Looks like I might lose the bet I made in last night’s post after all. Apparently, the parties are arguing about chairs now. As Nikki Finke reports, reps from the WGA, the studios and networks argued over chairs at last Friday’s meeting. Nikki wrote “It’s all so shamelessly reminiscent of the impasse between the White House and Hanoi at the Paris Peace Talks back in 1968 when the two sides argued for a month over the size and shape of the table they would sit at once formal negotiations began.”
The Guild apparently didn’t have enough seats for the Studio/Net side at Friday’s negotiations. A WGA rep wouldn’t let the Studio/Net reps “sit down, or bring chairs in from other rooms, or even go downstairs to a bigger conference room that had seating for everyone. For awhile there was an impasse, and then a Paramount labor exec stepped into the fray and started yelling at guild members, ‘What are you trying to prove here?’ Finally, several negotiating committee members, the best known of whom was Desperate Housewives hyphenate Marc Cherry, went out and fetched chairs for the extra AMPTP’ers. ‘It was getting THAT uncomfortable that Marc Cherry got off his ass and went chair hunting. Says a lot,’ one WGA wag opined.”
Let’s just hope this week’s negotiations aren’t dominated by the decor.
On Friday night, Dave McNary reported in Variety that after three months of unproductive negotiations and just days before the current contract expires, the US government is set to mediate negotiations between the WGA, the networks and the studios. The parties are also taking a three day weekend with talks to resume on Tuesday with Federal mediators. That leaves the parties with just two days before the current agreement expires and the writers can strike. Nothing like waiting until the last minute. The WGA can tell its members to stop writing and start picketing as early as Thursday. However, if negotiations are going well, Guild members could continue to write under the expired contact.
As I wrote here and here, if the WGA presents a credible threat of a strike to the networks and studios, the Guild can effectively increase its leverage in the negotiations. McNary wrote that “the WGA plans to take the talks down to the wire, when fears of a strike may push studios and nets to soften on a contract issue in order to avert a work stoppage.” That’s a powerful strategy if they actually buy it. The key to successfully pulling it off is the WGA’s willingness to actually follow their threats with action and go on strike. Although this strategy may sound obvious, it isn’t because once the Guild “goes nuclear,” they lose whatever control the WGA has over the outcome and the significant power of fear is reduced by the real consequences of a strike. You can see how this strategy recently backfired here.
Specifically, if the WGA successfully induces fear of loss of a good deal, loss of money or worse – unknown, unquantifiable consequences – then they’ve got a pretty persuasive negotiating tool. From my perspective, the WGA is being very persuasive. I must have taken over 20 phone calls between 4 and 6 pm on Friday afternoon; all from cranky reps (we’re all working on less sleep) trying to close deals before Halloween and a potential strike date.
Nevertheless, I’m not buying it. As I wrote in my previous posts, a strike would seriously harm the overall health of the industry. Everybody involved knows that. So, I’m betting my money on the Feds closing a strikeless deal with the parties before Thanksgiving. Any takers?
That’s Variety headline-speak (yes, I know, it needs work) for the WGA’s apparent decision on Tuesday to pull back on its demand that reality TV programs come under the Guild’s jurisdiction. Most of the reps I spoke with during yesterday’s client negotiations believe this is a positive sign that the Guild won’t strike. However, the ground shifts every day so nobody really knows.
Deal flow on my desk continues to support the widespread consensus that reality TV and other non-scripted television programming will continue to be a substantial part of TV deal making. The irony is that the ’88 WGA strike had a significant impact on increasing the popularity of the genre in the first place. “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Cops” both received a significant boost in viewership during the ’88 strike.
Apparently, the Guild intends to spare writers working in reality TV the rod if they work in the genre during the strike. According to Dave McNary’s piece in yesterday’s Variety, “the WGA’s efforts to sign up reality shows have fallen so short that members won’t face any sanction for working in that sector should a work stoppage occur. In a telling move earlier this month, the WGA forged extensive strike rules that did not include any mention of punishment for working on reality shows — even though the rules contained sanctions for work in other areas of limited guild coverage, such as new media and feature animation.” You can get the WGA Strike Rules here.
According to McNary, real progress in negotiations won’t start until a day or two before the current agreement with the Guild expires. Nothing like writers working under a deadline!
The WGA is ratcheting up the rhetoric by recently issuing hardline rules to its 12,000 members if the guild goes on strike as threatened. In today’s Daily Variety, Nick Counter confirmed that the rules the WGA issued last week include “bans on writing animated features and for the Internet, even though those arenas are largely not under WGA jurisdiction. The strike rules bar any writing for struck companies, delivering any material or signing documents relating to writing assignments; they compel members to honor guild picket lines, perform assigned strike support duties and reporting strike-breaking activity. Discipline for violations can include expulsion, suspension, fines and censure; nonmembers who perform banned work during a strike will be barred from joining the WGA.”
I expressed my concerns regarding an actual strike earlier this week here. As I suggested, the WGA is following a fear of loss strategy; just not the way I envisioned. The WGA is threatening its own members with expulsion and other severe penalties and barring non-WGA writers from future membership if they work during the strike under certain circumstances. Although somewhat draconian, the WGA’s strategy serves several goals. It’s a shot over the bow with the studios and networks and it ensures that the guild’s members actually honor the picket lines. In my previous post, I linked to an article about last month’s taxi strike in New York, which failed in part because many drivers continued to work during the strike. If striking proves to be ineffective, the Guild’s negotiating leverage can be even more diminished than had they not gone on strike at all.
Several writer and producer reps I spoke with yesterday during negotiations (reps like to digress into other subjects in an attempt to regain leverage) believe that the Guild’s strike rules may be unenforceable; especially against non-WGA members. Frankly, it smacks of restraint of trade to me but that’s not my bailiwick.
As I noted in my earlier post, the threat of a strike is having a dramatic effect on the pace and terms of negotiations with writers. This week brought new surprises, with reps on deals I was negotiating demanding contractual pledges that their writers work through any strike and extending force majeure terms to ensure that a long term strike is covered. As with the WGA’s strike rules, strike breaking pledges probably raise enforceability concerns.
Such fears are carrying the day. I look forward with some trepidation to the outcome of all of this like a driver stuck in traffic easing up to a bad car accident.