Time running out for WGA talks

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Negotiations for a new Writers Guild of America contract are coming down to the wire. The WGA’s current contract, which covers some 11,000 film and TV writers, expires Tuesday at midnight.
A strike, if it comes to that, won’t begin this week. The WGA still has to secure strike authorization from its membership and that process, which hasn’t even begun yet, will take at least a week.
Should a strike happen, it would be the first to hit the film and TV industry since 1988, when the WGA went on strike for five months. That strike delayed the launch of the networks’ fall season and may have helped usher in the era of reality programs, many of which don’t employ union writers.
A possible actors strike is also looming on the horizon. The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, whose contracts expire on June 30, are expected to start their negotiations with the film and TV companies in two to three weeks.
On Friday, the unions’ joint boards of directors approved the package of proposals that their negotiators will take to the bargaining table. The unions and the companies are expected to exchange proposals this week.
Many observers have expressed optimism that a deal can be made and a strike averted.
During a press conference, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said: “I’m very optimistic from the words I’ve gotten from the heads of the unions and the negotiators representing the studios. But still, I am pleading and calling upon producers, writers and actors to do all they can to avert these damaging strikes. We all have a stake in our economic health.”
Mr. Riordan’s last day in office is June 30-the same day that the SAG and AFTRA contracts expire.
SAG chief negotiator Brian Walton has said actors would rather work than walk the picket line.
“Actors don’t want to strike,” he said recently. “Actors want a deal. Actors want to keep the industry working.”
SAG President William Daniels has said, repeatedly, “There’s a deal to be made.”
“I’ve also been led to believe that the WGA remains optimistic about achieving an agreement before their contract deadline of May 1,” Mr. Daniels said recently.
One reason for optimism in the ongoing negotiations for a new WGA contract is that the two sides’ bargaining positions aren’t really all that far apart. When negotiations resumed on April 17 after a six-week hiatus, the WGA was asking for about $100 million more than the studios and networks were willing to pay over the next three years. That boils down to only $33 million a year, which is chump change by Hollywood’s standards.
Still, producers know that any increases they give to writers will have to be passed along to actors, directors and other industry workers when their contracts come up for renegotiation. That could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in additional wages and benefits. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg has said that would “bankrupt” the industry.
Even so, a prolonged strike would be even more costly. The Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. has estimated that a dual strike by writers and actors would cost the local economy $2 billion a month. WGA officials argue that much of that loss would be recouped once the strike ended and the industry returned to work in high gear to make up for lost time. Nobody, however, argues that a long strike wouldn’t deliver a serious economic blow to Hollywood and the local economy.
Even if there isn’t a strike, however, the very threat of a strike is forcing companies all over town to lay off workers. During the past few months, production has been booming in advance of a possible work stoppage. But now film production is beginning to slow, with very few companies launching new film starts for fear of being caught in the middle of an actors strike come June 30.
Even if the WGA and the companies resolve the main money issues in their negotiations, they will still have to come to an agreement on a wide range of creative rights and jurisdictional issues.
The guild wants contractually guaranteed creative rights that will give writers more access to the filmmaking process. The Directors Guild of America, however, is opposed to any such contractual provisions, and has accused the WGA of attempting to grab more power for screenwriters at the expense of movie directors.
Jurisdiction over films and TV programs shown on or made for the Internet is another important issue that must be resolved before a deal can be made.
“The Internet is a galvanizing issue that crosses all sections of the union,” said an industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Writers are very concerned about the Internet. They see it as a critical part of the future, both in terms of writing directly for the Internet and for the reuse of films and TV shows on the Internet.”