CBS News makes its anti-strike case


UPDATED 6:55 p.m. PT Nov. 12, 2007

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NEW YORK -- With a strike authorization vote looming later this week, CBS News is taking its case to the newswriters.

A letter sent to Writers Guild of America, East members Monday and obtained by The Hollywood Reporter outlined the company's position and said it was fair considering "the economic environment." The company also said WGAE had missed several deadlines to negotiate. A strike authorization vote is being held Thursday and Friday.

"The question now facing each bargaining unit member is whether the terms being offered are so onerous and unacceptable as to warrant participation in a strike and the loss of pay that participation in a strike entails," the memo said. "CBS does not want you to strike, and we hope that you will carefully evaluate the terms of our final offer against the uncertainty of a strike in determining what is best for you and your families."

CBS also called the employees' attention to federal law that said individual workers are not "automatically obligated" to strike and could choose to cross the picket lines. It did mention that the union could fine members who cross, however. WGAE could not be reached for comment on the letter Monday.

Nearly 500 writers, graphic artists, editors and producers at CBS News in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington are set to meet Thursday night to decide whether to authorize a strike. The union and the network have been at odds since the previous contract expired in 2005, and a "final offer" by management was turned down nearly unanimously last November.

The two sides haven't talked since January 2007. A strike would still have to be authorized by the upper echelons of the union, although union officials have said it wouldn't be a problem to have two strikes going at the same time.

The timing of the strike authorization vote could mean more problems for CBS, which is already facing a schedule that is going to be heavily affected by the lack of original comedies and dramas due to the writers strike. That would get even worse if it didn't have CBS News to count on to provide more original content. The news division is being asked to produce more original content -- primarily in the form of more "48 Hours Mystery" episodes and perhaps more "60 Minutes" to help fill the gap left by original drama and comedy grinding to a halt due to the writers strike.

Ann Toback, assistant executive director at WGAE, said that it was coming at a time when, even without the other WGA strike, it would be a busy news time with the presidential campaign heating up, a war in Iraq and other big news events.

"It's a time when the public really needs well-produced news and it's a particularly bad time for CBS to deprive the public of diverse, responsible news coverage," Toback said.

CBS News said Monday that it was prepared for the possibility of a strike.

"We will continue to produce quality news programming for our viewers," said a spokesman. The last writers strike against CBS News, in 1987, lasted seven weeks.

The union's main issues are CBS News' refusal to grant retroactive raises as well as a proposed two-tier pay system that would give network and local TV (and network radio) employees a higher rate than local radio employees. The last offer from CBS would have had a 65-month term with no retroactivity and wage increases of 2.2% for the top tier and 1.48% for the bottom tier.

The union members have worked without a pay increase since April 2004.

Results of the strike vote won't immediately be available Thursday, as not everyone will be voting then.

"(It) will be immediately followed by opening the vote to authorize the strike, and because members work 24-7 we're keeping the voting open through Friday afternoon," said Toback.

Results will be announced Monday, a WGAE spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, a meeting is planned Saturday afternoon in New York for the local National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians to update its members about its contract negotiations with ABC. Its contract expired in March.

The majority of the employees work in New York, at the broadcast network TV and radio operations as well as the local TV station and all-news radio outlets. There are also members working in TV and radio in Los Angeles and Chicago, and a small number in Washington, D.C. They include writers, editors, producers and desk assistants. writers are not included.

The ABC contract covers about 800 engineers, technicians and publicists at WABC, KGO, WLS and ABC News in New York and Washington as well as up to 3,500 daily-hired workers. They've been working without a contract since March 31 and ABC News presented them with a final contract offer last month. While the contract is expired, ABC said that there's no talk that they're aware of that any kind of job action was imminent. NABET wasn't available for comment Monday.