10/29/07

Unions clash over Hollywood strike rules

With Hollywood obsessing about a looming writers strike, the Writers Guild of America's receiving plenty of static about its strike rules - especially when it comes to showrunners.

The Directors Guild of America is just the latest Hollywood player to take on the WGA about the strike rules, which could go into effect as early as Thursday if negotiations collapse. In the wake of mostly unproductive talks last week, the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will resume talks tomorrow, with just-appointed federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez attending.

In a recent message, the DGA told its members that its "no-strike clause" requires that they must continue working if they're under contract to do so -- even if the WGA's on strike. And the DGA missive took particular issue with the WGA's declaration that writer-directors who perform what the WGA deems as "writing services" will be subject to discipline.

The disagreement's certain to put added pressure on showrunners to decide which union -- the WGA or the DGA -- should have the final word on interpreting the hardline strike rules, issued three weeks ago. Four showrunners (Neal Baer of "Law & Order: SVU," Marc Cherry of "Desperate Housewives," Carlton Cuse of "Lost" and Carol Mendelsohn of "CSI") are members of the WGA negotiating committee.

"It is an essential element of our basic agreement that the guild not only refrain from striking during the term of the basic agreement, but also that the guild assure employers that our members will continue to perform DGA-covered services during the term of the basic agreement," the Directors Guild said. "These provisions are treated very seriously by the companies and the courts, and we take these obligations very seriously as well."

Using its usual measured language, the DGA made clear that those obligations will include a variety of showrunner tasks -- even though the WGA's already deemed those tasks off limits if there's a strike. The WGA has banned "writing services" such as cutting for time; bridging material; changes in stage directions; assignment of lines to other characters caused by cast changes; changes caused by unforeseen contingencies; minor adjustments before or during principal photography; and instruction, directions or suggestions made to a writer.

But the DGA pointed out that these showrunner tasks are "expressly excluded" from coverage under the WGA's basic agreement before noting that the WGA is contending that members employed as both writers and directors cannot perform such services when directing without being subject to WGA discipline.

"However, if you are employed as a director and these services are needed on your project, and your employer has requested in writing that you continue working, then you would be contractually obligated to perform them," the DGA said. "You may be subject to discharge and claims of breach of contract by an employer if you refuse to do so."

The DGA also advised its members that if they are asked to cross a WGA picket line, their employers must indemnify them for any WGA disciplinary action.

"Like any union, the WGA has the right within certain legal bounds to discipline its members to support a strike effort," the DGA said. "If you are employed in a DGA-covered category on a struck project and your employer requests in writing that you cross a WGA picket line, the DGA Basic Agreement provides that your employer must indemnify you from any monetary loss, including costs of defense, arising from any WGA disciplinary action against you for crossing the picket line."

The AMPTP has already told the WGA that it disagrees with the strike rules on showrunners, citing a recent National Labor Relations Board decision holding that hyphenate showrunners are supervisors and aligned with management, and it's threatened to sue the WGA over its strike rules on script validation, which require members to file with the WGA copies of all unproduced material written for struck companies.

The AMPTP's cease-and-desist letter claims that the scripts and other written material -- as well as their state of completion -- are the property and trade secrets of the companies and that the WGA has no right to receive or retain them.

The strike rules have also prompted the threat of a lawsuit by Thomas Short, president of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, over the guild's plan to bar WGA members from writing animated features -- since much of that sector is covered by IATSE.

The DGA's disagreement over the strike rules comes with the Directors Guild next in line to launch negotiations with the AMPTP. Both the Screen Actors Guild and the DGA contracts expire June 30.

The DGA told its members it's started the work of preparing for negotiations but won't set a date until the WGA negotiations are resolved. "If we should decide to schedule an 'early negotiation,' we will be ready to go," it added.

The WGA and DGA have about 13,000 members each and share about 1,400 dual cardholders.

The WGA did receive strong support over the weekend from SAG, with unanimous passage by its national board of a resolution blasting the AMPTP's conduct in the negotiations as "unreasonable." The tone of the resolution's an early sign that the SAG bargaining -- which will most likely launch in the spring -- will probably be rocky.

"Our employers have thus far been unwilling to counteroffer the reasonable WGA payment proposal for Internet streaming and instead call such use 'promotional' even when whole pictures are shown and new revenue is generated," part of the resolution said. "Our employers have thus far been unwilling to recognize that the wages, working conditions and residuals provided in our basic contracts should govern work made for any platform, new or old."

Gonzalez, a mediator since 2000, is stepping in to mediate negotiations between the WGA and the companies after three months of mostly unproductive bargaining. The announcement came Friday evening after a day of negotiations concluded with no sign of significant progress.

"We worked very hard to narrow the issues and reach an agreement, but many issues remain unresolved," said AMPTP prexy Nick Counter.

The WGA's recap of the session said Writers Guild reps agreed to several AMPTP proposals and withdrew or modified several of its own proposals to narrow areas in dispute but accused the AMPTP of responding with new rollbacks in pension and health and rejection of the guild's modified proposals.

The WGA also released an opening statement from Friday's session by exec director David Young, which stressed the importance of hammering out an agreement on new media.

"Every new technology or genre, instead of being treated as a new opportunity for mutual growth and benefit, is presented to us as some unfathomable obstacle that requires flexibility from writers -- meaning a cheap deal that remains in place," he said. "This happened with homevideo. It happened with basic cable. It has happened with reality TV. Now you want it to happen with new media and the Internet."

Friday's session marked the first time both sides were able to engage in discussing the give and take of bargaining -- rather than merely presenting proposals -- but it's believed the movements were fairly small. The decision to take a three-day break will underline the town's growing certainty that the WGA plans to take the talks down to the wire, when fears of a strike may push studios and nets to soften on contract issues in order to avert a work stoppage.

WGA leaders could start telling its members to stop working and start picketing as early as next Thursday should the talks fall apart. But if negotiators are making progress, writers would work under terms of the expired deal.

(variety.com)

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