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Writers Guild is criticized for contract tactic

Its leaders come under fire from a top entertainment union official for refusing to start negotiations early.

December 06, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

The guild representing Hollywood TV and film writers came under fire Tuesday from a top entertainment union official who accused its leaders of arrogance and incompetence for spurning studio overtures to negotiate a new contract early.

Thomas C. Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the umbrella group for an array of Hollywood craft unions, suggested that the decision would fuel uncertainty and destabilize Hollywood's rank and file.

Short in particular was critical of Writers Guild of America, West, President Patric Verrone and Executive Director David Young, saying they acted irresponsibly in refusing to hold early contract negotiations. Short warned that the heightened tensions could eventually lead to a work slowdown in which "working families will not only lose their livelihoods but the work hours necessary to keep them eligible for health insurance, pensions and other [union] benefits."

Short's comments echo criticisms made by chief studio negotiator J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers, who had been pushing to start talks no later than January, nine months before the writers' contract expires.

Both men contend that early negotiations ease strike fears, which in turn discourages studios from stockpiling scripts and accelerating production as a precautionary measure. Even when a walkout is averted, stockpiling can lead to a so-called de facto strike because studios are reluctant to launch new work until they have released the projects already on their shelves.

Young called the predictions of a possible de facto strike a "boogeyman" and "scare tactic" aimed at intimidating union members. He said it was unfortunate that Short was siding with the studios on the issue.

In a recent e-mail to members, Verrone defended the guild's negotiating strategy, saying he was skeptical that producers were serious about early negotiations and that the union was merely exercising its prerogative. The guild has proposed starting talks by next summer.

"The last thing we want is a strike, and we hope we won't be pushed to that result by conglomerates that declare windfalls to Wall Street and plead poverty to us," Verrone wrote.

Beyond the negotiating tactics, the WGA and Short have been feuding on another issue: who should represent storytellers on reality TV shows. Short's alliance represents story editors who are crucial to the genre, and it has challenged the guild's efforts to represent workers on those shows.

The WGA backed a strike this summer involving 12 workers from the CW's "America's Next Top Model" who sought to join the guild.

In his statement, Short said the WGA mishandled the organizing effort. Young fired back, accusing Short and his union of failing to show solidarity with the strikers.

"This is contrary to the most basic trade union principles in which we believe," Young wrote.

The WGA has a complaint pending with the National Labor Relations Board that alleges the workers were illegally fired.

Separately, the show's production and preproduction workers voted Monday to be represented by the alliance.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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