Unfair labor charge against 'Top Model'


In the latest legal parry in a multiparty labor fight over "America's Next Top Model," the WGA has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

The guild claims that producers of the CW's reality TV show broke the law by eliminating 12 positions previously held by some striking writer-producers. In a charge filed Monday, the WGA seeks reinstatement and back pay for the strikers, who walked out in July in a bid to join the guild.

Executive producer Ken Mok has insisted the striking employees go through a protracted NLRB organizing process, citing a jurisdictional dispute between the WGA and IATSE that is growing increasingly public. The latter argued at a recent NLRB hearing that its jurisdiction extends to the kind of work done by the striking employees (HR 11/3).

On Tuesday, IATSE filed a petition with the NLRB to represent as many as 40 "Top Model" employees working in art, audio, camera, lighting, hair/makeup, wardrobe and other production and preproduction departments. The union already reps several editors on the show.

The striking employees sometimes refer to themselves as storytellers. Though reality shows are unscripted, teams of employees must sort through reams of film and video to construct story lines.

Meanwhile, the WGA unfair labor practice charge hinges on why the strikers -- who stopped picketing when the show went on hiatus -- weren't allowed to rejoin the show when it recently resumed production of new episodes, set to begin airing in January.

"The point that needs to be decided is whether they have refused to take people back when there is work for them to do," NLRB spokesman Tony Bisceglia said.

WGA West general counsel Tony Segall said most of the strikers have contacted the show in writing with "unconditional offers to return to work."

They were told their jobs no longer existed because producers had "decided to eliminate the position of show producers and assign the work to editors," Segall said.

A date for a trial before an administrative law judge will be set only if an NLRB investigation shows grounds for a complaint in the matter and show producers refuse to settle the dispute, Bisceglia said.

Mok's Anisa Prods. is the lone party named as a defendant in the WGA's charge, though "Top Model" is co-produced by show host Tyra Banks' Bankable Prods. Banks has said she has no control over the decision of whether to allow the striking employees to join the WGA.

" 'America's Next Top Model' is a major hit for the CW, and the writers were valued employees who contributed to the show's success," WGAW president Patric Verrone said in a statement. "Yet, as soon as they demanded union representation, the company decided they were expendable. This is illegal strike-breaking, an insult to the Hollywood talent community and an embarrassment to this industry."

A CW spokesman declined comment but issued a statement from Mok.

"When our story producers walked off the job, we exercised our right to sustain production during the strike," Mok said. "In the process, we were able to create a new system utilizing IATSE editors that has not only maintained the quality of our episodes, but at the same time has improved the efficiency of our postproduction operation. As a result, we decided to move ahead in production with this new system in place, which puts our material directly in the hands of our editors without the intermediate step of story producers."

Segall acknowledged that IATSE's organizing efforts on "Top Model" have complicated the WGA's efforts.

"(But) IATSE showed no interest in representing them (until) after the strike began, and it was only after the strike began that the producers decided this was editors work," Segall added. "That's punishing the workers for trying to decide the union of their choice."