Get serious, WGA says

Guild calls for a strike-authorization vote

WGA leaders are complaining that studio reps are denying them "serious negotiations" and asking guild members to OK a possible strike.

Strike-authorization materials accompanied a joint letter sent Monday by the leaders of the WGA West and WGA East, with ballots due back by Oct. 18. That's less than two weeks before the Oct. 31 expiration of the WGA's current film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The development follows a handful of sessions between the WGA and the AMPTP that both parties acknowledge have been long on acrimony and short on progress. The next bargaining session is set for Thursday at AMPTP headquarters in Encino and follows a Sept. 20 session at WGA headquarters in Los Angeles that went a bit more smoothly than three previous sessions.

It's unclear whether the call for strike authorization helps or hinders the negotiating process. Such votes are common before contract expirations and don't necessarily indicate pessimism over prospects for a settlement.

Teamsters Local 399 took such a vote mere days before settling on its most recent contract with the AMPTP (HR 8/2). Leaders of the Teamsters local, which negotiates jointly with four Basic Crafts locals, simply sought to underscore its seriousness in buttoning up final deal points as the calendar counted down on a July 31 contract expiration.

In their letter to members, WGA negotiators cited a similar intent but added that though they are serious, management is not.

"Since the talks began on July 16, the companies have refused to engage in serious negotiations," the guild negotiators said. "Instead, they have rejected each of our proposals and responded with a 'comprehensive' proposal of their own: 32 pages of draconian rollbacks that would eviscerate virtually every gain that writers have made in the past 50 years."

The AMPTP has proposed revising current compensation formulas to allow studios to recoup certain basic costs before paying any film and TV residuals. The management group also suggested that the parties commission a study on new-media compensation — a proposal quickly rejected and removed from discussion amid guild demands for immediate new-media boosts.

AMPTP president Nick Counter appeared to take the strike-authorization vote in stride, but he also took the opportunity to paint the guild as less than serious in its own bargaining posture.

"A strike-authorization vote is a routine procedure that unions frequently take in the course of negotiations," Counter said. "The Writers Guild's strike authorization is notable only because its negotiators seem intent on striking without seriously addressing the AMPTP's proposals and with no regard for the devastating impact on their members, fellow unions and this industry.

"WGA's leadership is pursuing this reckless strategy by misleading the membership about our proposals," he added. "We offered to jointly monitor, study and experiment with all forms of new media. The WGA rejected this sensible approach, forcing us to address the serious challenges facing our industry. We will do what must be done to keep our businesses sustainable, competitive and healthy."

Michael Winship, recently elected to his first two-year term as WGAE president, said management has been "obstructionist" it its desire to nix expanded new-media compensation.

"Their proposals to eliminate residuals and their refusal to negotiate a reasonable rate for new media is one of the most startling and aggressive postures they have ever taken," Winship charged in urging members to approve the strike-authorization vote.

He and WGAW president Patric Verrone also sent a joint e-mail to members regarding the authorization vote. Although approved unanimously by the WGAW board, WGAE Council and the WGA negotiating committee, the leaders stressed the step was only a preliminary one and might not lead to an actual strike.

"Participating in this vote and supporting the authorization will send a powerful message," the guild presidents said. "Writers are willing to take action to receive our proper share of a successful and growing industry."

In their letter accompanying authorization ballots, guild negotiators acknowledged speculation "about the WGA working past its contract expiration to line up with the Screen Actors Guild." SAG's film and TV pact expires June 30, and it's possible the WGA won't strike until much closer to that date.

"Our strategic alliance with SAG is strong, and working past our contract expiration remains an option," the WGA said. "But our proposals are reasonable, and the WGA's goal remains to negotiate a fair agreement now. What we cannot do is make a weak deal that we will regret for the next 20 years."

Management remains "committed and prepared to make a fair deal," Counter said.

"But at this point, the WGA is not of the same mind," he added.