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CBS News strike may derail L.A. debate

Times Staff Writer

A Democratic presidential debate scheduled for next month in Los Angeles could be canceled because of the labor troubles of its sponsor, CBS News.

More than 500 news writers, editors, desk assistants, graphic artists and other staffers for CBS’ TV and radio news operations have been working without a contract since April 2005, and this month voted to authorize a strike. These employees work for CBS News and its affiliates in four cities, including Los Angeles, where CBS is putting on the Dec. 10 debate. They are represented by the Writers Guild of America, but their possible walkout is separate from the ongoing strike by the guild’s screenwriters.

As Democratic presidential candidates seek endorsements from organized labor, they have walked picket lines around the country, and a strike would leave the debate with few if any candidates. On Wednesday, five contenders -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- said they would skip the debate in the event of a strike.

“If there’s a strike, it’s going to be awfully tough for any of the Democratic candidates to participate,” said Roger Salazar, a political consultant who is a spokesman for the California Democratic Party.

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The debate is officially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, but the party indicated Wednesday that it would not cross the picket line if there were a strike. In a statement, DNC Press Secretary Stacie Paxton said, “We will continue to watch the situation closely.”

Paul Friedman, senior vice president for CBS News, said “plans are well underway” for the debate. “We hope that either the labor issues will be resolved or the union will agree not to picket in the public interest of allowing the debate to go ahead,” he said.

In a statement late Wednesday, the WGA East thanked the candidates for their support but did not indicate whether union members would picket the debate.

“We hope everyone follows their leads,” the statement said. A union official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal union issues, said that the WGA had not decided to strike and that a walkout could come well after the debate.

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The WGA is seeking a 3% raise for all employees, retroactive to the expiration of its previous contract. CBS has said it is offering a 3% raise for TV and network radio employees and 2% for local radio workers. The raises would not be retroactive.

The Democratic candidates today raced to make clear their support for workers. The day’s first statement came from Clinton, who said: “The workers at CBS News have been without a contract for close to 2 1/2 years. It is my hope that both sides will reach an agreement that results in a secure contract for the workers at CBS News, but let me be clear: I will honor the picket line if the workers at CBS News decide to strike.”

Edwards said on a conference call that not only would he honor any CBS News strike by not attending the debate, he also would cancel an appearance next week on ABC’s “The View” in solidarity with screenwriters, who are striking and are also represented by the Writers Guild.

Dodd said in his statement: “Hopefully, it won’t come to that, but I will not cross a picket line.” A spokesman for Obama, Ben LaBolt, said that in the event of a strike, “Barack Obama will not cross the picket line to attend the debate.”

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joe.mathews@latimes.com


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