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In the Strike Zone 

Is the unthinkable about to happen again?

Wednesday, Nov 26 2008
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The huge news, the only news, is that there is a possibility that Hollywood could suffer another strike. After months of stalled negotiations and bitter acrimony between the two sides, both the Screen Actors Guild and the negotiators representing the Big Media Cartel sat down for federally mediated talks, which broke down after only two days. So as SAG set out on a strike course, the AMPTP began trash-talking. “Let’s review the facts,” claimed the AMPTP, “SAG is the only major Hollywood guild that has failed to negotiate a labor deal in 2008. Now, SAG is bizarrely asking its members to bail out the failed negotiating strategy with a strike vote — at a time of historic economic crisis. The tone deafness of SAG is stunning.” To which SAG President Alan Rosenberg replied, “Somebody’s deaf here and it’s not us ... We’ve made monumental moves in their direction during these negotiations in order to avoid a work stoppage, in order to make a deal and they have not moved one iota in our direction.”

SAG’s National Board left it up to the guild’s national negotiating committee to determine if and when mediation became fruitless. Now that this point has been reached, the referendum seeking a strike authorization goes out to members. I’m told this process takes anywhere from 30 to 45 days, including three weeks for the ballots to come back to SAG. If the vote is yes to empower a strike by at least 75 percent of eligible SAG members who return ballots, this still does not mean a strike will necessarily be called. Because then it’s up to the National Board to decide if and when to call for the work stoppage. So Hollywood is a step closer to another strike ±— but it still may not happen. Now everything is up to SAG members. Nevertheless, the timing could threaten the Golden Globes and Academy Awards again.

And, speaking of timing, the day before the restarted talks with SAG began, the AMPTP clearly thought it could further marginalize the big actors union with a Nov. 19 announcement that Big Media had reached a tentative contract agreement with IATSE. But labor, as well as studio sources, tell me this was a phony baloney announcement because there’s not even any revelation of terms in the news release. Supposedly, the AMPTP-IATSE tentative contract is actually nowhere near in shape to present to IATSE members after only a reputed nine negotiating sessions. (Wait, didn’t ex-IATSE president Tom Short start the bargaining ages ago only to stop the talks and step down? Don’t those sessions count, too?) Yet the AMPTP was desperate to make an announcement, any announcement, to put pressure on SAG, and to take pressure off itself for months of stalling.

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But the IATSE news couldn’t overshadow that day’s even bigger bombshell: that Big Media have failed to comply with the WGA contract — negotiated to end the 100-day writers strike — by not making New Media payments to the writers. And that the WGA has filed for arbitration against the AMPTP over it. This is corrupt studio accounting brought to a whole new level of fraudulence.

“Our agreement with the companies on material released to EST [electronic sell-throughs] covers feature films produced after July 1, 1971, and television programs produced after 1977,” said John Bowman, chair of the 2007 WGA Negotiating Committee. “The companies have reneged on this agreement and are taking the position that only programs produced after February 13, 2008, are covered by the new provision. This may be their deal with the DGA, but that was never our agreement. Every proposal we made during negotiations made clear our position that library product was covered, and the AMPTP never objected to that position. The WGA will not allow this to stand.”

The WGA also said it’s preparing to file for arbitration against the AMPTP companies for their failure to pay residuals due for the streaming of television shows on the Internet. “Our tracking has shown that episodes are staying on Web sites longer than the 17-day initial window called for in the contract. This triggers the payment of a residual, but so far we’ve seen nothing,” said David Young, the WGA West’s executive director. “Given the reports by the conglomerates of the growth of the number of shows being streamed and increases in new media revenues, this is an unacceptable situation.”

Said Writers Guild of America West President Patric Verrone: “The companies know what is being streamed, and they regularly announce how successful they are in generating online advertising revenue, so there’s no reason for them not to honor the agreement they made with us.”

Seeing the writers get stiffed was a giant wake-up call for SAG. And it undermined the AMPTP’s own argument that the actors could have been collecting New Media residuals all this time if only they’d signed the Hollywood CEOs’ supposed “last best” offer many months ago. Bad enough that SAG has to keep pushing for its $60 million in overdue force majeure payments from the majors, since it’s one of the few bargaining chips with which the WGA has to play against the AMPTP short of strike authorization. The Hollywood CEOs want those debts forgiven and the whole force majeur payment issue removed from future SAG contracts. Then there’s the issue of the moguls not making timely payments on residuals of traditional entertainment product to writers, directors and actors.

Just how many ways is the Big Media cartel screwing the high-cost guilds right now, anyway? Hard not to interpret this as a direct assault on them. This shows exactly what shits the studio and network CEOs and their labor lawyers are, because this nonpayment started waaaaaaaaaay before the stock market crashed. They should be ashamed of themselves. But that would require them to have consciences.

And when it rains bad news, it pours. Few issues have divided the WGA more than the leadership’s post-strike publication of the names of 28 members who went fi-core during the strike. After the WGA’s solidarity during the strike itself, I was flabbergasted by the huge schism that WGA West president Verrone and WGA East president Michael Winship created with this letter. It turns out that the AMPTP took advantage of the discord and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which has now sided with the Hollywood CEO negotiating clique against the WGA.

The NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] focused on one sentence in that WGA statement: “... This handful of members who went financial core, resigning from the union yet continuing to receive the benefits of a union contract, must be held at arm’s length by the rest of us and judged accountable for what they are — strikebreakers whose actions placed everything for which we fought so hard at risk.” Was this the WGA urging members to shun the “puny few,” most of whom were soap opera producer-writers? So now the NLRB ruling, which overturned an earlier decision in favor of the WGA by the labor body’s regional director, results in a hearing before an administrative-law judge in Los Angeles sometime in the next few months. The WGA made this statement: “This is a pending legal matter and the Guild will defend itself fully at the NLRB hearing.”

You may recall that, during the strike, the AMPTP posted on its Web site details instructing WGA members on how to go fi-core. The AMPTP’s complaint to the NLRB claimed that the WGA was lobbying for a “prohibited retaliation” against its fi-core writers for exercising their rights and seeking to prevent them from securing work. The WGA in turn accused the AMPTP of meddling in its internal affairs.

Meanwhile, I hear that the WGA in the coming weeks will decide what to do about members accused of strikebreaking (who, for months now, have been quietly brought before the guild to explain themselves). I’ve been quietly following several of these cases, and waiting for their resolutions before going public with my info.

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