After more than six weeks on the picket line outside CBS Television City, an early morning skeleton crew of three striking CBS writers still retained enough of a sense of humor Wednesday to joke about their "$6,000 suntans" as they awaited today's scheduled contract vote that might end their walkout.
"People keep saying to me, 'You look so healthy,' " said Chris Berthelsen, a writer-producer for on-air promotion at CBS, appropriately dressed in shorts for another day on the line. "I'm getting a great tan."
The pickets' humor belied the seriousness with which they were anticipating today's 9:30 a.m. meeting at the Writers Guild of America, which will be their first opportunity to hear the union present CBS' latest offer for a three-year contract.
While they have been encouraged by thumbnail sketches of the proposal and by their negotiators' recommendations of it, they said they were withholding final judgment.
"There are significant questions which have been left unanswered, and we want definite answers before we make a decision," said KCBS-TV news writer Jay Reisman. He cited as examples the question of whether management is authorized to do any writing and of improvements in employee benefits.
"I think we could live with it as long as what we've been told about the elimination of firing without arbitration and unlimited use of temporaries is included," Berthelsen said. "Our game plan is just to hang in there and see what happens (at the meeting)."
"If it (the proposal) is going to bring an end to this thing, we are obviously very happy," said Skip Spiro, a promotion writer and producer for CBS. "It's been very unpleasant, of course, just being out of work and having other people do your job. We'll never recoup the kind of losses that we faced."
But Spiro, like his two colleagues, said he was willing to remain on strike indefinitely if the proposed pact doesn't address the concerns that initially prompted the March 2 walkout. "What we do (at the meeting today) will affect us for three years," Berthelsen said.
Reisman, who has been with CBS for 18 years and gone through four strikes, said that he wasn't certain how far that attitude extended through the 315 striking CBS workers--74 of whom work in Los Angeles at CBS, KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNX-AM (1070).
"The pressure on the younger writers has been great," he said, "and that is because they've never seen a strike before. . . . Being young, few have suitable savings to sustain them through a strike of this length. Their eagerness to settle could outweigh their concern and foresight for the future."
Indeed, the ranks of available picketers have been depleted recently--not by lack of enthusiasm but because many writers are busy with free-lance work or, in some cases, have found permanent jobs elsewhere during the lengthy strike. One producer has gone to work at KCET-TV Channel 28 and another joined KTIE-TV Channel 63 in Oxnard, Reisman said.
Even if the strike does end today, Reisman said, he believes bad feelings will continue to taint the once-sunny work atmosphere at CBS. "Now it's strickly an adversary relationship between management and labor," he said. "Originally, you felt honored to work here. Now you feel soiled."
Spiro agreed: "I'm sure there'll be some of that (tension). Personally, I don't have time for that. I go in and do my job, and then I go home and play with the kids."
Regardless of management-union animosity, Reisman said that he thinks most people at CBS will be happy to see the writers back at their desks. "We provide the comic relief," he said.