Writers union feeling the heat

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The Writers Guild of America is under new and mounting pressure from its ranks to get back to the bargaining table.

A number of union members are unhappy that the negotiations with the major Hollywood studios that broke off Friday night were sidetracked by issues secondary to the one the writers see as central: how they will be paid when their work shows up on the Internet.

Six weeks into a costly strike, they’re pressing union leaders to get the talks back on track -- and fast -- fearful that the Directors Guild of America might open its own contract negotiations with the Hollywood studios as early as next week.


That could undermine the writers’ leverage, because the directors might not make all the demands that the writers have made. The writers don’t want another union to set their agenda.

Among the writers urging fresh talks are some of the guild’s most powerful members, those responsible for the day-to-day operations of popular TV shows, which are quickly running out of original episodes.

One group of those show runners met with guild officials Tuesday to air their concerns, and another is set to meet with them today. Members of the negotiating committee plan to meet with strikers on the picket lines, hoping to calm fears.

Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West, said the guild had not received many complaints from members and accused the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers of trying to create the impression that there was a schism.

“This is a democratic organization in which we value the input and opinions of our members,” Hermanson said. “When the issues are explained to them, they understand this is a ploy by the AMPTP in an effort to divide us.”

For its part, the directors guild has scheduled a meeting tonight at its headquarters on Sunset Boulevard to brief members on the leadership’s negotiating strategy. That guild is expected to inform the studios as early as Thursday when it will be ready to begin formal talks, according to one senior studio executive.

The directors, whose contract expires June 30, have historically sealed their deals early. They have been waiting in deference to the striking writers.

Now, with the writers and studios deadlocked, the directors are expected to move forward.

Last week, more than 300 writer-directors, who are caught in the middle as members of both unions, urged leaders of the directors guild to continue holding off until writers could resolve their dispute.

The writers and studios haven’t scheduled new talks. The climate seems to be more poisonous than ever.

On Monday, for example, each side accused the other of lying about its respective position and what had triggered last week’s impasse.

Friday’s breakdown came after the studios made good on their threat to stop talking if the writers didn’t take off the table half a dozen issues the studios saw as nonstarters. They included a demand to extend the union’s jurisdiction to writers of animated movies and reality TV shows and to include in the contract a so-called sympathy strike measure that would allow writers to honor the picket lines of other unions without fear of reprisals from their employers.

Hermanson noted that the issues the studios demanded be removed from the table included one that was key to the writers’ proposal on Internet residuals. He said that the studios negotiated in bad faith and that the writers refused to give in to an ultimatum.

He and guild leaders complained that the studios’ “new economic partnership” proposals were only modest improvements over what they originally offered Nov. 4, the day before the walkout.

Studios maintained they made a generous offer, which they valued at about $130 million, a figure disputed by the guild.

“These talks broke down over the WGA’s insistence on jurisdictional demands, that everything has to do with expanding the power of the union’s organizing and very little has to do with the needs and demands of working writers,” said Jesse Hiestand, studio alliance spokesman.

Still, some writers -- including die-hard strike supporters -- are angry at Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and chief negotiator David Young, saying they allowed the talks to drift into less important issues, according to several guild members, some of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the union.

Writer Craig Mazin, a former board member and frequent critic of union leaders, called some of the additional demands, such as jurisdiction over feature animation and reality TV, misguided and not achievable.

“New media is the only thing that matters,” Mazin said, who also has been sharply critical of the studios’ proposals. “It’s what the leadership went on strike for.”

Those sentiments are shared by a number of writers, including some on the picket lines, who have complained directly to their union leaders about taking the focus off new media.

“There is a growing group of writers who are burning up over this,” said one top writer and strong supporter of the strike who asked not to be identified.

That impression was further fueled by the guild’s decision to go ahead with a previously scheduled rally in Burbank on Friday -- the same day the talks broke down -- to call attention to working conditions of writers working on reality TV and game shows.

At the rally, Verrone reminded the crowd that jurisdiction over reality shows was always part of the union’s demands. “It will be in our next contract,” he said.

On Monday, members of the guild’s negotiating committee debated intensely about the timing of the rally and how to respond to the criticism -- and assure members that their focus remained on new-media pay, people who attended the meeting said.

How to get paid for their work that appears on the Internet also is important to the directors, who have been discussing that issue for months with the studios. In contrast to the writers, directors and studios have historically enjoyed a more cordial relationship and far less contentious labor negotiations.

But the directors won’t be pushovers when it comes to issues of new-media pay. They have many of the same concerns on that front as writers do.

Nonetheless, they are expected to be more flexible on terms and more sympathetic to studio arguments that Internet-related businesses are still in the formative stages and that there are many uncertainties about where and how soon those future revenues will pour in.

The Directors Guild has spent more than $1 million to study those very questions, hiring two outside firms to prepare a detailed report on new media. The findings will be presented at tonight’s meeting.

“Oddly, we’ve been preparing for this negotiation for well over a year,” said Gilbert Cates, chief negotiator for the directors. The alliance is “tough, rough and nervous because they don’t know what the future holds. We all want a piece of the Internet; the difference is the tactics that we use to get it.”