Labor Talks Unstable in Hollywood

by Paul William Tenny

Talks between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers Guild of America have begun, and already both sides are doing more verbal sparring in the media than they are sitting in a room together negotiating the next three-year contract between the studios and writers.

Other unions, like the Screen Actors Guild have become increasingly concerned at the prospects of a work stoppage sometime within the next year driven by unhappy members that feel they've been treated unfairly by the studios. While SAG's contract doesn't officially expire until July of 2008, and while the Writers Guild expires later this fall, they appear to have many common goals and fears: a general labor strike. Between the big three, the WGA is considered to be the most militant of the guilds, that is to say they are the most willing to strike if several issues that have been simmering on the back burner since as far back as the 1980s are not addressed this time around, while the Directors Guild of America has been the most pacifist, having never struck in their entire existence.

All three unions are particularly frustrated over the studio's refusal change the residual formula for DVDs, and at least for the WGA, their refusal to even negotiate a new formula for the emerging download and streaming market.

The Screen Actors Guild jointly negotiates its television contract with American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the former of the two having significantly more members and operates more closely to that of a blue collar union. Factions have developed within SAG that are angry over AFTRA's practice of signing contracts with productions for lower wages than are required by the SAG contracts, which they feel severely undercut their bargaining power.

While the two guilds negotiate with a collective panel, SAG has sought a greater number of representatives to increase its influence over the negotiations, and has partially succeeded in recent weeks, though by other means.

Because of resistance from AFTRA to allocating more representatives to SAG, the acting guild held an interval vote that changed how their votes are allocated, allowing a majority between any split panelists to attain all the guild's votes. If the factions looking to take a harder line than AFTRA can find a majority on SAG's panel, it could increase the chances of a strike sometime next year, or at the very least drag out negotiations.

This would seemingly please the Writers Guild, not because they are looking for a strike and nothing else, but because it gives them the option of stalling their own negotiations until next year, allowing them to collectively strike with SAG. If two of the big three guilds strike at the same time, it could effectively shutdown Hollywood.

As far as WGA is concerned, its current contract is untenable. This contract is identical to the previous contract with only token increases in contributions to the health care funds, due to failures of the previous board of directors to secure gains in virtually any area of concern to writers like wage increases.

Writers have been working under the same contract for about the past six years, even though they only supposed to last three years.

A new board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West, was elected in 2006 under the leadership of new President Patric M. Verrone, who advocated a stronger stance against the AMPTP on the issues of new-media residuals and union representation for reality programming.

To some, Verrone's victory means that writers are more willing to strike now, than at anytime in the past fifteen years. Publicly, the WGA President has called for increasingly residual payments on cable reruns and DVD sales, as well as a higher formula for online media. The AMPTP has suggested scrapping residuals altogether.

According to some measures, writers would rather leave the business entirely than acquiesce to such demands, making such a position by producers not much more than a tactic designed to combat what they feel are overly aggressive demands coming from writers.


Related posts:

View more stories by visiting the archives.

Media Pundit categories