With deadline on menu, WGA sets table for strike 2


Another day, another strike authorization.

With a contract deadline looming in the WGA's film and TV talks with studios and networks, the guild Monday scheduled a separate strike-authorization vote by WGA newswriters. The move -- involving 500 members whose CBS contract expired more than 2 1/2 years ago -- follows Friday's announcement that WGA members had authorized a possible strike by screenwriters and primetime broadcast scribes.

Of those returning ballots, 90.3% voted to authorize a possible WGA strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. The guild has been in talks with the AMPTP since July, seeking to replace a current film and TV pact that expires Oct. 31.

Now, WGA members who are employees of CBS' TV and radio operations in four markets will cast similar ballots in their own bargaining standoff. Eye newswriters and related employees have been working under terms of a CBS contract that expired April 1, 2005.

Meanwhile, the WGA's talks with the AMPTP resumed Monday for their first time since the guild announced results of that strike-authorization vote. But the latest session seemed to go much like those before it -- poorly.

"Don't confuse process with progress," AMPTP president Nick Counter said in an end-of-day statement. "While we actually met today for the first time in five days, the WGA leadership again failed to address the producers' proposals. The WGA leadership dismissed the withdrawal of the producers' recoupment proposal as insignificant despite their claim that this was a major impediment to reaching an agreement."

Under the recently withdrawn proposal, the AMPTP had been seeking to revise current residual formulas to allow studios to recoup certain basic costs before paying any residuals on film and TV projects in the future.

"The WGA leadership has yet to make any movement on its own or the producers' proposals," Counter claimed. "Instead, they continue to pursue numerous financial proposals that would result in astronomical increases in our costs. Their proposals would also further restrict our ability to promote and market TV series and films and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in new media."

Boosted compensation for Internet projects and content distributed over other new-media platforms remains a key WGA demand.

"We continue to be committed to reaching a fair and reasonable agreement in order to keep the town working," the AMPTP president said.

Counter added that a writers strike would be "devastating to our industry and especially the livelihoods of those that depend on it."

Its recent strike authorization notwithstanding, there's no consensus on whether the WGA might call an actual strike against the studios anytime soon. Some believe that the WGA might continue to seek further bargaining sessions with the AMPTP, while others cite the real possibility of a November strike.

The next WGA-AMPTP bargaining session is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at WGA West headquarters in Los Angeles.

The WGA's separate talks with CBS have been at an obvious impasse for almost a year, and now CBS News employees who are members of WGA East and WGA West are mulling their own strike prospects.

Newswriters, graphic artists, researchers and desk assistants will vote on the question, in person or by proxy, at meetings set for Nov. 15-16 in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington. In November, the newswriters and others rejected by a 99% margin CBS' last contract offer, and there was scant progress marked in the only bargaining session held since then.

"For too long, CBS has taken the crowning legacy of Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues and cheapened it," WGAE president Michael Winship said Monday. "Part of that diminution of news quality is reflected in the network's refusal to offer our dedicated, knowledgeable, hardworking members a fair and respectful contract."

WGAW president Patric Verrone said that it was "disgraceful" that the Eye newswriters haven't had a pay boost since April 2004.

"CBS newswriters take this step knowing that their fellow writers in TV and film stand behind them," Verrone said.

One of the guild's chief complaints in the newswriter negotiations involves CBS' seeking to merge WGA and non-WGA employees in some areas of its news operations. WGA negotiators also strenuously oppose CBS' proposal to set lower wages for local radio employees than for those in television and network radio.

About 250 WGA newswriters and others at ABC's TV and radio operations in New York and Washington also have been working without a contract.

A WGAE spokeswoman said a similar strike-authorization vote against ABC is possible. But for now, the guild has sought help from the National Labor Relations Board in clarifying whether ABC has the right to remove certain writer-producers from WGA jurisdiction.

The question has been a major point of disagreement in long-running WGA-ABC negotiations. Pay issues and other matters also remain unresolved.