Trouble in WGA-ABC talks


Suddenly, the WGA's news-contract talks with ABC are outpacing those with CBS for discord, with the guild labeling a recent "final offer" from the alphabet as "punitive" and likely to result in layoffs if accepted.

Neither network has sprinted to an agreement: The WGA's contract with ABC expired Jan. 31, 2005; its CBS pact lapsed April 1 of that same year. In both cases, the talks have dragged on amid guild claims of stingy wage offers and ominous give-back demands, but the alphabet talks appear to be breaking down even as eye negotiations gather some momentum.

"The ABC final package is much more punitive than what is on the table with CBS," WGA East spokeswoman Sherry Goldman said.

And that's a mouthful, coming from a WGA representative, as CBS proposals triggered a WGA job action in Los Angeles and a protest rally in New York as recently as last month. But negotiating sessions held subsequently on Sept. 28-29 were said to be much more productive, and guild executives now express optimism that the finish line soon could come into sight for at least one of the bargaining marathons.

"They're moving in the right direction with CBS," Goldman said. "Everybody feels that some progress is being made, and we're looking forward to getting back with them, hopefully this month."

By contrast, the WGA said its Oct. 4 session with ABC went so poorly as to prompt guild execs to begin considering their options in case the network nixes a request for another negotiating session. A federal mediator, who accepted an invitation to sit in on the last session, is not empowered to force ABC back to the table, Goldman said.

About 250 ABC employees continue to work under terms of the expired WGA contract. Those include newswriters, editors, desk and production assistants, graphic artists and researchers in New York and Washington.

ABC seeks to remove an unspecified number of writer-producers at WABC-TV and elsewhere from guild jurisdiction, and the WGA claims some of those employees then would be laid off.

"The increasingly fragmented nature of the radio and television landscape means we must seek changes," ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover said.

The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which represents ABC's network and local news employees in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, already has agreed to remove certain employees from guild jurisdiction, Hoover added.

"Producers (there) have been able to perform their producing functions, including writing, on a nonunion basis," she said. "What we would like is for WABC producers to operate in the same way."

Goldman said the move ultimately would lead to shrinkage in staff numbers at the station. "WGAE is very concerned that this would continue the degradation of news quality at ABC," she said.

Meanwhile, the WGA complains that proposed salary hikes totaling 9.5% over the span of a proposed new three-year pact would fail to keep pace with inflation. And it claims temp employees currently enjoying employer-supported health benefits would be excluded from employer contributions under the proposed new contract.

The WGA also objects to a proposal to reduce by one hour the block of time designated for night-differential pay and likewise to the proposed creation of what it calls a "two-tiered work force," in which newly hired temps would be paid less than those already employed.

The network wants the WGA to present its most recent contract offer to members, ABC's Hoover said.