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WGA Strike: Divide and Conquer

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
WGA Strike: Divide and Conquer

Time marches steadily on, as does the labor dispute that has relegated tinseltown to a creative limbo for the past two months. Now four weeks since the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers) walked away from the negotiating table, the likelihood of a resumption of talks between them and the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) appears slim at best. The remainder of television’s 2008 season is already in shambles, and rumors abound that the studios are willing to sacrifice the 2009 season as well, to teach the writers a lesson for striking in the first place. Aaron Mendelsohn, a member of the Board of Directors for the WGA, believes that the AMPTP’s actions to date have been carefully orchestrated. “The AMPTP has been following their playbook this entire time, making outrageous and unreasonable offers with the hopes that it will lower our expectations,” Mendelsohn said. The AMPTP has also taken pains to characterize the WGA leadership as “crazy and militant” in order to make the rank-and-file writers lose faith in guild leadership.

The intractability of the AMPTP has forced the writers to reconsider their negotiating strategy. For years, the Hollywood labor unions have dealt with the studios as a collective bargaining unit, rather than negotiating separate contracts with each studio independently. The power of the major studios was long kept in check by the dozens of smaller production companies that fell under the umbrella of the AMPTP, allowing cooler heads to prevail when contract negotiations went south in the past. But now, just about every company in the AMPTP is owned by one of only a handful of conglomerates, making the moguls who run the big studios a force to be reckoned with. Collective bargaining has been the order of the day for decades, but to all things must come an end.

On December 15th, the WGA took the first step towards implementing what has come to be called their “divide and conquer” strategy, by demanding that the individual companies that make up the AMPTP come back to the table and negotiate separate deals. Mendelsohn told CBR News that this move had been a long time coming. “We’d been talking about making interim agreements available from the very beginning of negotiations, and really targeting them toward companies that would offer a strategic advantage, and bring more pressure to bear on the studios,” Mendelsohn said.

The first production company to take the WGA up on their offer was David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants. “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” may air on CBS, but both shows are owned Worldwide Pants. This gave representatives from Worldwide Pants the authority to negotiate an interim deal with the WGA, allowing the writers for both shows to go back to work. And the deal Worldwide Pants agreed to is reportedly the same deal the WGA was prepared to present to the AMPTP when negotiations broke down on December 7th.

The hope in striking this deal with Letterman’s company was two-fold. First, the fact that the deal was struck at all goes a long way towards proving that the WGA’s proposal is not as unreasonable as the AMPTP would like the public to believe. Second, it puts tremendous pressure on the other networks to come back to the table. And the lack of scripted comedy is not the only disadvantage CBS’ rival late night talk shows face. SAG and its membership have supported the WGA every step of the way, and one way in which many actors have chosen to express their solidarity is by refusing to cross picket lines to promote their projects on struck talk shows. So for A-List actors who support the WGA, Worldwide Pants is the only game in town.

But this new negotiating strategy is not without its drawbacks. Some writers resent the fact that a select few of their colleagues have been allowed to return to work while the rest of them still dutifully man the picket lines. Mendelsohn admitted that the divisiveness the divide and conquer strategy stands to promote is a very real concern for the guild. “But mostly what I’ve been hearing is that writers are very supportive of the notion of offering strategic interim deals, because it furthers the deal of shortening and ending the strike,” he added.

The first evidence of a domino effect from the Worldwide Pants deal came the same day that talk shows returned to the air, when Dick Clark Productions (which owns the Golden Globes, among other award shows) issued a press release announcing their desire to negotiate a similar interim agreement with the WGA. “We feel that the ‘Late Show With David Letterman’ agreement is very reasonable, and hope and expect the WGA will agree to the same terms and ultimately permit the ‘Golden Globe Awards’ to be broadcast as scheduled, without picket lines, on Sunday, January 13,” said Hollywood Foreign Press Association President Jorge Camara in a January 2nd press release. Since the Golden Globe Awards are owned not by NBC but by Dick Clark Productions, Camara reasoned that striking a similar interim agreement with the WGA was not outside the realm of possibility.

But the WGA insists that Dick Clark Productions is a struck company, and has refused to negotiate a deal that would allow the scripted program to proceed as scheduled. And in yet another display of union solidarity, SAG leadership has advised its members not to cross WGA picket lines to attend the Globes. “After considerable outreach to Golden Globe actor nominees and their representatives over the past several weeks, there appears to be unanimous agreement that these actors will not cross WGA picket lines to appear on the Golden Globe Awards as acceptors or presenters,” SAG President Alan Rosenberg said in a press statement. Both NBC and Dick Clark Productions hope an agreement can be reached before the 13th, but as of now NBC is prepared to move forward with the Golden Globe telecast, deal or no deal. “The primary reason for these award shows is to put actors in front of cameras,” Mendelsohn said. “Without actors, I’m not sure what they’re going to televise. So I think NBC has a very big decision to make very soon about what they’re going to do with the Golden Globes.”

The next big ripple came in the form of Nikki Finke’s announcement that United Artists was poised to announce an agreement with the WGA. Mendelsohn confirmed that the WGA Leadership is indeed in talks with reps from UA, and that a deal is pending. It was appropriate enough that UA would be the first film studio to reach a separate agreement with the guild, given that their formation in 1919 was largely motivated by the desire of some of the film industry’s leading talent to escape the strictures of the earliest forms of the studio system. The current incarnation of UA came into being in November, 2006, as a partnership between Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. The new UA is small by big studio standards, but being the first studio to reach an agreement with the WGA would no doubt be a boon to the fledging production company. Reports indicate that UA is prepared to accept the same terms as Worldwide Pants.

Despite the strides the WGA continues to make with this new negotiating strategy, it is a distinct possibility that the AMPTP has written off negotiations with the WGA entirely, in hopes of striking a deal with one of the other above-the-line Hollywood labor unions, the DGA or SAG, whose contracts expire in June of this year. If history is any guide, the AMPTP need only win over one of the unions in question, at which point the force that pattern bargaining brings to bear will compel the other two to fall into line. A similar situation occurred in 1985 when the Hollywood labor unions were negotiating a deal for the then fledgling medium of home video. “In 1985 the DGA took the home video deal first, and that forced SAG and the Writer’s Guild to grudgingly accept the same terrible home video deal that we’ve been stuck with for the past 20 years,” Mendelsohn said. Now, 20 years later, the Internet is the new medium that’s proven to be the sticking point in the WGA contract negotiations, and the AMPTP seems to believe that they can achieve a similar victory to the one in 1985. “But I’m not sure the DGA is going to accept a sweetheart deal on the Internet,” Mendelsohn continued.

Last month, the DGA issued a statement saying that they would refrain from entering into talks with the AMPTP until after the new year, in hopes that the writers could work out a deal on their own terms. But since the AMPTP has refused to come back to the table, Nikki Finke reports that the directors have decided to take matters into their own hands. And rather than focus exclusively on DGA issues, an insider source told Finke, “the directors proposed a framework against which everybody would sit down and negotiate.” More on this story as it develops.

UPDATE 5:25 PM Pacific – The Hollywood Foreign Press just released a statement announcing the official cancellation of the “65th Annual Golden Globe Awards” telecast. In its place, NBC will air an hour long press conference starting at 6:00 p.m. PST on January 13th, announcing the winners.

In addition, it is now official that the WGA and United Artists have reached a side agreement. The press release does not address the specifics of the arrangement, but refer to the agreement as a “comprehensive” one that “addresses the issues important to writers, including New Media.” In a letter to the WGA membership, guild president Patric Verrone said the UA agreement was “virtually identical to the agreement signed by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants.”

“We expect this deal to encourage other companies, especially large employers, to seek and reach agreements with us,” Verrone added.

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