Strike, too, for CBS News crews?

Authorization vote due this week; Eye says it's ready

With a strike-authorization vote by CBS News employees approaching this week, the network is making its case.

A letter sent to WGA East members late 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 that the 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, however, that the union could fine members who cross. WGAE could not be reached for comment on the letter Monday.

About 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.

Its timing could mean more problems for the Eye, which already is facing the impact of the writers strike.

With its scripted series running out of original episodes, the network had asked the news division to produce more original content — primarily in the form of more "48 Hours Mystery" episodes and perhaps more "60 Minutes" to help fill the void.

WGAE and CBS have been at odds since the CBS News staffers' previous contract expired in 2005 and a "final offer" by management was turned down nearly unanimously in November 2006. The two sides haven't talked since January.

A strike would have to be authorized by the upper echelons of the union, though union officials have said it wouldn't be a problem to have two strikes — the main WGA strike against studios and a WGAE walkout against CBS — going at the same time.

Ann Toback, assistant executive director at WGAE, said a potential strike comes when, even without the main WGA action, it would be a busy news time with the presidential campaign heating up, the Iraq War 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," he said.

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

"We will continue to produce quality news programming for our viewers," a spokesman said. The most recent 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.

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

Results will be announced Monday, a WGAE spokeswoman said.

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

The majority of the ABC 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 also are members working in TV and radio in Los Angeles and Chicago, and a small number in Washington. 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 has 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.