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Newswriters' Strike: A Painful First

March 07, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

From his second-story office, KNX-AM (1070) news director Bob Sims could see his award-winning newswriters marching outside the guard's gate. As they plodded by, the rain drizzled off the edges of their Writers Guild of America picket signs and drenched their clothes.

"They're all winners," Sims said softly. "I'll put my editors and writers up against anybody in the business."

Friday evening, Sims and other KNX management representatives planned to sit across the table from WGA members David Singer and Ed Pardo at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, but not to negotiate an end to the 5-day-old strike.

Sims, KNX General Manager George Nicholaw and the two striking newswriters were calling a truce for the evening to share honors at the annual Greater Los Angeles Press Club banquet. Of the 14 radio news categories, KNX won in 12. Pardo and Singer were among the winners, singled out as the best radio newswriters of 1986.

Today, barring a last-minute settlement of the walkout that began at 3:07 a.m. last Monday, Pardo and Singer will be back on the picket line and Sims will be back in the KNX studios, staring out at his award-winning writers on the sidewalk of Sunset Boulevard.

The first broadcast newswriters' strike in Writer's Guild history, which also hit KCBS-TV Channel 2 and the promotion department of CBS Television City here in Los Angeles, is especially sad and bitter at KNX.

"It is the Mercedes-Benz of radio news operations," said Brian Walton, the guild's West Coast executive director. "You can't get in the newsroom, there are so many awards on the walls."

But the issues that brought about the walkout override professional pride, say the strikers, who are among 525 guild members picketing at CBS facilities in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles. ABC newswriters are also on strike, except in Los Angeles, where they are represented by a different union.

Walton said that the labor dispute is not so much about wages as it is about job security. Guild wages under the contract that expired last Sunday ranged from $274 to $790 a week for news producers, writers, researchers and graphic artists.

Like other guild officials who have been meeting with a federal mediator in New York since Thursday, Walton said that the primary sticking point in the negotiation of a new three-year contract is the networks' demand for the right to lay off and fire employees without arbitration and to use unlimited numbers of part-time and temporary workers, who are not paid fringe benefits.

"We set out nine main issues when we went to the bargaining table, with some supplements that applied to individual shops, like KNX," Walton said. "Of all those issues, we got absolutely nowhere except on one CBS concession. They said (that) beginning in March of 1987, the 10 newswriters at KNX would no longer have to wear ties as part of the dress code. They could appear on the radio without ties."

Despite the WGA contention that CBS negotiators are purposely attempting to destroy their union, the communications giant holds that it has become a victim of diminishing economic returns and must ask for rollbacks on union contracts. CBS spokesman George Schweitzer said earlier this week that cost-cutting measures are tied to a drop in revenues from advertising, which have always been the chief source of income for America's major television and radio networks.

As videocassette recording systems, satellite technology, cable and pay-television have assumed an ever-increasing role in the home-entertainment field, the near-monopoly position that the nation's three major television and radio networks held has eroded. At the same time, their national advertising rates have flattened.

According to the CBS-management position, the WGA has not been singled out in the cost cutting. The painful process of reducing staff and shrinking overhead is taking place across the board.

That was illustrated with the announcement Wednesday of a $30-million cutback in the $300-million annual budget of the CBS News division. CBS News will lose about 200 of its 1,220 positions and will shut down three of its bureaus--in Seattle, Bangkok and Warsaw.

"There has been a minimum of grandstanding or championing of special interests," said Jennifer Sibens, CBS News' Los Angeles bureau chief. "We're all going to get trashed."

The CBS News bureau has nothing to do with the striking writers. The only connection that local guild members have with CBS News is that they happen to work for the two CBS owned-and-operated stations in Los Angeles, which depend upon the CBS News foreign and domestic bureaus for much of their international and national news coverage.

Nevertheless, the bleak economic reality that brought about the $30-million cutback affecting the 51 producers, correspondents and others who work for Sibens is the same dark cloud that is raining on Sims' award-winning local newswriters.

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