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Other Union Story: WGA

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Production for the next season of America’s Next Top Model started up recently with the show’s unionized editors assuming the duties of 12 story producers who walked off the popular CW Network reality show in June in a so-far-unsuccessful effort to be organized by the Writer’s Guild of America West.The move follows the filing of a suit in early November by the WGA against Anisa Productions, headed by Top Model executive producer Ken Mok. It charges the company violated federal labor laws by firing the workers and eliminating their positions when they had signed pledges to return to work. Anisa says it intends to fight the allegations. (The show’s co-producer, Bankable Productions, owned by Top Model host Tyra Banks, was not named in the suit.)The resumption of production with manning by IATSE editors represents a de facto victory for the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees in its ongoing battle with the WGA over the right to represent Top Model employees.IATSE, along with its Motion Picture Editors Guild unit, last year organized the show’s editors and recently claimed organizing jurisdiction over 40 other Top Model employees. On November 7, the IA went so far as to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to represent workers in the show’s camera, lighting, art, audio, hair/makeup, wardrobe and other production and preproduction departments.In a separate development, Teamsters Local 399, after threatening to strike Top Model, reached an agreement with Anisa covering 10 drivers and location managers. The quick settlement, coming a few days after the WGA sued the show’s producer, demonstrates Teamster clout and contrasts with the WGA’s longstanding dispute that is heading into its sixth month.The tensions building over the talks set for next year between the writers and the town’s producers for another contract are underpinning the wrangle between the IA and the WGA over Top Model. The WGA under its new president Patric Verrone has been talking tough about what the union hopes to accomplish for its members in the 2007 round of negotiations.IATSE president Tom Short has, meanwhile, been vocal in expressing concerns that the writer’s guild talks could lead, if not to an actual strike, to a de facto strike, that could seriously disrupt production in Hollywood, jeopardizing work for members of the IA’s Hollywood guilds.The IA’s petition came in the wake of a meeting of the local NLRB held in late October. The WGA, at the meeting, had asked for the NLRB to allow a representation vote to go forward right away under its auspices for the 12 Top Model story producers. For its part, IATSE sought to block the WGA’s request, claiming the IA’s existing contract with the show prevented the Writer’s Guild from holding a representation vote.The hearing reached no conclusion on the contending jurisdictional claims by the two entertainment unions. Instead, the local board kicked the matter up to the NLRB’s Washington headquarters where a trial before an administrative law judge could take place, provided an investigation found there were grounds for proceeding. Such a procedure can take two or three years to run its course.To assure advertisers who were nervous about the impact of the summer walkout on production of new episodes for the smash hit’s next season, the CW said it had prepared “contingency plans” to avoid disruptions. As work begins on the new season, the nature of these plans is now apparent.”When our story producers walked off the job, we exercised our right to sustain production during the strike,” according to a statement from Mok. “In the process, we were able to create a new system utilizing IATSE editors that has not only maintained the quality of our episodes, but at the same time has improved the efficiency of our postproduction operation. As a result, we decided to move ahead in production with this new system in place, which puts our material directly in the hands of our editors without the intermediate step of story producers.”WGA West president Verrone responded angrily. “America’s Next Top Model is a major hit for the CW and the writers were valued employees who contributed to the show’s success,” he said in a statement. “Yet, as soon as they demanded union representation, the company decided they were expendable. This is illegal strike-breaking, an insult to the Hollywood talent community and an embarrassment to this industry.”The WGA has argued that story producers qualify as writers because they create story lines on unscripted reality shows, and that therefore they should be able to organize under the auspices of the WGA in order to get health and pension benefits.The strike action on Top Model was the most concrete step taken so far by the WGA in its two-year campaign to organize workers on reality shows, an effort that has to date produced no tangible successes.

Written by Jack Egan

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