Conciliatory Words Flow in Aftermath of Bitter Strike

Jobs and WorkplaceUnionsContractsEntertainmentTelevisionCompanies and Corporations

After five months of often bitter feuding, officials from the two sides of the Writers Guild of America strike expressed a measure of sympathy for one another during a joint appearance at a news conference Friday.

Herb Steinberg, spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, exhorted out-of-town TV critics and reporters to take greater notice of the contributions of writers, calling their anonymity a "terrible frustration."

Brian Walton, chief negotiator for the writers guild, meanwhile spoke what he described as "heresy" when he echoed the producers' contention that "it is quite difficult to legislate" extensive script control for guild members.

But evidence of anger and frustration occasionally surfaced during their appearance before the Television Critics Assn. with guild president George Kirgo and writer-producer George Eckstein, a member of the steering committee of the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, which had tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement during the long strike.

Walton, for example, expressed amazement at the position the networks took during the strike of refusing to accept new material from producers who signed interim agreements with the 9,000-member union.

"It was interesting that NBC more than others had the benefit of interim contracts," he said, citing the deals that were signed by the producers of "The Cosby Show," "A Different World," "Alf," "Amen" and "Highway to Heaven," so that when programming chief Brandon Tartikoff "got up and gave this ringing vow of solidarity with the AMPTP, he already had five or six of his most popular shows in his pocket."

Eckstein, speaking as a writer and not for the caucus, expressed his "distress" that the tentative agreement announced Wednesday, which will be put to a ratification vote Sunday, abandons the "lawsuit against the networks, the restraint of trade action, because I think it was so nakedly in violation of federal law."

Kirgo immediately jumped in with a joke that took the edge off Eckstein's complaint. "We'll get back at them for that," he quipped. "We're going to write some lousy shows this year."

In an interview after the news conference, Kirgo let fly a barb of his own--not at the producers but at the coalition of dissident writers within the guild that had threatened to resign their active status and return to work.

"Each week that they made a threat to us encouraged the alliance to continue the strike," he said. "They themselves are responsible for about seven weeks of the strike."

Asked if he thought the producers had been out to bust the union, he said: "I think they just wanted to weaken the union, make it a sweetheart union, but not bust it. They need us to do their bookkeeping, for arbitration and stuff like that. We're very valuable to them, but they don't want us strong."

Most of the news conference was given over to assessing the lessons, the cost and the impact of the strike, which began March 7 and became one of the longest in Hollywood history.

Asked how much was gained or lost by the strike, Steinberg replied emphatically that "a strike is the most drastic kind of industrial war, and no one wins a war."

Walton estimated that the "loss to the companies and the networks in immediate terms is probably in the hundreds of millions (of dollars). . . . The loss to writers is in the millions of dollars."

Kirgo called for replacing last-minute confrontational negotiations with "summitry."

"We get together every three or four years and we scream at each other. . . . There's something wrong about that. . . . We should have labor relations and negotiations every year, a kind of summitry where the producers and the unions get together and talk about what's happening in the industry."

The union executives also said the strike had brought the guild face-to-face with Hollywood's new corporate reality.

"One of the problems we had in negotiating," Kirgo said, "is we really didn't realize who we were negotiating with. I think for the first time we understood that the companies we were looking at were not studio people. Coca Cola is Columbia, and Gulf & Western is Paramount."

Walton called the strike a traumatic event. "It was a shocking experience, I think, for people on both sides. I had the impression . . . when I called Nick Counter, who is president of the alliance, on March 6, to tell him there was going to be a strike at 9 o'clock the next morning, that he was shocked. I was shocked that he was shocked and therein lies a lot of what went on."

"But the union is stronger than it ever was," Kirgo said. "Nine thousand of us stayed out for five months, for five months, and said no. For that to happen in the 1980s, during the glory years of the Reagan Administration, when one union was pushed back after another, I think is a remarkable achievement. Peace is wonderful."

Asked whether there might be animosity toward the writers by other unions that were sidelined during the walkout, Steinberg, calling himself a veteran of several strikes, said he had never seen recrimination afterward.

"I promise you, the other guilds . . . are as happy as the writers to be back to work."

Besides, Eckstein said, "the substantial burden of loss was on the writers in the development area. There were fewer pilots developed. . . . For most of the rest of the industry, all we've done is defer the production. So there will still be the same number of grips working, the same number of assignments."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading