12/31/07

Financial Core membership surges

When talks broke down earlier this month between the studios and striking writers, it began to hit home that scribes could be jobless for many months to come. One of those writers finally made the agonizing decision to stop picketing and go back to work.

The writer's show, a daytime soap, had run out of scripts. To this writer, the moral choice lay in keeping the show on the air.

"Daytime serials are not in a healthy situation," said the writer, who asked for anonymity, fearing fallout from both sides in the complex and highly charged standoff. "If we can keep shows on the air, I perceive it as something that needs to be done for the future generation of writers."

Although most daytime writers have joined their colleagues on the picket lines, others -- fearing for their jobs or the survival of the soap genre altogether -- have quietly gone back to work. Even those who are still picketing say soap writers' issues are unique.

Residuals, for instance, a key area of disagreement between the studios and the Writers Guild of America, are not an issue for them because their shows are rarely rerun. Instead, their interests tend to focus on health and pension benefits and minimum salary for the Internet, one place where the genre -- whose audience for the daytime perennials has been dwindling -- could possibly survive.

The specialized world of soap operas creates unique situations during Hollywood's periods of labor unrest; it's widely believed that during strikes in the 1980s, scab writers were hired to keep the soaps going. Some writers currently on strike say producers have tried to lure them back with promises of anonymity. And because the estimated 110 daytime writers are spread out geographically, many working at home, it would be relatively easy to keep such deals quiet.

Others, such as the writer quoted above, are starting to take advantage of a little-known inactive status known as "financial core" that allows union members to return to work without censure.

"You resign your membership but continue to pay dues," the writer said about the financial-core designation. "They [the guild] still represent you. You still have your healthcare, your pension. It's absolutely fair. You remain involved in the protections that the union offers, and you support them financially. There are many reasons people make that decision."

The WGA would not disclose the number of members who've opted for financial-core status. "We don't think it's an issue, but since this is an internal matter, we choose not to comment," said guild spokesman Gregg Mitchell.

To encourage more writers' interest in the financial-core option, the studios' representatives placed a Q&A list about the process on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers website.

According to this site, members do not have to do anything to seek financial-core status. They may simply choose to work, and the WGA has no right to impose discipline. However, a WGA site said members must resign first in writing. It is not necessary to prove financial hardship. Financial-core writers may no longer vote or run for office. They may also continue to work without formal repercussions, and the union continues to represent them in bargaining negotiations. Some may choose financial-core status because they need an income; others because they disagree with the union's politics.

More writers might consider the "fi-core" alternative, as it is called, if the strike stretches out. "In a month, things could change dramatically," said Bob Guza, the head writer and producer on "General Hospital."

So far, the networks have continued showing original episodes of soaps. One reason is that many shows had been stockpiling scripts for almost a year in preparation for the strike.

Another, and one hardly anyone wants to talk about, is that the networks have apparently already replaced striking writers with non-guild members, producers, scabs and "fi-core" writers. Viewers have yet to see or judge the work of the replacements, but some say that the stockpiled scripts will soon be running out. Depending on the show, that could be anywhere from a few weeks to two months from now. A "General Hospital" writer said that the last team-written script aired Wednesday and that the last team-created story line would begin airing Friday.

Karen Harris, a writer on "General Hospital" who serves on the WGA daytime committee, said she had turned down offers to work on potential Internet soaps after she learned they were not covered by the guild. But writer Rick Draughon ("Days of Our Lives") took NBC up on an offer to create "Coastal Dreams," an original Internet soap produced after the network canceled its daytime series "Passions." Draughon took the job even though he doesn't receive benefits.

"It's better for one of us to get a foot in the door right now while it's an experiment than later when they've already hired a guild person," he said.

He said he had asked producers about paying pension and health benefits but was rebuffed. Other material taken from NBC Universal shows, including webisodes of "The Office" or scenes from "Battlestar Galactica," have been deemed "promo material," he said.

While "Coastal Dreams" was awaiting word of a second-season pickup, Draughon was picketing with colleagues outside CBS studios on Fairfax and Beverly recently. A handful of soap actors joined them in a show of support.

If any of them knew how production was continuing on the soaps without guild writers, no one wanted to say; that included network executives, who declined to comment.

"Nobody knows where these scripts come from," said Susan Flannery, lead actress on "The Bold and the Beautiful," as she walked the line. "It's a magic act like a pea under an acorn shell. Is it a bartender in Wisconsin or a janitor in the basement?"

Many of the soap writers on the picket line that day said they had expected scabs to keep the shows going.

Michelle Patrick, who writes for ABC's "All My Children" in New York, said the show would continue, "because they've got people scabbing in there. We don't know who. They shield their identity to protect them from repercussions from the guild. They work through e-mail, with false names."

She said a producer of another soap on a different network called her the first day of the strike to ask her to work as a scab.

"What she said is, 'We could protect your identity. No one would ever know. It would be completely secret. No one would ever find out,' " Patrick recalled as she picketed recently in front of ABC's W. 66th Street studio, where her show is taped.

She said that she declined but that the attempt made her angry. "The more heinous the producers behave, the angrier I get," she added.

Some writers were angry at the "fi-core" writers as well, since their actions are said to prolong the strike. Claiming to serve the future of the genre is "just a way to justify getting paid while others are going on strike," one writer said.

When a trade publication reported that some staff on "The Young and the Restless" had sought financial-core status, the show's striking writers issued a denial, saying they were "incensed" at the allegation.

"Our entire writing staff of 18 is united and we fully support our union. Not a single person who was writing for 'Y&R' when we struck has gone core. Not one," it said.

Most others, however, refused to judge their colleagues who've opted for financial-core status, and they called it a wrenching decision.

"I know one woman with three children in three private schools. Her husband is retired. She hates it, but she had to do it," Draughon said. "I wish it wasn't happening, but you can't judge someone else's situation."

A married couple, both writers on a soap opera, were said to be split: one opting for financial-core status, the other walking the picket lines.

"If some people weren't writing, we wouldn't have a show to come back to," said Tracey Thompson, a writer on "General Hospital." She said two of 10 writers on that show had returned "for personal reasons."

"A lot regard this like having an abortion," said one writer. "They don't feel good about it. They don't want to talk about it. They felt it was a financial or emotional decision they had to make.

"A number of the people who have long-standing careers in daytime are worried that if they don't decide to go financial core, their jobs will not be there," she said. "They fear that the industry is trying to court younger viewers by hiring younger writers who are willing to work for less."

David Rupel, a writer on "The Guiding Light," said all nine members of his team were on strike. However, he said WGA daytime committee members had conducted a lively debate via conference call on whether to seek interim agreements similar to the deal David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, worked out with the WGA. In the end, he said, "We agreed to abide by whatever deal gets made" by the WGA. "If they think it's a good idea strategically, we'd support that."

The soap writers' inability to reach a decision only speaks to the complexity of issues in an era when television itself is in transition, said the anonymous soap writer who opted for financial-core status.

"The reality is, all issues pertaining to the strike are far more complicated than many of us fully understand," the writer said. "I would be loath to say either side is not bargaining in good faith, because so much is unknown about the future."

(latimes.com)

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