New Twist in ‘Model’ Strife

Sep 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Heeding calls by “America’s Next Top Model” executive producer Ken Mok to follow “the appropriate process,” the Writers Guild of America reversed its stance against working with the National Labor Relations Board and quietly filed a petition with the agency last month to call a federally supervised guild election.

But then, in a strategic alliance and plot twist worthy of any reality show, “Top Model” producers teamed with the editors guild to file their own NLRB request-that has halted the election process.

“We finally did what the company said we should do, and the first thing they do is file this charge which derails the whole process,” said Tony Segall, the WGA’s general counsel. “It’s very frustrating.”

After the dozen “Top Model” staffers responsible for shaping the show’s story line went on strike June 21 to gain union-rate pay and health benefits, Mr. Mok accused the WGA of “trying to pressure” him into accepting unionized writers without a formal election.

Mr. Mok has urged the WGA to follow “the appropriate process” and petition the NLRB, an action that calls for an election among the affected staffers within six weeks. If the results declared the WGA the sole representative of the staffers, Mr. Mok said he would be willing to negotiate a deal.

WGA West President Patric Verrone derided the call in the press as a “delay tactic.” But on Aug. 16, the WGA petitioned the NLRB for a secret ballot election.

Five days later, Mr. Mok filed an unfair labor practices charge with the NLRB that effectively halted the election process. The charge was submitted by Mr. Mok’s attorney, William Cole-who also represents The CW.

The charge claims that the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Technicians (which, among other positions, represents editors) has made “conflicting claims for jurisdiction over the work of selecting and organization program material” and that IATSE has “threatened economic action.”

IATSE unionized “Top Model” editors last year and has sparred with the WGA over its reality show unionization efforts. The CW declined to comment for this report, and Mr. Cole did not return a call. An IATSE spokesperson said nobody was available to comment.

Lengthy Process

Mr. Segall blamed Mr. Mok and the network for orchestrating the alliance, and said IATSE is not trying to unionize the striking staffers for their own guild.

“There hasn’t been any concern about overlap with this position in the past with IATSE … [the writers] have deal memos that specifically state they don’t have a contract [with IATSE],” he said. “If IATSE decided they want to represent these people, they can enter the election process too-that’s the way it should be done.”

But filing the complaint was the NLRB equivalent to a tactical nuke. According to Tony Bisceglia, assistant to the regional director of the West Los Angeles office of the NLRB, resolving the jurisdictional dispute could tie up the “Top Model” election process for years.

If the complaint is found to have merit, the NLRB will set a regional hearing. The WGA and IATSE will present evidence as to why they should represent the story editors. The regional office then sends the evidence to the national office, where a board renders a verdict-which can take a very long time.

“Assuming that this ends up in hearing and goes to the board, there’s no time target we can give you,” Mr. Bisceglia said. “We’ve had cases come back in a month or two-or years.”

Mr. Segall said he holds out hope that the NLRB will quickly dismiss the charge, which would put the election back on track. But for the WGA

the turn of events represents a sort of depressing vindication.

“The union movement over the last 25 years has moved away from the NLRB because it’s a very flawed process. There are many ways in which the election process can be frustrated and delayed,” Mr. Segall said. “All we’re saying is, `Give us a quick election if you’re unwilling to recognize us without an election.’ It’s unfortunate.”