Striking writers resort to unfair labor practice?

Matters between the Writers’ Guild of America and the alliance of producers has not been cordial, to put it mildly, since the Guild struck work on November 5 last year. Now, however, the situation is set to develop into an ugly, no-holds-barred fistfight.

The reason for the new hostility: the WGA West signed an agreement with United Artists that allowed the company to work around the WGA strike. Other production companies are now questioning how and why the WGA was giving special consideration to some production companies and rebuffing others.

According to an entertainment labor lawyer with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Alan M. Brunswick, the guild ran the risk of being charged under federal law for not dealing with all companies equally. Brunswick said, “If they’re willing to sign the same deal and the guild won’t give them the time of day, I think that raises an issue.”

Brunswick said though he did not represent Dick Clark Productions, United Artists, or Letterman’s company World Wide Pants, he did represent a number of other companies who want to work out individual agreements with the guild. World Wide Pants, incidentally, was the first company to work out an agreement with the guild on December 28 last year.

From a legal standpoint, Brunswick said, the production companies could possibly file a charge of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against the WGA, if they felt the guild was not being fair to them.

The general counsel for the WGA West Coast, Anthony R. Segall, said the guild was ready to honor its bargaining obligations according to the law. However, he said, the guild reserved its right to work out strategies for dealing with individual companies keeping in mind its ‘strategic concerns and objectives.’

During the course of a telephonic interview, Segall also said there were provisions within the agreement the guild had arrived at with World Wide Pants that allowed any deal signed with a larger production company to supersede it. As per the agreement with World Wide Pants, a producer has an interim agreement with the guild with no risk of having to accept terms that are poorer than what a rival could possibly get.

One company that has been trying hard to hammer out an agreement is Dick Clark Productions, the producer of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe Awards. The company has met with no success in its efforts so far.

The reason for Dick Clark Productions’ singular lack of success in working out an agreement with the WGA is that such an agreement would allow NBC, on which the Globes would be aired, the opportunity to promote movies for Universal, its sister concern, and also bring in money in the form of advertising.

The frenzied bargaining continued Sunday with regard to the Golden Globes situation. People in the know said Sunday saw Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal, holding a conference call to find out ways of saving the situation. Participants in the call included NBC Entertainment co-chairmen Marc Graboff and Ben Silverman, HFPA leaders, and also executives from Dick Clark Productions.

One of the possibilities explored during the call was having a show with no audience or Hollywood stars; a show that was totally staged and based on film clips.

The deal with United Artists, in the meanwhile, has not been signed yet. It is in the final stages, and is seen as part of the guild’s strategy of working out agreements with smaller production companies for more leverage at the bargaining table. However, it would be prudent not to read too much into the deal.

For one, a single deal, such as the one with United Artists, would not necessarily alter the power equations that the strike has brought forth. To recollect, the last time writers struck work, the guild had worked out arrangements with over 100 production companies, with no significant effect. While Tom Cruise does bring some sheen to it, United Artists is by no means a production giant, making between four to six movies per year.

There are other pitfalls to think of. First of all, working out arrangements with independent producers raised the specter of big studios teaming up with these producers and using them as ‘processing factories’. Anything is possible in Hollywood, and such a scenario is not in the realm of impossibility.

However, the possibility of a deal with United Artists, controlled by Hollywood icon Tom Cruise and company CEO Paula Wagner, brought cheers from the writers, who have been on strike for just over two months now.

United Artists is not the company the guild is in talks with currently. It is also holding discussions with the Weinstein Company and also Lionsgate.


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