Writers End Strike; Top Shows Back at Work

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's film and television writers voted overwhelmingly Monday night to end their 2-week-old strike, but their disappointed leader said today that their approval of a new contract was a "defeat" on a key issue: videocassette revenue-sharing.

Ernest Lehman, president of the West Coast Writers Guild, made the comment at 1 a.m. after a packed, four-hour guild meeting at the Hollywood Palladium. He reiterated it at a brief press conference eight hours later to announce the final vote count.

Nearly 72% of those voting approved the new contract, with 2,075 in favor of it and 822 against it. The vote means that writers will return to work immediately and that five of six strike-stopped NBC shows can resume production.

The programs are the top-rated "The Cosby Show," "Sara" and "Hill Street Blues," and the nightly "Tonight Starring Johnny Carson" and "Late Night With David Letterman." The last two and "Saturday Night Live" had been airing reruns during the strike.

Live Broadcasts March 30

NBC said "Saturday Night Live" will resume its live broadcasts on March 30.

Lehman, who voted against the contract, said "the membership has spoken loudly and clearly" against a protracted walkout. Although he is unhappy with the contract, he added, its approval "doesn't weaken the guild in the future."

"Absolutely," he said when asked if he considers the contract's videocassette provisions a defeat for guild members. "I don't want to pretend this was some great victory. I'm happy the writers went back to work. I'm not happy at what we gave away."

More for Health Plan

He referred to the union's agreement to give up arbitration on sharing profits from recorded videocassettes from 1973 to last Feb. 28--when the old contract expired--in return for $1 million put by management into the guild's health plan.

The guild, which once sought 1.2% of distributors' profits from videocassette sales, also agreed to accept what Lehman called one-fifth of that--1.5% of producers' profits for the first $1 million in sales, and 1.8% after that.

The formula is the same as one the Directors Guild of America reached last July with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The alliance, whose first contract offer was resoundingly rejected by Hollywood writers on March 1, reached a tentative agreement with guild negotiators a week later after 16 hours of nonstop bargaining.

Lehman estimated that the writers will lose $40 million they might have won had they triumphed in the videocassette arbitration. The new pact, retroactive to March 1, expires Feb. 29, 1988.

Management Pleased

Alliance President Nicholas J. Counter III expressed pleasure at the vote, the counting of which was not completed until about 4 a.m. today.

"From our standpoint, it was good for our industry and good for the guild to have reached a successful agreement," Counter said.

A majority of the guild's 17-member negotiating committee had recommended approval of the contract, although on March 11 so much sentiment was voiced against it at a membership meeting that it appeared ratification was in doubt.

Votes were cast at that raucous, often-bitter meeting, which was recessed after four hours of stormy debate. Votes cast during that meeting were "sequestered" and not immediately counted.

Dramatic Turnaround

More discussion and a final vote was set for Monday night, when, in a dramatic turnaround, the tide shifted in favor of the proposed agreement, with a majority of about 50 speakers urging approval.

The final session was attended by more than 3,000 members, a spokesman said. With their majority vote, "they said they don't want a long, arduous strike" unless convincingly shown that gains would outweigh losses, said Naomi Gurian, the guild's executive director.

East Coast guild members voted a week ago to ratify the contract, which Gurian describes as "adequate," with improvements in health benefits, creative rights and an average 6%-a-year hike in minimum pay for film and television scripts.

She also indicated that the fight for a better percentage of videocassettes for writers is far from over. "No way," she said, laughing. "For as long as videocassettes live, this union will be fighting to get an adequate share."

Membership Content

"Ernie and I feel precisely the same way," she said when asked if she felt as unhappy as Lehman over the contract's videocassette provisions. "That is, we would have liked a better deal. But I am content that the membership is content with this one."

Lionel Chetwynd, spokesman for the Union Blues, a guild faction that sought ratification of management's two contract offers, said today that he did not think that last week's vote, had it been tallied, would have been as strong for the contract as Monday's final balloting.

"But it was a different ball game last night," he said. "People were listening with different ears." He added that while the final vote might have been a personal defeat for Lehman, "it's certainly not a defeat for him as (guild) president."

"This guild is unified."

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