Writers Guild May Work Under Expired Contract, Won’t Seek Strike Vote Prior to Expiration

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It seems a formal extension might not be in the works.

The Writers Guild of America on Tuesday advised its members that previously scheduled bargaining for a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which did not commence as scheduled Monday, has been upended by the coronavirus.

The existing agreement expires May 1.

“Given the current health crisis we cannot effectively negotiate this important three-year agreement in our usual fashion,” the guild’s negotiating committee wrote in an email. “It may not be possible to conclude a new contract by May 1st, nor will we be asking you for a strike authorization vote in the interim. Even if no new contract is in place by May 1st, writers can continue working under the 2017 agreement.”

Added the guild, “We are discussing several options with the companies, including a potential contract extension, but we think it is most sensible to continue to evaluate the constantly — it seems hourly — changing situation before making a decision about the most strategically optimal way forward. This is not a time for rash decisions or pressured outcomes. Instead we are conferring with public health authorities, financial analysts, other guilds and unions, legislators, benefit fund experts and others to gather information as the situation continues to evolve.”

The email added that the negotiating committee continues to meet regularly via teleconference to discuss options. “Although we realize that members would like to know exactly what will happen and when,” the guild said, “those determinations may take some time, so we ask for your patience and understanding.”

The AMPTP declined to comment.

Bargaining sessions typically involve up to 100 people — some flying in from New York — in an AMPTP conference room in Sherman Oaks (Los Angeles). The abeyance in negotiations was not surprising, as THR reporting contemplated March 6 when the talks were announced and again on March 10 when the WGA canceled in-person meetings. But what happens next is still undetermined.

Whether the negotiations could be effectively conducted by video link is unclear, especially since talks typically involve a degree of posturing that many compare to Kabuki theater. An alternative is to agree to a four- or six-month extension to the current contract, which expires May 1. But the guild would probably want a wage increase built into any extension, while suddenly hard-hit studios may be reluctant to offer writers the same 3 percent annual wage bumps they agreed to with the Directors Guild of America just two and a half weeks ago before the bottom dropped out of the economy.

Working under the expired contract, then seeking a retroactive increase in minimums, may be the approach the writers are currently favoring.

The issue of wage increases alone may be adding uncertainty to the WGA situation, and for SAG-AFTRA as well. The actors’ current pact expires June 30, but whether negotiations will be possible prior to then is unknown and may — like so much now — depend more on the dictates of public health officials than anything else.