WGA votes to strike Mon.; more talks set for Sun.

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Strike Zone: Latest on WGA talks

UPDATED: 10:10 a.m. PT Nov. 3, 2007

The federal mediator in the WGA's contract talks has summoned negotiators to a last-ditch meeting, set for 10 a.m. Sunday, in an effort to avoid a writers strike.

The place for the meeting -- called by Juan Carlos Gonzalez of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service -- is being kept under wraps. The potentially positive development Friday evening follows news earlier Friday that the WGA West board and WGA East Council had accepted a negotiating committee recommendation and set a writers strike for 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Barring a weekend agreement to forestall the walkout, pickets are expected at studios and networks on both coasts.

"We have 48 hours and what we really want to do is not strike and come to a resolution," John Bowman, chair of the WGA's negotiating committee, said at a news conference Friday to announce the strike decision.

Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers president Nick Counter heads the management negotiating team.

It was also recently disclosed that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has connected with reps of the guild and the studio companies in an attempt to get talks back on track. The mayor met in person with WGAW president Patric Verrone and other labor execs Tuesday, and he subsequently discussed the situation with studio reps.

Yet it's not clear how much muscle Villaraigosa is willing to exert to force himself into the situation as an actual deal broker.

Before he got into politics, Villaraigosa was a labor organizer. But the mayor has close relationships on both sides of the labor-management divide and has told the parties he needs to maintain strict objectivity if he's to succeed in any efforts to foster an improved dialogue between the WGA and the AMPTP.

There also has been speculation that the AMPTP will deliver a new proposal to the guild over the weekend. The most troublesome issues to date in the WGA-AMPTP contract talks have been DVD residuals and new-media compensation.

There have been recent suggestions among well-placed industryites that the studios may prove more flexible on the latter than the former. But it's unclear whether that's based on wishful thinking or actual back channel dialogue between the parties.

"Our position is simple and fair," Verrone said. "When a writer's work generates revenue for the companies, that writer deserves to be paid."

On Thursday night, WGAW brass told 3,000 writers it was recommending a strike action to the board.

"The WGA leadership continues to mischaracterize the current provisions for compensation in new media," Counter said Friday prior to word of the Sunday meeting. "When a consumer pays to view a TV program or a feature film for a limited period of time, the writer gets a residual. When the consumer pays for a permanent download of a TV program or feature film, the writer gets a residual. ...

"It is crucial that we have provisions that encourage, not inhibit, our ability to experiment, innovate, analyze and adapt to the transformative changes confronting us," the AMPTP president said. "We cannot ignore the challenges of today's economic realities, the shifts in audience taste and viewing habits and the unpredictability of the still-evolving technology.

"Our goal continues to be to reach a fair and reasonable agreement that will keep the industry working."

WGAE president Michael Winship said the decision to strike was not one "we take lightly."

Winship added there might still be time to craft a deal before the strike begins, and he urged the studios to "come back and bargain fairly."

Villaraigosa was in Seattle on Friday to deliver a morning speech before the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but he was expected back in Los Angeles by Friday evening.

The WGA's current film and TV agreement with the AMPTP expired midnight Wednesday. With the membership meeting Thursday and the board and council meetings Friday, guild brass decided it would be better to hold off picketing until Monday than to mount a strike action over the weekend.

The last major strike by Hollywood writers was in 1988, when a 22-week WGA work stoppage effectively shut down the town. Economic impact on the L.A. economy was estimated to run as high as $500 million.

"Our sense is we can do some economic damage immediate," Bowman said, adding the point of the strike is to "inflict as much damage as quickly as possible" in order to bring about a resolution.

Picketing plans were being disseminated to strike captains but details of timing and location were closely guarded.

Guild rank and file again distributed flyers at studio and networks sites Friday, following similar earlier "informational" efforts.

A WGAE flyer read in part: "The studios and networks make billions from the content we create. All we want is our fair share. They have refused. We don't want to strike, but we must defend the standards of our profession. We ask for your understanding and your support."

Meanwhile, if the writers do walk, some will start wondering anew what the DGA will do.

The DGA, like SAG, is under contract until June 30. But many expect the directors to start early talks with the AMPTP on its own new film and TV deal.

If successful in such talks, a DGA agreement could set a template that the other guilds are effectively forced to follow--perhaps including terms on DVD and the Internet. A well-placed source confirmed strategy meetings are afoot already at the DGA, which has formed a working negotiations committee.

One thing under discussion: whether to pick up the phone and ring the AMPTP about starting early contract talks. The source suggested that could happen sometime this month.
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