Ratcheting up labor tensions in Hollywood, leaders of the Writers Guild of America on Monday said they would ask members for authorization to call a strike if the union is unable to negotiate a new three-year contract with major studios.
"Because the stakes are so high, it is necessary to empower your negotiators with the tools needed to make the best possible deal," the union stated in a letter posted on its website. "It is apparent that the companies do not yet feel the pressure to conduct serious negotiations."
The request was not unexpected. Unions often seek strike authorizations to gain leverage in negotiations. The Screen Actors Guild, for example, obtained a strike authorization from members last year before signing a new agreement with producers of cable TV programs.
What's more, negotiations between writers and producers, which began July 16 and are set to resume Thursday, have been unusually contentious.
If a majority of the guild's members grant the authorization, the union board members could call a strike any time after the current agreement expires Oct. 31. Ballots are due Oct. 18.
The sides are far apart on several issues, especially the thorny matter of pay for work that is distributed via the Internet and other new media. So far, neither side has gone beyond lambasting the other's proposals.
Still, Monday's move is certain to add to anxiety in Hollywood's executive suites. Studios already are bracing for the first major Hollywood strike in nearly 20 years by, among other things, rushing to complete film and TV shoots before a walkout might occur. J. Nicholas Counter III, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, accused the guild of pursuing a reckless strategy.
"The Writers Guild's strike authorization is notable only because its negotiators seem intent on striking without seriously addressing the [alliance's] proposals, and with no regard for the devastating impact on their members, fellow unions and this industry," he said in a statement. "We are committed and prepared to make a fair deal with the WGA, but at this point the WGA is not of the same mind."
Most labor analysts have predicted that writers would not reach a deal by Oct. 31 and seek to push back negotiations until early next year to align with the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires June 30.
Those familiar with the guild's thinking, however, say the board is keeping its options open, including the possibility of calling a strike as early as next month, when studios would be in the thick of the fall television season.
Meanwhile, the guild has set up an operations center at its headquarters to mobilize members in the event of a strike, earmarking more than $12 million to finance a possible walkout. The union downplayed that outcome Monday. "The guild's leadership will do everything in its power to avoid a work stoppage."