging on 23 months has been "the company's persistence that any deal with the guild must include the removal of WABC writer-producers from the union."

Mangan also issued a separate news statement Friday.

"The WGA does not give up its members," Mangan said. "That's the position of the negotiating committees, the council in the east and the board in the west."

She noted that CBS had previously advanced a similar proposal about taking certain employees out of guild jurisdiction but since has dropped the demand. "At ABC, the situation is different," Mangan said. "ABC still wants to cut producers from our union, and we remain adamant on this issue. The WGAE will not give up its members."

The WGAE's contract with ABC expired Jan. 31, 2005. Its CBS pact expired April 1, 2005.

ABC employees working under terms of an expired contract include newswriters, editors, desk and production assistants, graphic artists, promotion writers and researchers in New York and Washington. The CBS workers out of contract include similar job classes for operations in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The WGAE claims about 4,000 members, so the roughly 700 writers and others affected in the stalled news-contract talks represent a mere fraction of the WGA's overall membership.

But with the WGA's all-important film and TV contract for movie writers and most primetime scribes expiring in October, it would seem a poor omen to have two other contracts leading to such protracted and difficult negotiations. The 9,500-member WGA West, which will lead the film and TV talks, recently said it is opposed to starting those talks earlier than summer.

The CBS situation already has produced a brief West Coast job action and rallies on the East Coast, while the latest war of words hardly bodes well for prospects of a speedy conclusion to the long-stalled ABC negotiations.

"We urge you to take an active part in what happens next," ABC urged in its letter to WGAE-covered employees. "Make your voice heard and tell your bargaining committee and union leaders to take the company's final offer to a vote. We urge you to accept it when it is presented. This process has gone on far too long. We want to see you receive the pay increases we have proposed without needlessly losing any more pay."

But on Friday, nobody was holding their breath about a quick, happy conclusion to any of the negotiations.

And as one well-placed source observed, "There is a point at which someone might say, 'The contract has been open so long, what do we need to close it for?' "
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