Fissures in labor front?

Unions divided on WGA strategy


The WGA has played the lead role in Hollywood's labor drama of the past six months, but now the camera is pulling back to show other key players and even a couple of distinct labor camps.

The DGA said Thursday that it would begin meeting with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers about the directors' next contract soon after Jan. 1 unless the WGA re-engages with the studio group before then. On Friday, AFTRA followed the earlier lead of IATSE and publicly applauded the DGA announcement.

AFTRA leaders said they were "encouraged" by the prospect of the directors talks. It was an endorsement that rang especially loud in the absence of any public comment from SAG.

The developments have put a spotlight on what might described as moderate and militant factions on the Hollywood labor scene. Some suggest that studio CEOs have displayed similarly split attitudes during the difficult WGA negotiations and writers strike.

In fact, the WGA is expected soon to begin approaching individual CEOs at the respective major studios and other AMPTP companies in the hope of finding one or more who will break ranks with the management group.

"We want to do everything in our power to move negotiations forward and end this devastating strike," guild negotiators told members in a weekend e-mail. "We have therefore decided to reach out to major AMPTP companies and begin to negotiate with them individually."

The WGA negotiators noted their legal right to pursue such a strategy, and the strategy seemed to notch a quick if narrow win for the guild. Reports circulated during the weekend that David Letterman's Worldwide Pants is set to ink a new WGA deal that would allow his late-night program and Craig Ferguson's talk show to return to the airwaves after weeks in strike-prompted reruns.

AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand dismissed the WGA's direct-to-companies maneuver in a statement issued Saturday.

"This is merely the latest indication that the WGA organizers are grasping for straws and have never had a coherent strategy for engaging in serious negotiations," Hiestand said. "The AMPTP may have different companies with different assets in different businesses, but they are all unified in one common goal -- to reach an agreement with writers that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace."

The guild would seem to hold only a long-shot chance at success at breaking ranks among the major studios and broadcast networks with its tack, as any differences in opinion among studio execs have been kept well under wraps.

"Different assets ... different businesses ... different companies ... one common goal," read a joint statment by CEOs of studio companies posted on the AMPTP's Web site Sunday, "to reach a fair and just agreement with writers and get back to work."

By contrast, labor execs have clashed much more publicly.

Still, SAG and the WGA remain closely aligned, and the DGA always has tended to keep its distance from other above-the-line organizations.

It's also nothing new for IATSE boss Tom Short to squabble with WGA West president Patric Verrone.

But AFTRA has long negotiated jointly with SAG in contract talks with the AMPTP. So the recent spike in animosity between SAG and AFTRA leaders over jurisdictional issues represents a key new challenge to labor solidarity.

Many would label the DGA, AFTRA and IATSE as moderates, while SAG, the WGA and occasionally Hollywood's Teamsters are seen as more militant.

All the unions share an interest in many collective-bargaining issues. For above-the-line labor organizations, those include new-media compensation and jurisdiction -- central topics in the WGA's talks until they collapsed Dec. 7 over more peripheral issues.

Despite the shared goals, the style and substance of the labor groups' individual approaches to negotiations often vary sharply.

In a letter to AFTRA members dated Thursday and circulated Friday, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon and national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth said they still hope to sort out their differences with SAG in time to proceed into the next round of talks smoothly -- and jointly. SAG, AFTRA and the DGA are under contract through June 30; the WGA's pact with the AMPTP expired Oct. 31.

AFTRA and SAG are "scheduled to meet later this month to determine the best way to proceed, should SAG wish to do so," the AFTRA leaders said.

"We are encouraged by today's announcement by the Directors Guild of America, and are hopeful that successful negotiations by our sister union will serve to facilitate fair and equitable resolution of current and future negotiations for all entertainment industry unions."

The WGA has filed a federal complaint against the AMPTP over the collapse of its negotiations, but it will likely take months for the filing to make its way through National Labor Relations Board process. So most observers expect to begin 2008 by shifting their attention to talks between the DGA and the AMPTP.

Meanwhile, striking writers continue to mount picket lines on both coasts, at least until any holiday hiatus. Today, Hollywood's labor soap opera will feature real soap opera stars on picket lines in Los Angeles and New York.

In Los Angeles, AFTRA members including Susan Flannery ("The Bold and the Beautiful"), Jackie Zeman ("General Hospital") and others are expected to join a WGAW picket line at CBS Fairfax. And in New York, WGA East picketers at Time Warner Center expect to be joined by Scott Bryce ("As the World Turns"), Trevor St. John ("One Life to Live") and others.