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Gov.'s just a spectator in Hollywood drama

December 27, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

Here's one role Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the veteran movie-biz insider, isn't likely to be playing: peacemaker in the 8-week-old strike by Hollywood writers.

The governor, who owes his career and public image to the industry, hasn't been seen or heard in the labor dispute -- and there's a reason.

"There's been no clamor among opinion or political leaders for the governor to get involved. It doesn't make sense for him to go in as the Terminator and create the expectation he can terminate the strike single-handedly," says Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles lawyer and political strategist, referring to Schwarzenegger's signature action role.

The governor, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, appears to be heeding the conventional wisdom that he should stay out of the brawl among his former colleagues in the movie industry. Although he met and spoke by phone with representatives of both sides during the first days of the strike, Schwarzenegger seems to have decided to let the parties work -- or war -- it out on their own.

"The governor is interested in both sides reaching an agreement as quickly as possible, but beyond that we have no further comment," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

Even a "no further" comment may already be saying too much as far as Schwarzenegger is concerned. The governor's ability to be an honest broker could be hamstrung by his personal and professional ties to top studio executives, on the one hand, and his active membership in SAG, a staunch ally of the striking Writers Guild, on the other.

A politician looking for guidance on whether to get involved needn't look back far.

In January 1995, Bill Clinton thrust the power of the presidency and his outsize personality into an effort to mediate a long and bitter Major League Baseball strike.

But Clinton failed to broker a deal between club owners and players.

"I didn't think it was a good idea to get involved," said Robert B. Reich, Clinton's Labor secretary during the strike and now a UC Berkeley professor. When the nation's "coaxer-in-chief" can't move two entrenched parties, "the lesson is that politicians get into high-visibility labor disputes at their own peril."

Many California labor and political experts agree that Clinton's experience should -- if it hasn't yet -- cause the governor to think twice before throwing his own powerful persona and action-hero zeal into a walkout by scriptwriters against movie and television studios.

The dispute, which may cost hundreds of millions of dollars and has shut down most television production, is proving to be every bit as acrimonious as the 232-day baseball strike, which caused the cancellation of 938 games, including the 1994 World Series.

Not everyone with a feel for the levers of power in Hollywood and Sacramento, however, is warning Schwarzenegger to stay away from the writers strike.

"Leadership is about taking risks, and you may win and you may not," said Leon E. Panetta, a former congressman from Monterey and Clinton's chief of staff during the baseball strike.

"I would not sit back and let this thing roll out on its own because it's pretty clear that the parties are having a hard time finding common ground," Panetta said. He suggested that it might be wise for Schwarzenegger to quietly send a trusted envoy to the negotiations and become publicly involved only if he concluded that his intervention could be successful.

The studios and writers appear to be less than enthusiastic about having the governor enter the fray over divvying up revenue from movies and TV shows delivered over the Internet to computers, cellphones and other devices. The Writers Guild would "welcome any help" from the governor, if he told "the companies they must negotiate seriously with the guild," said union spokesman Neal Sacharow.

Negotiations broke down Dec. 7, and the guild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was negotiating in bad faith when it stopped talking. The producers, who demanded that the writers take several issues off the table, called the filing baseless.

The studio bargaining group said in a statement that it had "tremendous respect for Gov. Schwarzenegger, but until the WGA's organizers decide to focus on the core issues such as fairly dividing up new media revenue, there is simply very little hope that an agreement on all issues can be reached."

With both sides hurling verbal brickbats, it would be easy for the governor to get caught in the crossfire, strategist Sragow said. The strike "is costing Los Angeles a lot of money; it's costing the state a lot of money and, obviously, it's doing a lot of damage to a lot of people," he said. "But, politically, I don't see an upside. Most voters see this as a battle between two well-heeled interests."

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