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Strike

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By Jack Egan
The likelihood of a much-dreaded walkout by the Writers Guild of America—the first major Hollywood strike in nearly 20 years—looked all but certain as Below the Line went to press. With a federal mediator in the background, there were only slim hopes that a last-minute deal between the WGA and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers might still be worked out before picket lines were set to go up on November 5. But both sides wore grim game faces and traded accusations as the WGA contract expired at midnight, October 31.
How long a strike might last is the main question being pondered by members of other Hollywood unions—including the 18 below-the-line IATSE guilds—and the wide swath of Southern California firms connected directly or indirectly to the region’s huge entertainment economy. The WGA strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and took a heavy financial and psychological toll on everyone in the industry, not just the writers and the studios.
According to estimates by Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., the entertainment industry today contributes an estimated $30 billion annually, accounting for about 7 percent of the County’s economy. There are significant spillovers into other important segments such as tourism.
Members of unions not directly involved in the dispute have been given varying instructions on how to respond if and when they encounter a WGA picket line. IA President Tom Short put out a statement reminding guild members under the International’s jurisdiction that they have a “no strike” clause in their contracts, which requires them to keep working. “Any individual member who chooses to honor any picket line is subject to permanent replacement,” he stated.
Leo Reed, the head of Teamsters Local 399 put out a mixed message, telling members that they “as individuals” have the right to choose not to cross picket lines without fearing retaliation. However, the union itself can’t strike, picket or boycott any producer while its contract is in effect and is obligated to use its “best efforts” to get employees to perform their work.
Some rank-and-file Teamster members, say sources, aren’t happy about being urged indirectly to support the Writers Guild. Veterans recall that the Teamsters in 1988 struck the studios separately from the WGA. The writers settled first and then crossed the pickets of the Teamsters who hadn’t yet reached an agreement.
The Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires in mid-2008, has advised its members that they can walk the picket lines with the writers on their own time, but are obligated under the contracts to keep reporting to work. That means many SAG members will have to frequently cross pickets.
One major sticking point in the WGA-AMPTP negotiations is the demand by writers to get residuals when TV shows and movies they’ve written are redistributed on new technological platforms like the internet and cell phones. “This is a watershed negotiation for the Writers Guild,” chief organizer David Young told a WGA membership meeting on Nov. 1, when the decision to strike was announced. “This has the potential to determine writers’ income from the internet and new media for the next generation and beyond.”
The studios have resisted the demand, claiming it’s too early to know whether such new technologies will yield significant profits. A similar argument was used a decade ago when DVDs were replacing videocassettes. Writers then agreed to residual payments they have regretted ever since. In this round of talks, they’ve asked for a significant increase in DVD residuals, which AMPTP says it won’t negotiate. Resolving the DVD issue could determine how long the strike lasts.

Written by Jack Egan

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