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HomeNewsIA's Tom Short Reacts to WGA

IA's Tom Short Reacts to WGA

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Call it fear and loathing in Hollywood.The decision by the Writers Guild of America to put off negotiations with producers on a new film and television contract until next September, just two months before their current contract expires, has IATSE guilds fuming about a possible de facto strike that could result, threatening jobs and benefits. The WGA’s delay of the talks triggered some testy exchanges.IATSE president Tom Short accused the leadership of the WGA of “irresponsibility and incompetence” in refusing to begin negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in January as the writer’s guild had initially proposed.According to Short, early talks “would have shown a willingness to avoid a work stoppage that will almost certainly result from delayed talks.” The WGA’s contract expires on October 31, 2007.”The fact that the WGA backed out of their own proposed talks shows their complete and utter disregard for the vast majority of motion picture and television workers in the entertainment industry,” said Short. “A small faction inside the WGA is determined to undermine the health and welfare of an entire industry.”Short said he had made a personal call to WGA West president Patric Verrone on November 28, asking that he return to the WGA’s original offer to hold talks in January, but said Verrone refused. Verrone in turn accused Short of working on behalf of AMPTP’s agenda.Verrone also attacked AMPTP and its head Nicholas Counter: “The AMPTP asserts that, by refusing to negotiate early, we will force our employers to make rash business decisions to prepare for an inevitable strike. That simply flies in the face of the last 18 years of Writers Guild history.”He added that the guild would “maintain a calm approach, even though the AMPTP engages in histrionics through the press.” At the same time he sent his guild’s members a missive accusing AMPTP of bullying and duplicity.Both IA chief Short and AMPTP’s Counter have expressed concern that the tactic of starting talks late in the game could lead to a repeat of the 2001 round of WGA negotiations. That year, scripts were stockpiled and production deadlines were moved up in case of a strike.Though no strike actually took place—the WGA finally reached a deal six months after their contract expired—the anticipatory actions led to a subsequent slowdown that throttled production and employment in the entertainment industry for months.”A similar situation arose in 2001, when writers and actors refused to schedule early contract talks,” said Short, referring to that period. “Fearing a work stoppage, studios and networks ramped up production to such a degree that when the contracts were negotiated and strikes averted, there was so much product waiting release that no new production started for months, keeping thousands of workers idle, some for over a year.” IA members who are out of work for more than six months may no longer qualify for their health and welfare benefits.In response to claims by the WGA that no “ramp-up” in production took place in 2001 because of the possibility of a writers’ strike, Short cited figures that showed a 27 percent drop in the contribution hours received by the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans from the two quarters prior to WGA negotiations and the two quarters after. The IA chief said such declines continued into the second quarter of 2002 and didn’t rebound for a full year after negotiations. Verrone for his part accused Short of being a strike-breaker and acting “contrary to the most basic union trade principles in which we believe.”He was referring to the walkout last summer by writer-producers on America’s Next Top Model, who wanted to be organized by the WGA but lost their jobs when the show’s producer decided to have the editors, members of Local 600, assume their responsibilities. The WGA is suing Top Model producers to get the writer-producers rehired, claiming they were illegally replaced.Short said the WGA’s efforts on Top Model were “mishandled due to zero experience at organizing in the entertainment industry.” The IA has gained representation for 50 others on the show, on top of the editors who were already organized. The WGA has, meanwhile, made no headway in its ongoing campaign to organize reality shows.A top WGA issue in the upcoming negotiations is going to be how much studios are willing to share from profits derived from content, which writers helped to create, that’s downloaded to iPods, cell phones and other new technology platforms.In the 2004 round of negotiations, writers were unable to squeeze more from producers and studios for profits then from surging DVD sales and rentals. Such sales and profits have since topped out. But that conspicuous failure helped lead to the ascendancy last year of Verrone as WGA president. In his campaign he promised to be more aggressive in getting writers a fairer shake in negotiations with the big entertainment conglomerates that dominate AMPTP.AMPTP’s Counter said rights for new technologies were complicated issues that should start to be negotiated early instead of waiting to talk until early September.Despite the recent spitting matches, some in Hollywood still hold out hope that writers might back off from a showdown and decide to extend their contract into 2008 to coincide with the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild contract. By then, the Directors Guild of America, which is a proponent of early contract settlements, might have reached a pattern-setting deal on which the writers could piggyback.Nonetheless, as long as there’s uncertainty about when the WGA will start talks, threat of a de facto strike will loom.

Written by Jack Egan

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