A battle for hearts and minds

Both camps digging in for long haul

A sickening sense is spreading through Hollywood that the WGA strike could drag on for some time, if only because the guild and the studios appear so polarized after their 31/2 months of stormy negotiations.

Yet management and labor reps do seem to share a single belief: Negotiating is all about leverage.

Those acquainted with collective bargaining commonly stress that the process has nothing to do with debating the issues. It's about a swap of proposals based on who holds the upper hand at any point in time.

Such thinking could be seen during the turbulent contract talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and is also reflected in the current writers strike.

When labor negotiators believe they hold a special advantage due to special circumstances--say, the timing of talks relative to a TV season or to other guilds' contract expirations--they flex their muscles to leverage those factors. Similary, management reps know when labor negotiators are feeling vulnerable and adjust their contract posture accordingly.

But the abortive contract talks between film and TV writers and their studio employers have been additionally complicated by the parties' initially staking out positions some might call extreme and most would characterize as aggressive.

"I believe the writers were intent on having a strike," a top studio executive said Tuesday. "That was there goal, unless we said yes to their demands."

With that belief, the AMPTP started off the talks with not one but two controversial proposals, seeking to stake out the far opposite position on key issues to balance what management viewed as extreme stances by the guild.

The guild was demanding doubled DVD residuals and expanded pay for traditional and new-media content. So the AMPTP offered no boost at all for DVDs and suggested merely studying the central issue of new-media compensation--for three years. And by the way, management said, we want to revise current formulas to let us recoup certain basic project costs before paying any residuals in the future.

Unsurprisingly, the first couple sessions were anything but lovefests when talks began on July 16. The new-media study suggestion was swiftly withdrawn, but the recoupment proposal remained on the table for a couple months.

"The AMPTP kind of played into their hands with those proposals, because they are really just non starters," said a well-placed industryite with length dealings on both sides of the labor-management divide. "The WGA was looking for a strike to signal this is not your fathers's Writers Guild, and (WGAW exec director) David Young has done a terrific job in getting the guild motivated and ready for this moment."

Meantime, WGA brass acknowledges privately a distaste for bargaining much in advance of a contract's expiration, believing such brinksmanship can yield better deal terms.

So using the excuse of scheduling conflicts due to WGA elections in late September, weeks went by throughout August and early September with little or no bargaining. By the time a strike was set for Monday, just 17 bargaining sessions had been held with the AMPTP.

Publicly, the AMPTP cited concern over the paucity of bargaining sessions. Privately, management began strategizing a possible shift toward negotiations with the DGA, which is well known for believing early talks yield better contract.

Realizing the DGA might enter the scene, WGA leaders decided to accelerate strike plans, many believe.

Initially, most thought the guild wouldn't strike until Jan. 1 or later, trying to stretch the talks closer to the expiration of SAG's contract with the AMPTP. But with the prospect of the DGA's swooping in and cutting a deal that might effectively force a template onto the WGA's talks, the writers decided to hasten their own squeeze play by striking quickly after the the WGA's contract expired on Oct.31.

There also was a lot of internal discussion at the WGA over whether the TV networks would be more inconvenienced by an early strike than one postponed until the second half of the programming season. Ultimately, it was decided to try to inflict some quick pain on the networks and studios.

Not that the guild has explained much of its negotiations strategy.

In contrast to management's ongoing background dialog with the press, guild officials generally have been unavailable to discuss even the most general of negotiating matters with reporters. Even officials at other unions claim the WGA has kept them in the dark about much of its negotiating strategy.

Now that the strike has begun, one big question hovers above the throngs of pickets: Might the WGA embrace a modest overture and quickly return to the bargaining table, or will the guild hold out indefinitely to try to draw deeper concessions from the AMPTP?

"My gut tells me at this point that it's going to be a long strike," said Alan Brunswick, a former AMPTP staff counsel now with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "Both sides at this point are too entrenched for it to end quickly. I want to be wrong about this one, but the two sides are so angry with each other that it's probably going to be awhile."