Did the Writers Guild Sandbag the Studios With Short Talks?

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The WGA brought a complex and expensive agenda to the negotiating table but allotted only two weeks, perhaps intending a quasi-impasse to tee up a strike authorization vote.

As the current Writers Guild of America talks were being planned months ago, the union told studio negotiators that two weeks of negotiations would be sufficient to achieve a deal, two knowledgeable sources told The Hollywood Reporter on Saturday. But when talks began, the guild presented a complex and expensive list of proposals that couldn't possibly be handled in such a short time period. 

The mismatch suggests that the union may have intended the resulting quasi-impasse, in order to tee up the strike authorization vote that the negotiating committee called for Friday evening.

“There was not a chance in the world with the WGA demands and the short period of time they gave management that anything could get done,” says an informed industry observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “I think this was calculated to get a strike authorization vote.”

To some, the WGA’s approach, if intentional, might look like bargaining in bad faith, but others may commend it as a smart tactical move. After all, a union’s two most powerful weapons are the threat of a strike — and an actual strike.

The latter may fall into the category of “This is going to hurt me as much as ­— or more than —­ it hurts you,” but the threat of a walkout is less painful, at least if one overlooks the panicked phone calls and migraine headaches all across town.

Asked about its motive for the two-week period, the guild defended the timeframe but didn’t disclose its reasons.

“The companies have not responded to some of our key proposals, and two weeks should have been enough time to do that,” said the union in a statement. “Maybe they want to take it down to the wire.”

That seems unlikely, since the WGA, not the studios, would generally benefit from nail-biter negotiations that bump up against the May 1 expiration of the current three-year contract. 

As previously reported, the AMPTP said in a statement, “The WGA broke off negotiations at an early stage in the process in order to secure a strike vote rather than directing its efforts at reaching an agreement at the bargaining table.”

According to a second knowledgeable source, weakness in the affiliated health plan is the only issue the union originally raised when proposing that two weeks of negotiation would be sufficient. But the issues the WGA actually raised over the past two weeks appear complex and, in many cases, expensive, even in the guild’s own telling:

*A decline in TV writer wages due to short seasons (see THR’s graphical report). The guild says it “made a comprehensive proposal … [that] included a limit on the amortization of episodic fees, addressed … problems with Options and Exclusivity … [and an] outdated schedule of weekly minimums,” as well as a proposal that “address[ed] script fee issues ­ in basic cable and streaming ­ but also in the case of Staff Writers.” Translation: That means the WGA wants TV writers to make more money in this new deal. 

* A decline in screenwriter wages, ongoing since the 2007-08 WGA strike and the national recession that followed. The union says it asked for “modest gains for screenwriters, most particularly a guaranteed second-step for writers earning below a certain compensation level.”

* Trouble at the union’s health plan, which has recently been running deficits. The union did not describe its proposal, but did detail the companies’ counteroffer.

* Concern, too, at the union’s pension plan, whose “healthy” status is based on an assumed 7.5 percent annual return, which presumes a continuing bull market. The union did not describe its proposal.

* The Directors Guild recently received 3 percent annual increases in minimums. The WGA sought the same.

* The DGA recently received increases in the residuals formula for High Budget SVOD programs. The WGA sought the same.

* The WGA’s pay TV residuals, negotiated in the 1980s, are inferior to the DGA’s and SAG-AFTRA’s. When a show made for a pay TV channel such as HBO is rerun on pay TV, the DGA gets a fee based on the number of pay TV subscribers, subject to a ceiling, and SAG-AFTRA gets a percentage of the license fee, but the Writers Guild gets only a fixed dollar amount per year. According to a source, the WGA sought to reopen this 35-year-old issue.

* The union wage scales for comedy variety writers are low. The union did not describe its proposal.

* The union asked for “a rational policy on family leave.” It did not describe its proposal.

* Diversity is an ongoing issue. The union did not describe its proposal.

That’s more than a two-week meal, especially when one counts the usual days consumed with posturing, as well as a Wednesday that consisted solely (in one source’s telling) of an hour or two discussion of family leave. 

Says the industry observer of the strike authorization vote, “This was destined.” 

March 26, 3:00 p.m.: Updated with bullet point regarding pay TV residuals.