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Hollywood Unions Battle Over Turf

The head of a stage workers' group assails tactics of the writers' guild as tensions rise.

April 07, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to labor brotherhood in Hollywood, neither the guild representing writers nor the union for blue-collar entertainment workers is sticking to the script.

Long-simmering tensions have worsened in the last month since Thomas Short, president of the powerful International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, rebuked Writers Guild of America leaders in a letter to his members suggesting that the guild was out of touch with writers because it was run by "certain officers who don't work in the industry."

Short went further in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, accusing guild officials of destabilizing labor relations in Hollywood, where his union represents 30,000 workers, with talk that hints of a potential strike.

Such a public spat between the two powerful entertainment unions is unusual, underscoring rising labor tensions as new leaders of the writers' guild and Screen Actors Guild promise to take a much harder line with companies. Major studios already are drawing up contingency plans for a possible strike, even though the contract with writers has nearly two years to go and the actors' pact won't expire until 2008.

"It's rare to have one union publicly criticize another, even rarer for a union to criticize another union's officers," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in labor issues. "It says a lot about the current climate."

Further angering Short are the guild's organizing efforts under Patric M. Verrone, president of the WGA, West. Short believes that Verrone is stepping on his toes by trying to organize animation writers as well as reality TV editors -- two groups that historically fall under Short's umbrella.

"How can I work with someone that throws a javelin through my heart?" Short said.

Verrone said he was baffled by Short's outbursts, adding that criticism of the guild's leaders' resumes was unfounded. Verrone has written for such shows as "Futurama" and "Rugrats" and is working on Cartoon Network's animated series "Class of 3000."

"Our board of directors for the first time is made up almost entirely of people who are currently working members of the industry," Verrone said.

As for the organizing efforts, he said, the guild is primarily seeking to represent writers who aren't covered by any union. The push to organize animation scribes comes at a time when the genre is booming thanks to the proliferation of computer-generated films and shows. Many animation writers would prefer to join the writers' guild because it offers better pay.

"We're not looking to encroach on anyone else's jurisdiction; we're looking to get the appropriate wages and benefits for writers no matter what the genre," Verrone said.

Nonetheless, it puts him at odds with Animation Guild Local 839, part of Short's union. Kevin Koch, president of the animation guild local, downplayed any conflict, adding that he didn't have a problem if the writers' guild was organizing writers at nonunion productions. He said, however, that it would be a concern if the guild began raiding his existing membership.

"We really don't see it as some kind of war, except when they go after our studios," Koch said.

The writers' guild represents writers who work on several prime-time television shows, including "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." Both unions previously clashed over organizing animation writers at the cable network Nickelodeon and on the now-defunct NBC series "Father of the Pride."

The writers' guild also annoys Short by trying to organize editors in reality TV, arguing that they function as storytellers. Editors historically have been represented by Short's group.

Adding to the tensions is the writers' guild's decision to disrupt public events to draw attention to the plight of reality TV workers, including interrupting a recent industry forum in New York. Short called the protests laughable, arguing that they fueled anxiety that might spook studios into action.

"The constant saber rattling is counterproductive to the benefit of the entire membership because what it causes companies to do is to rev up production and you end up in a de facto strike," Short said.

The "de facto strike" Short referred to is when studios, fearing labor unrest, accelerate projects and then turn off the production spigot until they use up the films they have stockpiled. That happened in 2001 when production slowed to a crawl even though writers and actors never went on strike because they had reached eleventh-hour agreements.

Short has said that he can get better deals by negotiating early with studios eager for the predictability that labor peace brings. Veteran entertainment labor attorney Howard Fabrick said Short was "very concerned about a potential disruption of production because it falls hardest on his members."

The new leaders of the writers' guild, however, argue that early negotiations remove the threat of a strike, weakening their leverage.

"The strike is the ultimate weapon," Verrone said. "We are not bound and determined to use it, because we think we have a number of other tactics."

Short last criticized the guild so publicly in early 2001 amid fears of a looming writers' strike. Verrone said he hoped to smooth things over with Short and his members, adding that the unions should be united against studios and producers.

"I'm not looking to pick a fight with Tommy," Verrone said. "We have a common enemy."

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