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ABC Lockout Causing Division Within Union

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The strains of a nine-week lockout by Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television unit are beginning to show on members of NABET, the production and technical union whose members have been working without a contract for the last 21 months.

At Burbank-based NABET Local 57, the union’s second-largest local, some locked-out employees have started a petition campaign to force a vote--thus far barred by the union’s leadership--on the company’s latest contract proposal.

Others have started a petition drive to decertify NABET entirely as their bargaining representative and to affiliate with another union, possibly the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.

Either move would represent a major victory for Disney, which has waged a determined war with the union over wages, outside staffing and health and pension benefits reminiscent of the National Basketball Assn.'s nearly season-long player lockout.

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Los Angeles union members say the labor dispute has exacerbated tensions within the L.A. local, which represents behind-the-scenes engineers as well as news writers and producers, and between the L.A. local and other, more militant locals, especially New York’s.

“I believe the L.A. newswriters could vote to ratify [ABC’s latest contract proposal], while the engineers as a whole could not,” said Tom Tison, an ABC News producer and a former member of the local’s executive board.

At the heart of the trouble are the stalled negotiations between ABC and NABET, the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. These date back to March 31, 1997, when the union’s last contract expired. But they took an ominous turn Nov. 2, when the union staged a one-day walkout to protest a reduction in health benefits imposed by the company.

The walkout disrupted several live telecasts by the network, which responded the following day by locking out all 2,200 NABET members, including 600 in Los Angeles--forbidding them to return to work unless the union agreed to give ABC at least 72 hours’ notice of any further job actions. The union flatly refused.

“That would mean waiving our fundamental right to engage in union activity,” said Tom Donahue, a NABET spokesman.

ABC followed up with what it called its “final” contract proposal on Dec. 11. To that, said Donahue, “the initial reaction of the bargaining committee was unanimously negative.”

Among other shortcomings, he said, the proposal includes an effective pay cut for day employees (those hired on a per-diem basis, without permanent benefits) and lacks a satisfactory amnesty provision to protect returning union members from retaliation.

Under the circumstances, Donahue said, union executives say a ratification vote would be premature.

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“I think it would be irresponsible of the union to put out a contract for ratification without a return-to-work provision,” he said, adding that the committee was still reviewing the terms and preparing a counterproposal to submit to ABC.

Meanwhile, both sides are trying to keep up the pressure. ABC telecasts have suffered a cascade of technical glitches during the lockout. More seriously, its newscasts and some entertainment shows have been unable to book Democratic politicians and entertainers who are sympathetic to the union cause.

In some cases that has given the network’s news commentary shows a decidedly Republican cast--a situation that may become more noticeable this week as the nation focuses its attention on the political drama of the Senate’s impending vote on removing President Clinton from office.

For its part, ABC has tried to provoke NABET’s membership into calling for a quick vote on its proposal by branding it a final offer and agreeing to reinstate members of any union group who ratify the contract, even if the membership as a whole rejects it.

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The company has also demanded that employees’ 1999 vacations be prorated to reflect time lost to the lockout after Jan. 1--an obvious ploy, union executives say, to step up pressure for a ratification vote early in the year.

Union leaders say publicly that they are untroubled by signs of dissension within NABET ranks. “We’re a democratic organization and the members’ opinions are very important to us,” said Gena Stinnett, president of the L.A. local. “But not one of our members has come up to us and said, ‘This is a great package.’ ”

But some are apparently convinced that it is the best they can get.

“I don’t think the [union’s] higher echelon has looked at the changes in technology that allow the company to keep functioning,” said Sean McCarthy, a helicopter cameraman who has lost as much as $15,000 in pay during the lockout. “It’s ridiculous that we’ve had a proposal for three weeks and we can’t even vote. People just want to go back to work.”

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