Studio Applies Force Majeure to 'Office', '30 Rock'

This probably wasn't the Writers Guild of America had in mind when it asked the studios to meet them halfway.

On the bright side, leaders from the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers agreed Friday to resume contract negotiations Nov. 26, when everyone is still brimming with Thanksgiving dinner-infused cheer. The union offered no further details, only stating that the two sides have "mutually agreed to resume formal negotiations."

But in the meantime, studios will be busy trimming the fat.

The casts of The Office, 30 Rock, Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica were informed Thursday that their contracts have been suspended for the next five weeks, now that Universal Media Studios has opted to exercise what's known as the force majeure clause in their Screen Actors Guild agreements.

Regulars from those NBC and Sci-Fi Channel shows will collect half of their usual salaries. Obviously, this will be less financially painful for some, but it won't be pleasant for anyone.

The force majeure provision allows studios and networks to suspend SAG members' deals immediately once production on their shows has shut down, and the writers, who are theoretically supposed to have a four to six-week cushion before their deals are frozen, could be next.

Universal's players, however, are making out better than their counterparts over at Sony Pictures TV, which has suspended the casts of Fox's Til Death and CBS' Rules of Engagement without pay—a decision that has both SAG and the American Federation of TV & Radio Artists up in arms because Sony's move both cuts the actors' pay and, because it's not outright terminating the contracts, prevents them from working for another studio.

Per SAG's agreement, studios can opt to suspend members for five weeks with half pay, like Universal is doing; suspend them with full pay; or release them from their contracts. Even if the actors are fired, they're supposed to be immediately rehired under their original contract terms once production recommences.

The SAG-AFTRA contracts don't expire on their own until June 30, until which AFTRA vows to keep a close watch on how the strike-lorn studios treat its employees.

"Our policy—which drives our ongoing discussions with employers—is that AFTRA members fully expect employers to abide by the terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreements," an AFTRA rep said. "We're continuing conversations with AFTRA members on the affected shows to make sure that their interests and rights are fully protected."

Joining the worst-case-scenario fray also this week was Warner Bros. TV, which, according to the Hollywood Reporter, circulated a letter to production and facility employees informing them that production on all series will be shutting down within the next six or seven weeks—assuming the WGA strike continues—and that layoffs will probably be necessary.

But, labor relations senior VP Hank Lachmund wrote, the studio anticipates that "such layoffs, if they occur, will be temporary and that many employees will be recalled to work at some point after the WGA work stoppage ends."

That glum-yet-sunny sentiment has been echoed by other studios, all of which have been mulling over what to do with their nonwriting staff after the last few episodes of their shows are in the can.

According to the latest accounts, The Office and The Big Bang Theory are through until the writers come back to the table, meaning both are going to be in repeats or replaced by—what, exactly?—come next week.

ABC's Ugly Betty, Pushing Daisies, Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives each have three new episodes left, as does NBC's Heroes, meaning now we're getting promos warning us that the superhumans only have three weeks left to save the world.

CBS' Monday-night comedy block is going to be a lot less funny after Nov. 26, when the last new installments of Rules of Engagement, Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother are set to air.

Still chugging for about a month after New Year's Day will be House, which is still scheduled to follow the Super Bowl on Feb. 3; Family Guy, which already had a mix of reruns and new episodes set to air through January; and most of CBS' crime series, including the CSI triad.

To take the edge off, not to mention keep their illustrious sketch- and single-camera-comedy skills from getting rusty, the casts of Saturday Night Live, in repeats since the strike began Nov. 5, and 30 Rock are taking to the stage.

SNL, with host Michael Cera and musical guest Yo La Tango, will run through an entire episode Saturday at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Manhattan, with the cast of 30 Rock to do the same on Monday. Proceeds from both already sold-out shows will go to each program's production staff.

"We are doing this to raise spirits, raise awareness and raise money for our hardworking production crews who will be having a hard holiday season if this strike continues," SNL player Amy Poehler said in a statement.

Tina Fey, whose ties to both shows run deep, and current SNL head writer Seth Meyers have been frequent fixtures on the New York picket line.


Why Smithfield filed a RICO suit against UFCW

A recent article on this page by Dr. William Barber ("The fight goes on in Bladen," Nov. 14) did not give a truthful account of the issues between the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and Smithfield Packing Company. This is not the first occasion where Dr. Barber has attacked Smithfield using false information and distorted accusations.

Let me cite one egregious example. Dr. Barber stated: "After a large demonstration at the Smithfield stockholder's meeting, its managers started talking with the union about what a truly fair election would look like."

Dr. Barber is saying that the demonstration forced Smithfield to the table. That simply is not true. In fact, Smithfield had been meeting and talking with the union's leaders about a plant election for weeks before the shareholders meeting. Dr. Barber was told that fact at the meeting.

This deliberate misrepresentation should cause fair-minded readers to ask whether other charges made by the union and its allies are true.

The truth is that Smithfield has agreed -- repeatedly -- to hold a secret-ballot election at Tar Heel. We have agreed to let the employees vote on whether they want the union. But the union has refused -- repeatedly -- to agree to an election.

Instead, the UFCW is running a "corporate campaign." The campaign is designed to force Smithfield to recognize the union without an employee vote. The union is saying to Smithfield: We will hurt your business -- we will even put you out of business -- unless you give in.

If this campaign succeeds, the people hurt most will be the employees at Smithfield. If the UFCW puts Smithfield out of business, it will put the employees out of their jobs. That is morally wrong. And we believe it is illegal. In fact, we believe it is extortion. So we have filed suit against the union under the federal RICO law.

In their campaign, the union and its allies have made dozens upon dozens of false and unsubstantiated charges about conditions at Tar Heel.

This summer, for example, the union charged that employees at the livestock pen did not have fresh water. The next day, state OSHA inspectors showed up unannounced at the plant to investigate. They found -- and the agency said publicly -- that the union's charges were not true.

Smithfield takes pride in the quality products and good jobs we offer. Our wages average above $12 per hour, with many employees making far more than that. We provide complete health insurance for all employees. Our safety record -- at Tar Heel and our other plants, including many where workers are represented by the union -- exceeds the national industry standard.

We welcome an open and honest examination. But we will not let false statements go unanswered.

Dr. Barber cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One goal for which Dr. King fought was the right of all Americans to vote. By secret ballot.

Smithfield is offering the union a secret-ballot election right now. All the union has to do is say yes. Smithfield has even offered to pay half the cost of an independent outside observer -- like the President Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta -- to make sure the vote is fair.

Dr. Barber should call on the union to respect the rights of the employees. After all, last summer over 3,000 of them wrote the union letters asking that they be allowed to vote. Let them vote. Let them decide whether the charges against Smithfield are true. Let the employees decide if they want a union.

-- Dennis Pittman, director of corporate communications for Smithfield Packing Co.


WGA strike boss rebukes writers

Word that writers on some daytime soap operas are continuing to work on the shows during the strike drew sharp comments from the Writers Guild of America East. The writers have been placed in a particularly complicated situation since their shows are already facing uncertain futures and would likely be canceled without fresh episodes.

Some writers have opted for "financial core" status, essentially giving up their Guild membership, while others are reportedly writing in secret, hoping that the Guild does not learn that they are continuing to work on the shows.

Most soap operas are still produced by New York advertising agencies representing soap companies. WGA East spokeswoman Sherry Goldman accused the soap-opera writers of "prolonging the strike" and added: "They will never be full members of the Writers Guild again."


UAW-Navistar strike makes no sense to children

Mike Sheets is an engineer, but he hasn’t been to work for more than three weeks. His five children, who range in age from 2 to 7, are trying to understand why.

“They love it that I’m home, but they ask every day why I’m not going,” said Sheets, who works at International Truck and Engine Corp.’s design and engineering center at 2911 Meyer Road.

It’s difficult to explain to small children what a strike is, Sheets said, while picketing Friday afternoon. Wearing three layers of clothing, Sheets said he was doing OK in the 39-degree weather, but picketing can get tedious, even if it’s only one four-hour shift a week. “It’s kind of boring with nothing to do but watch cars go by,” said Sheets, who has been an engineer at International for nine years. But Sheets continues to picket to show union solidarity.

A four-hour shift of picketing also will earn United Auto Workers striking at International $200 a week. But strike pay is only 20 percent to 25 percent of what union employees normally earn, said Tom Burkholder, president of UAW Local 2911, which represents more than 300 of the 1,000 local International employees.

The union also provides health insurance to striking employees, although Burkholder said it is less comprehensive than the insurance International offers employees.

Sheets said his family had some money saved and so far hasn’t had problems making ends meets, despite the fact he is the sole financial provider for his family of seven.

As the strike enters its fourth week, most union members have stuck with it, Burkholder said.

Despite the lower pay and the recent colder weather for picketing, Burkholder estimated just 30 to 35 UAW members have crossed the picket line and returned to work.

“We aren’t real proud of those people; it’s just not a good thing,” Burkholder said.

As winter sets in, Burkholder said it will be more difficult to keep morale high among strikers.

“It’s not going to be easy, but they are hanging in there,” Burkholder said. “With the cold weather coming, I know it will be harder.”

One thing helping sustain the strike effort is the outreach support from other unions. Burkholder said various union locals have brought firewood and food to the picket line and others have called to ask how they can help.

“There’s been a lot of people who want to help us,” Burkholder said.

At International, local spokesman Jeff Benzing said the volume of work being done at the Fort Wayne center has slowed, but many of the important projects are still moving forward.

“We prioritize our work,” Benzing said.

Talks came to a halt Oct. 23 when the national UAW negotiators, representing about 3,700 employees at nine International plants nationwide, called an unfair labor practice strike.

The contract negotiations are independent from the unfair labor practice strike. The UAW is still awaiting a decision from the National Labor Relations Board about the complaints it filed that led to the strike.


Hollywood's donations chill Candidates' solidarity

The Hollywood writers' strike has placed the Democratic frontrunners in something of a bind, forcing them to choose between unions and the entertainment industry executives who are some of their most important big-money contributors. The responses of Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have been revealing.

A strike has long been in the offing. The two unions that make up the Writers Guild of America voted overwhelmingly (by over 90 percent of their 12,000 members) to authorize a walkout on October 18. Their main point of conflict with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (which bargains on behalf of the movie and TV studios) was the royalties associated with downstream revenue.

Profits from computer downloads of movies and TV shows are the most contentious issue. Currently, content is distributed on the Internet in two ways: Some movies and TV shows are purchased and downloaded through services such as iTunes or Amazon Unbox; in these cases the writers get a negligible portion of the take (a third of a cent for every dollar of profit). Alternatively, studios allow viewers to stream TV shows (not movies, yet) from their websites. The studios sell advertising within these streams, but have wiggled around having to share this revenue with writers by labeling the streams "promotions" rather than "broadcasts." This prevents writers from getting any share at all of the profits. The Writers Guild strike is, at heart, an attempt by writers to claim a small sliver of these two pies. Their position is not unreasonable.

The strike was called on November 5. Within hours, the three top Democratic hopefuls released statements of support. Hillary Clinton's two-sentence statement said, "I support the Writers Guild's pursuit of a fair contract that pays them for their work in all mediums." It then urged the parties to resume bargaining.

John Edwards went a bit further, contributing three sentences to the cause. Characteristically, he noted his own long history of strike support: "As someone who has walked picket lines with workers all across America and as a strong believer in collective bargaining, I hope that both sides are able to quickly reach a just settlement."

Barack Obama went furthest in his own short statement. "I stand with the writers," he declared. "The Guild's demand is a test of whether corporate media corporations [oops] are going to give writers a fair share of the wealth their work creates or continue concentrating profits in the hands of their executives." It wasn't, perhaps, everything the Writers Guild might have hoped for, but it was better than the union got from Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, or Dennis Kucinich--none of whom as of Friday, November 16, had pronounced on the strike. (Bill Richardson issued the most substantive, and thoughtful, support of the lot.)

After their brief statements, Clinton and Obama fell silent. When asked whether any further demonstration of support for the strike was planned, the Clinton campaign simply re-emailed its original statement of quasi-solidarity. When asked the same question, the Obama campaign did not respond. After staying quiet for almost two weeks, Edwards attended a rally for the WGA at the NBC picket lines in Burbank last Friday. Clinton was scheduled to make a campaign stop in Los Angeles last Saturday, but as of Friday had no public plans to do any events in support of the union.

Why such tepid support for the most significant union action likely before November 2008? The answer is that the writers' strike puts Democrats in a tight spot. (So tight that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office will only say that she has no plans to say anything whatsoever about the strike.)

On the one hand, you would expect Democrats to rally to the side of any union, particularly a Hollywood union--particularly a Hollywood union with a legitimate gripe against giant corporate media conglomerates. On the other hand, the management in Hollywood has given Clinton, Obama, and to a lesser extent, Edwards, barrels of money.

Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Brad Grey has given the maximum to Clinton (as well as to Dodd, McCain, and Giuliani, which makes him a reactionary by Hollywood standards). The Sony Corporation's chairman, Howard Stringer, has also maxed out his contributions to Clinton. Sony's film division chairman, Amy Pascal, gave the max to Obama, as did her vice chairman, Yair Landau.

Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, gave to both Clinton and Obama; Oren Aviv, president of Disney's film production, maxed out to Clinton alone. At Warner Brothers, both the president and the chairman gave to Hillary and Obama, with the president, Alan Horn, also throwing money at Edwards. New Line's CEO, Bob Shaye, maxed out his contributions to all three.

At DreamWorks, David Geffen gave to Obama and Edwards, while Jeffrey Katzenberg gave to those two, plus Hillary. Viacom's Sumner Redstone and the Weinstein Company's Harvey Weinstein gave exclusively to Clinton.

There are more examples--many, many more--and when you look down the list you see that nearly every powerful executive in the industry, from Peter Chernin and Kevin Reilly at Fox to Robert Wright at NBC/Universal to Nancy Reiss Tellem at CBS, has been giving to one or more of the big three Democrats.

That may partly explain the candidates' reticence to stump for the Writers Guild the way they might have stumped for, say, the UAW. Another explanation may be that the writers are part of the overclass in the Democrats' vision of the "two Americas." In film, writers are guaranteed a minimum of $106,000 for a screenplay; in TV, networks must pay at least $20,956 for a 22-minute sitcom script and $30,823 for a 44-minute show. (In practice, those numbers are usually doubled since the writer gets a large payoff for the first rerun.) The studios and networks report that the average working writer makes $200,000 a year; the average worker in Los Angeles County makes $52,572.

But if the Democratic notion of "two Americas" is cloying, there are, without question, two Hollywoods. And in the alternative universe of Hollywood, the writers really are the downtrodden.

In the entertainment industry, writing is a sometime thing, with about half of Writers Guild members unemployed at any given time. Because Hollywood writing is rarely steady--movie projects take a long time to complete, but then are finished; TV shows are often canceled--writers rely on residuals to give them some income stability. And Hollywood certainly isn't averse to giving out residuals. A recent study of the film industry by Global Media Intelligence suggested that studios give away as much as 25 percent of a film's profits in residual payments. Last year, that amounted to $3 billion in after-release payouts. From this river of cash, writers received only $121 million. By contrast, an actor or director can receive residual payouts anywhere between $20 million and $70 million for a single picture.

The entire situation is richly ironic: Democrats, corrupted by big-corporate money, barely standing by a union composed of liberal, upper-middle-class scribblers. But the final irony is that the writers' strike presents an actual instance of giant income disparity and economic unfairness. And the Democrats are, for the most part, keeping quiet about it.


WGA cracking down on strike-breakers

East Coast writers took their pickets and message to Wall Street on Tuesday, while West Coast scribes received a show of support from some high-profile sympathizers from SAG as the strike entered its 10th day.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was working behind the scenes with both sides, and Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, accused WGA officials of using intimidation to control dissident members who wish to return to work.

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor was placing phone calls to unspecified studio execs who had expressed an interest in his help with the strike.

"Both the studio side and the writers side asked to talk to the governor," press secretary Aaron McLear said. "So he is talking to both sides individually to get a sense of what the issues are and what if anything he can do to be helpful."

On Monday, Schwarzenegger met with some guild officials, but his Tuesday schedule allowed only phone contact for now with the studio execs, McLear said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also has met with guild officials and talked to studio execs over the phone.

Their efforts are in line with those by several political and industry figures who have expressed interest in helping to restart contract talks between the WGA and the AMPTP. Their negotiations over a new film and TV contract broke down Nov. 4, and the guild began picketing the next day.

In Los Angeles, it was "bring your star to the picket line" day. Outside several entrances to Universal Studios, familiar faces from TV and film walked the eight-block picket line with the writers. SAG said as many as 500 of its members were there to show their support.

Many actors said they were concerned because the WGA negotiations could set a precedent for their contract, which expires in June.

"We've become a close family with all our writers, especially Marc (Cherry)," "Desperate Housewives" star James Denton said. "We're all in the same boat. We're all fighting the same battle."

His co-star, Nicollette Sheridan, had stronger words for the studios and networks.

"I think the companies are clinging to the past," she said. "No matter who is striking, they have to do the fair and right thing, and they are not willing to listen or negotiate."

Actress Camryn Manheim said the solidarity between the two guilds is of the utmost importance.

"It's not possible to have TV and movies without the writers," she said. "Without writers, we're just a bunch of klutzes."

Many of the SAG members pushed the same message: While there are some writers who do very well, most are middle class and often live paycheck to paycheck.

"Without a Trace" star Enrique Murciano said he's also feeling the impact as the show heads into one more episode before production stops.

"We had a camera guy show up with his two kids because he can't afford a nanny anymore and his wife died a couple years ago," Murciano said. "It's serious. I have craftsmen offering services, asking, 'Do you need any work done around your house?' "

Valerie Harper, a member of SAG's national board of directors, said the WGA members' battles are in lock step with those of other unions such as the Service Employees International Union or Communication Workers of America.

"A lot of this is going on in our country -- doing business cheaper and decimating the middle class," Harper said. "In the future, this strike will be a historic moment for unions."

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" creators and actors Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney said they were lucky enough to wrap up production on the show the Friday before the strike.

"I had a friend ask me, 'I noticed your show is in the top 20 on iTunes -- how much do you get?' " Day said. "The answer is zero."

More than 100 Manhattan picketers brought the battle to Wall Street, where they said media moguls were bragging about their fiscal health while claiming poverty at the bargaining table.

"We have to take it to the heart" of the financial center, WGAE president Michael Winship said. "It's the only way we're going to win."

Taking the protest to the site wasn't easy, though. Post-Sept. 11 security concerns made it impossible for the union to get a site closer to the New York Stock Exchange. The picketers' message was received coolly by some of the Financial District workers, but guild members passed out all of their leaflets.

Meanwhile, Ellen DeGeneres on Tuesday canceled her plans to tape her syndicated daytime talk show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," in New York next week as previously planned. DeGeneres will instead tape the show out of her Burbank-based studio.

The news comes after an attack by the WGA East on Friday that accused her of violating strike rules and said she was unwelcome in New York. The letter by WGAE prompted a response by both AFTRA and show producer Telepictures, who defended the performer's decision to go back to work.

Also Tuesday, a number of WGAE members were busy creating videos that mixed humor and advocacy -- taking a page from the playbook of the West Coast writers, most notably "The Office" staff, which released a video through United Hollywood early in the strike.

Winship said that a meeting Monday was held with a number of comedy show writers, who agreed to work on videos that would be posted on the WGAE site and elsewhere on the Web arguing their case.

There were at least two groups of writers doing videos at Battery Park, and union officials said more were shooting all over Manhattan.

One of those groups was the writing staff of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." They spent the morning creating a mock video newscast with the picket line as a backdrop.

Steve Bodow, head writer for "The Daily Show," said the "Office" video was a partial inspiration, though the writers had been thinking of doing something and have spent parts of several days writing it. He said that the video, which will be released this week, will run somewhere around two minutes. It won't show any branding of "The Daily Show" nor will advertise itself as such.

"It's the first thing that we say in the piece -- that this is obviously not 'The Daily Show,' " Bodow said.

He said that the writers weren't planning on making it a regular occurrence and hoped that the strike would be short and that they would all be back to work on their show soon.

"We have no plans to be going to series with it," Bodow joked.

Separately on Tuesday, Counter criticized a move by the WGA to ferret out strikebreakers among its ranks.

"The WGA is using fear and intimidation to control its membership," he said. "Asking members to inform on each other and creating a blacklist of those who question the tactics of the WGA leadership is as unacceptable today as it was when the WGA opposed these tactics in the 1950s."

The statement comes amid speculation some writers might declare "financial core" status in order to keep working through the strike. Under fi-core, members renounce their membership but continue paying limited dues.

Also, a WGA West strike rules compliance committee has been seeking members' help in identifying instances of strikebreaking by members.


ILWU counter-slapped with ULPs

The ILWU Local 142, the union that represents hotel workers at the Pacific Beach Hotel in Waikiki, has filed additional National Labor Relations Board charges against the owner and property manager, and has said that it plans to launch a national consumer boycott of the property if tensions are not resolved by next month.

"We have been running a local consumer boycott, but we plan to expand it nationally on Dec. 1 unless issues between the hotel owners, managers and workers are resolved," said Dave Mori, ILWU spokesman.

While the Pacific Beach Hotel is currently managed by PBH Management, an affiliate of Outrigger Enterprise Group, owner HTH Corp. is slated to end its contract with PBH Dec. 1 and take back management of the property.

Tensions have run high since HTH Corp. notified workers earlier this year that all employees would be laid off and have to reapply for their jobs as a result of the change. Workers at the property's Shogun restaurant also were informed that the eatery would close Nov. 30, leaving them jobless.

Although Pacific Beach's management changeover is scheduled to take place in two weeks, many questions remain, Mori said.

HTH Corp. said it is still making transition-related decisions.

"We plan to hire approximately 90 percent of the managers and 90 percent of the employees, but the hiring process is not finished, and we continue to look at the business forecast for December and into 2008," said Robert Minicola, regional vice president of operations for HTH Corp.

Still, many workers don't know where they stand, Mori said.

The ILWU has asked the NLRB to hear charges that hotel property owners and managers have refused to bargain in good faith and have undermined the process, he said. There are also several charges related to HTH Corp.'s decision to make all workers reapply for their jobs during the management transition, Mori said.

"The 10 percent of workers who haven't been offered jobs are primarily union supporters," Mori said, adding that the union is still trying to negotiate adequate separation for workers whose jobs have been eliminated in the changeover.

Minicola said that Pacific Beach Corp., the division of HTH Corp. that will run Pacific Beach Hotel, has filed its own NLRB charges against the union.

Mori said that other employees are dissatisfied because they have been offered work at greatly reduced wages.

However, HTH Corp. contends that only three workers, whose positions have been eliminated in the company's transition, were offered different jobs that paid less.


AFSCME at odds with City, strike looms

The best-case scenario: Between now and Monday, the city of Duluth (MN) and its largest union agree to a signed contract, ending the months-long tension, and move toward resolution of the city’s retiree health-care crisis.

“That’s pretty slim,” said Deb Strohm, an employment counselor for the city and a negotiator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5.

The worst-case scenario: If the City Council votes Monday to approve a tentative contract reached in September between the city and AFSCME — and if the union rejects or doesn’t vote on the contract, and if the city decides to impose the contract on the union — workers say they will strike and take legal action.

That picture began to emerge Friday at City Hall during a news conference by AFSCME members slamming the city and talking about the possibility of a strike.

“City councilors should reject the mayor’s attempt to bait a strike,” Strohm said. “We had a signed contract; now they want to make changes.”

That last line is up for debate. City Chief Administrative Officer John Hall has repeatedly said the citydoesn’t want changes to its tentative deal with AFSCME, and it is the union that has been stalling.

On Friday, a copy of the tentative agreement was made public, shedding at least a bit more light on what’s stalling a deal. At issue is a crossed-out line that reads: “No full-time employee will have his/her hours involuntarily reduced. No coercion or pressure will be brought to bear on any employee to reduce his/her hours.”

While Hall made that information public on Monday to the City Council, the contract shows that employees have not been working under that provision since Dec. 31, 2006, when the language expired.

“For the last 11 months we have had unfettered right to reduce employee hours if needed,” Hall said, adding that all the other bargaining units in the city have agreed to the same language.

Strohm said that during a negotiating session Thursday with a state mediator, the union “fully met with the city’s demands, but they demanded more.”

“What more do they want from us?” she said.

Strohm said the union agreed to language that would allow city managers to meet with employees in a time of financial crisis and reduce full-time workers’ hours to 32 during a maximum of two two-week pay periods a year.

“We’re worried about having our hours cut at a whim,” Strohm said.

Hall said the city doesn’t want restrictions on its ability to cut hours if a financial crisis hits.

“We’re not going to limit it, because we have no way of knowing what the future will bring,” he said.

While the two sides have gone back and forth over other issues since a tentative deal was reached Sept. 18, both sides agree the issue of the city’s ability to cut workers’ hours has kept the union from taking the contract to a vote. Hall said he’s worried the union is trying to stall a vote until a new City Council takes office, which is why he petitioned the council to vote on the deal at a special meeting Monday.

If the council votes to approve the contract, Strohm said the union probably would vote on it — and probably would reject it.

Hall suggested that if that happens — or the uniondoesn’t vote on the deal — the city might impose the contract on its workers, arguing that money is lost the longer a vote is delayed.

“Very reluctantly,” he said. “Can I say we would not do that? No. The union can’t just wait forever until we succumb to their demands. They can’t hold this city hostage forever.”

In the case of an imposed contract, Strohm said: “Our next step would be for legal action. The potential for a strike does exist.”


Counter-protesters back Sarkozy v. strikers

Thousands of government supporters were gathering in Paris today to vent their fury over a public transport strike and to cheer on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic reforms.

After days of transport chaos and deadlock over one of the key reforms, the railway workers’ strike seemed set to continue even though the number involved is decreasing each day. A separate protest by students is also dragging on.

The government has taken comfort from widespread anger at the disruption to public transport. Reports of strikers obstructing railway lines to prevent trains leaving stations have provoked indignation.

In the presidential entourage a discussion went on about whether – and when – to use force against a small band of militants if they carried on blocking transport when the majority had gone back to work.

The SNCF rail company said that only 32% of its staff were on strike on Friday compared with 61% on Wednesday, the first day of the action. The strikes were estimated by the government to have cost France about 0.1% of its GDP.

Various groups have sprung up to protest against the strikers’ struggle to keep their retirement privileges under a “special regimes” system that Sarkozy wants to abolish. Organisers hoped to attract 40,000 to today’s demonstration in an attempt to persuade the unions to back down.

Rail workers will vote today on whether to heed a call from the leader of one of the more moderate unions to return to work in exchange for talks with the government. A militant core wants to carry on the strike at least until Tuesday when civil servants, postal workers and teachers are all expected to stop work for the day.

The strike has turned into a trial of strength over reform of the “special regimes”, a system considered unfair because it allows 500,000 workers – about one tenth of the public sector – to retire on a full pension much earlier than the others. Train drivers can stop work at 50.

Some gas and electricity workers and employees of the state opera and theatre companies also benefit because of what were once considered to be difficult working conditions.

“It’s very irritating,” said Didier Neyrat, a businessman, “to see this small group of workers holding the country hostage. I’m glad we’ve elected a president who wants to change things.”

Sarkozy insists that talks cannot begin until the strikers go back to work. “You cannot negotiate with a revolver against your head,” he told his staff last week.

At the same time – and in accordance with Sarkozy’s “work more, earn more” gospel – the government is willing to offer salary increases to workers who put off retirement.

Union hardliners dream of a repeat of the great union triumph of 1995 when an attempt by the then president, Jacques Chirac, to tinker with the “special regimes” prompted two weeks of strikes and protest, precipitating the early dissolution of the government and new elections in which the left came to power.

Conditions this time are different and not only because of the public’s overwhelming opposition to the strikers: Sarkozy was elected on a mandate of “rupture” with the past and repeatedly told voters he would do away with the “special regimes”.

He also pledged to “liquidate” the culture of protest. That seemed ambitious, however, as Trotskyist students intensified their revolt with sit-ins at dozens of campuses across France.

The students have pledged support for the railway workers in the hope of forming an “antiSarko” front and the chaos of what some are calling “Black November” risks spreading on Tuesday when civil servants will stop work. They are protesting against government plans to streamline the bureaucracy by not replacing one in three retiring civil servants.

A plan to streamline the justice system, meanwhile, with the closure of dozens of courts has sparked the fury of judges and lawyers, who will stage their own protest next Thursday.

“The president told us November would be difficult,” said an aide to Sarkozy. He was right.


Striker dies on Broadway picket line

Representatives of stagehands and Broadway producers met for the first time today since a strike shuttered 27 Broadway shows a week ago.

Separately, a third-generation stagehand collapsed and died last night outside of Walt Disney Co.'s "The Lion King" while standing by the picket line.

The strike by Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, on the eve of the holiday season, costs the New York City economy about $2 million a day, according to Comptroller William Thompson. It began Nov. 10, suspending "The Phantom of the Opera," "Jersey Boys" as well as shows in previews, such as "Is He Dead?" and Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention."

Stagehands walked off the job after three months of negotiations, shuttering much of the $939 million-a-year industry. The action also affects members of Actors' Equity Association, of musicians' Local 802, box-office personnel, ushers and all the rest of the union labor force that makes Broadway shows happen every night.

The producers league, on its Web site, said shows affected would remain closed at least through tomorrow.

Darkened Houses

Colleen Roche, a spokeswoman for the League of American Theaters and Producers, declined to comment today, as did Local 1 spokesman Bruce Cohen.

Yesterday, shortly before 7 p.m., Francis Lavaia, a stagehand at the Minskoff Theater, collapsed. He was pronounced dead at 7:29 p.m. at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, said Detective Brian Sessa of the New York Police Department.

Sessa referred questions about the cause of death to the New York Medical Examiner. A spokeswoman wasn't available for comment.

"He looked fine," said James Brown-Orleans, an actor in the show. "Next thing I know, he was on the floor."

Brown-Orleans said Lavaia, who was in his late 50s, didn't respond to cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"It's a somber day," said Danny Rutigliano, an actor in the show.

Lavaia has two sons who also are stagehands on the show, said Rutigliano.

Luring Customers Back

In 121 years, Local 1 had never gone on strike. Broadway's theater owners previously yielded to the union's demands rather than face the consequences of darkened houses.

Stagehands say they are determined to protect the pay and benefits provided under a contract refined by decades of negotiations. Producers say they no longer can afford those terms.

One point of contention is the cost of "load-in," when the scenery, lighting and sound equipment are installed in a theater. The stagehands' contract requires a minimum number of union workers that producers say is unreasonable.

Stagehands contend that advanced technology makes stages more dangerous and assert that their specialized skills are necessary for shows to run smoothly and safely. They are offering to be flexible about work rules if they are offered something in return.

More than 25 restaurants in Manhattan's theater district, including "21" Club and Charley O's, today started to offer 15 percent discounts on lunches and dinners to lure back theater-going customers. The program, announced yesterday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ends Nov. 23.


Anyone want to picket this picket?

I'm not sure how to feel about this whole television writer's strike. Of course I support the writers -- even the obscenely rich ones -- and I think they should be paid fairly for their work.

But on the other hand, I want my shows back!

Now, please.

As a longtime television fan, I thought I'd already endured every indignity possible -- re-runs, season splitting, unjust cancellations.

But a writer's strike? Until a few months ago, I didn't even know that was possible. Isn't there some sort of law against messing with people's TV? And if not, shouldn't there be?

And is anyone else worried that the writers are going to give the makeup people ideas? I have HDTV, so I know the results of that strike would be even less pretty than this one.

Plus, I just don't need the stress of knowing I've seen my last episode of "The Office" until who knows when. And I'd used up my last ounce of patience last spring, when I reluctantly accepted the news that I wouldn't see "Lost's" scant 16 episodes until February.

How am I supposed to accept that now, I might see only eight?

If this thing doesn't resolve itself real quick-like, it's going to be a long, lonely winter. Some of television's most popular shows, like my beloved "Office," are already out of original episodes. Many more will be done before the end of the year.

There are some signs of movement, though. Late this week, "Lost's" show runner Carlton Cuse said he'd cross the picket lines to do post-production work on the eight episodes already filmed. And it sounds like talks are in place to get Conan, Dave and Jay back on the late night airwaves.

Although I'd prefer a different outcome for the passionate people risking their careers and my happiness with this strike, at least something is happening.

I know that the issues here are complex, and it's very hard for me to sympathize with the studios trying to keep future Internet profits away from the very people who make them profitable.

But this strike is starting to feel like it's own episode of "The Twilight Zone."

Shows are shut down. Actors are off work. And at this very moment, people are gathered around tables coming up with new reality shows to fill the void.

I read that NBC is planning one called "Clash of the Choirs."

As in church choirs.

I want my shows back.

Now, please.

Running out

Peruse the following list to see how many episodes remain before your favorite shows dry up (according to TV Guide). Then cross your fingers, face the north, click your heels together six times and wish for the end of the writer's strike.

• "30 Rock"-- Four episodes left

• "Back to You" -- two episodes left

• "Bionic Woman" -- two episodes left

• "Boston Legal" --eight episodes left

• "Brothers & Sisters" -- five episodes left

• "Chuck" -- four episodes left

• "CSI: NY:" --five episodes left

• "Desperate Housewives" -- three episodes left

• "Dirty Sexy Money" -- four episodes left

• "Friday Night Lights" -- seven episodes left

• "Gossip Girl" -- five episodes left

• "Grey's Anatomy" -- three episodes left

• "Heroes" -- three episodes left

• "House" -- five episodes left

• "Las Vegas" -- 10 episodes left

• "Law & Order SVU" -- six episodes left

• "Lost" --eight episodes left

• "Medium" -- nine episodes left

• "Men in Trees," --12 episodes left

• "My Name is Earl" -- three episodes left

• "The Office" -- All gone

• "Private Practice" -- three or four episodes left

• "Pushing Daisies" -- three episodes left

• "Samantha Who?" --seven episodes left

• "Scrubs" -- seven episodes left

• "Smallville" -- seven episodes left

• "Ugly Betty" --four or five episodes left


First 'Internet strike' fades from front pages

Last week in a CBS Studios picket line, one TV writer referred to the current WGA work stoppage as "the first Internet strike." And there may be something to that.

Certainly you'd want to clarify that, first of all, even in the last few years of the Internet era, there have been plenty of labor strikes across the country -- to say nothing of the world. Thousands of UAW workers are striking right now against truck-maker Navistar. New York cabbies have called two strikes since September. Even employees at a dairy plant in Dawson, Minn., walked off the job a couple of weeks ago.

But this strike is the first that is not only about Internet commerce, it is also, in part, playing out on the Internet. The Writers Guild of America and its strike captains have set up online bulletins and blogs -- such as the one at UnitedHollywood.com -- to keep members updated. Other writer groups have tried to foster online solidarity by setting up "virtual picket lines" on Facebook and MySpace, and by producing "viral" videos of high-profile writers and actors criticizing the media companies' position.

When Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers President Nick Counter released a statement last week comparing WGA efforts to identify strikebreakers (a.k.a. "scabs") to 1950s-era blacklisting, the blogs instantly lit up with comments from incensed writers.

"I think we all know that Nick Counter is just trying to spin union policy his way," wrote one commenter on Nikki Finke's LA Weekly blog, DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com, which has become a go-to source for strike news. "WGA members are being asked to let the leadership know if anyone is scabbing. This is not at all unusual during a strike by any union."

"Maybe this crap work[ed] in 1988 when we didn't have access to websites, blogs and online videos," wrote another.

Finke, who said she saw traffic to her site nearly triple in the first week of the strike, agreed in an interview that "in those days, it was extremely hard to get information coming in, and to give it going out. That is not the case now.

"It's a little early to see what kind of constructive or destructive effect the Internet will have on the strike as it continues." But, she added, "I would have to say if it helps any side, it helps the writers" by providing an information source that is independent of the large media companies.

Get to work

AS the strike moves into its third week, however, much of its news luster is fading, and the story has dropped off of front pages and home pages of major media outlets across the country. It is a strike, after all, and during a strike, not much happens.

For better or worse, news, like entertainment, has become a kind of content, and when the content dries up, people lose interest. In other words, to stay fresh this story needs more content. Which brings us back to the Internet. The very writers who have delivered "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Mad Men," "Boston Legal," "The Simpsons," "30 Rock," "The Office" and every other quality Hollywood product of the last two decades should use this downtime to produce a few great episodes of Web television. Why do that? Well, creating the Internet's first Web hit would be not only a publicity boon for their cause, but proof of their most salient contention: that the Web is a viable, robust and profitable new platform, not some hostile media backwater.

There may be certain obstacles -- some TV writers have clauses in their show contracts preventing them from producing serial content for other media. And then the WGA, which has tried to control the message of the strike, may not want writers to go producing online content willy-nilly.

The strike rules, by the way, prohibit guild members from writing for any of the long list of struck media companies, but they say nothing about creating online content as individuals, for non-struck companies or for companies they form themselves.

But these are writers, aren't they? If they're going to protest, they should use the best weapon they've got: their pens. That instrument would seem to be an awful lot mightier than the picket sign -- which, as a symbol of solidarity in the 21st century, has begun to look positively quaint.


It's down to Teamsters v. IAM at Borg-Warner

More than 1,000 BorgWarner employees in Ithaca and Cortland, NY will have to go through a second election to determine the union that will represent them after the vote produced no majority opinion.

Of the 1,041 eligible voters, 1,008 voted Friday:

* 397 for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 317;
* 393 for the International Association of the Machinists, Local 2001;
* 215 for no representation;
* 3 ballots were challenged.

Without a majority, the National Labor Relations Board does not recognize the Teamsters as winners of the election despite garnering the most votes. Instead, a second vote that has yet to be determined by the NLRB will provide only the unions as options.

Vice President of Human Resources at BorgWarner Cal Organ said the company hoped the workers would put their trust in the company.

In a statement BorgWarner wrote: “BorgWarner appreciates the high turnout and the professional manner in which the election observers and the voters handled this process. We are very grateful to those employees who voted to put your trust in the company. We respect the opinions of those employees who voted for either union, and we hope that we can all come together as members of the BorgWarner team.”

John Carr, a spokesman for the Machinists, said he thinks the divided vote “has got to make for a difficult (work) environment.”

One thing Friday's vote did decide is that BorgWarner in Ithaca will be the only one of the 13 BorgWarner sites with union representation aside from a plant in Muncie, Ind., that is slated to close in 2009.

In 2005, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters withdrew from the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to join the Change to Win Coalition, which represents seven unions. The 55 unions in the AFL-CIO have an agreement not to challenge union representation within the organization.

That agreement, which is written in provision 20 of the AFL-CIO bylaws, kept unions within the AFL-CIO from challenging other member unions, but the provision does not extend to the Change to Win Coalition, said Bernie Horowitz, spokesman for the NLRB.

Horowitz said it's within the Teamsters rights to challenge the Machinists for representation.

The company has until Friday, Nov. 23 to challenge the vote, but if no objections are made, the run-off election will be held within the next few weeks, according to a written statement from BorgWarner.


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