Union writers opt for Financial Core Status

When Hollywood’s studios walked away from the bargaining table last month, striking screenwriters came out swinging. They filed a legal complaint, boycotted an awards show and picketed late-night television programs.

But the militant tactics may be creating fissures within the guild. In particular, some writers wonder whether they are actually doing more harm to themselves than their opponents. “It’s a classic rope-a-dope, like the Ali-Foreman fight,” said John Ridley, referring to the 1974 boxing match in Zaire during which George Foreman outpunched Muhammad Ali for seven rounds, only to fall, exhausted, in the eighth.

Mr. Ridley, an open critic of the striking writers guilds whose credits include the “Barbershop” and “Third Watch” television series, created ripples here last week when he became the first prominent writer to break publicly with the Writers Guild of America West by declaring “financial core” status. Such standing allows someone to pay union dues and work for employers under its contract without observing its rules as an active member.

Earlier, a handful of soap opera writers — including the two head writers for “All My Children” — took a similar step, even as other writers continued with a strike that began on Nov. 5 when some 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East walked out.

Such actions have been rare, and they mark the extreme edge of discontent within the guild, which has — like the major companies they oppose — so far retained a united front as it seeks more compensation for new media, among other issues.

Yet they point toward a growing unease among some guild members that the hardball tactics are backfiring, damaging the public image of the guilds and the well-being of many writers, without making a dent in the biggest companies that oppose them.

Things got sufficiently tense this week that Jon Stewart, a guild member who returned to “The Daily Show” on Monday without writers, questioned in a barbed on-air quip why the guild was willing to sign an independent agreement with David Letterman’s production company and not others.

Similar blowback erupted this week, when the threat of guild pickets chased celebrities away from, and ultimately shut down, the Golden Globes ceremony planned for Sunday evening. The move was intended to pressure NBC into returning to the bargaining table.

(The writers had already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the companies of failing to bargain in good faith.)

Instead, according to executives who requested anonymity to avoid further complicating dealings with writers, Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, a division of General Electric, has toughened his stance. Despite entreaties from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the event’s sponsor, he refused to let go of the Globes broadcast so a picket-free gala could proceed.

Meanwhile, Barry Adelman — executive producer of the Golden Globes telecast for Dick Clark Productions and a 31-year member of the writers guild — thought he had a solution that would allow the show to go on. But his offer to the writers, granting a prime-time showcase to the president of the West Coast guild to make his case, was rebuffed. Mr. Adelson declined to comment.

A less senior writer, Matt O’Neil, was provoked by the Globes shutdown to circulate an unusually pointed e-mail message to about 30 writers and industry players. “I don’t have a problem with any of the negotiating tactics we have used ... until now,” Mr. O’Neil wrote.

In an interview, Mr. O’Neil, who is working toward his first produced movie credit, said he was supportive of the strike’s goals, but added: “It’s very easy if I am a very big-time writer to sit on a picket line. It’s not as easy for a person who is on the way up or things are just starting to happen.”

The guild’s tactics, of late, bear the stamp of its strike coordinator, Jeff Hermanson. A veteran of blue-collar labor battles on behalf of carpenters, garment workers and others, Mr. Hermanson has long argued that companies require more stick than carrot.

In a phone interview Thursday, Mr. Hermanson said that some self-inflicted damage was inevitable in a strike.

“There’s always a need for sacrifice in order to achieve your objective,” Mr. Hermanson said. He said the members’ resolve had been strengthened by support from the Screen Actors Guild.

Yet writers found themselves in conflict with a well-liked fellow writer last week when they picketed “The Tonight Show” and its host, Jay Leno, and then began an investigation into whether his writing of his own monologues violated the union’s strike rules.

“How does fighting against Jay Leno and his decision to write his own jokes help get us a contract?” Craig Mazin, a former board member of the West Coast guild, wrote on his blog, artfulwriter.com.

Two of the most prominent soap opera writers to return to work are James Harmon Brown and Barbara J. Esensten, the co-head writers of “All My Children” on ABC, according to someone briefed on their decision who would discuss it only anonymously. The writing team, whose credits include “Guiding Light” and “Port Charles,” accepted financial core status and returned to work in late December.

The two writers did not respond Thursday to messages left at their offices.

Still uncertain is whether doubts about the conduct of the strikers will provoke organized resistance. Writers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution by other members, said last week that at least 50 prominent writers have formed a network of dissent.

That group is unlikely to make any public break with guild leaders until they see whether the Directors Guild of America — approaching contract negotiations with producers — reaches a deal that can become a model for a writers’ pact.

For the moment, Mr. Ridley has been warning writers who are seeking his advice about financial core status not to be hasty.

“I’m in a place where I can do it and survive,” he said. But, he cautioned, “there will be repercussions.”


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