WGA Calls Premature Talk of Writers' Strike Troubling

News   WGA Calls Premature Talk of Writers' Strike Troubling Writers Guild of America (WGA/East) executive director Mona Mangan is busy preparing for next year's critical and much anticipated Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) negotiations with producers. But, unlike many in the industry, she does not believe a writers' strike in 2001 is a foregone conclusion.

Writers Guild of America (WGA/East) executive director Mona Mangan is busy preparing for next year's critical and much anticipated Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) negotiations with producers. But, unlike many in the industry, she does not believe a writers' strike in 2001 is a foregone conclusion.

There is already a buzz about next year's writer talks, fuelled in part by the protracted commercial strike between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). The entertainment industry, its trades and even the mainstream media have been picking up on reports that Hollywood studios are stockpiling scripts and pushing production because they feel there could be either a writers' strike or a theatrical strike by actors as well.

Speaking out against the preconceived notion of strike, the executive director of the WGA says that discussing a worst case scenario this early in the game may be counter-productive to everyone's best interests.

On Aug. 10, Playbill On-Line reported earlier, Mangan travelled west and met with her west coast counterpart, John McLean, to discuss changes in the guild's negotiating strategy, including a return to traditional bargaining. For 12 years, the WGA has negotiated its Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) through the Contract Adjustment Committee (CAC). The guild is opting to move away from that strategy, where a group of writers negotiates along narrowly prescribed guidelines, in favor of addressing such broad issues as residuals for cable television and the Internet. Mangan also appeared on CNN FN on Aug. 9 to denounce premature saber rattling over claims that there will be a long and bitter strike for writers next year.

The current MBA deal between WGA and producers expires on May 1, 2001. "It's very early in the game to have all this strike discussion," Mangan told Playbill On-Line. "I think it grows out of the natural drama of the industry. We haven't had regular negotiations [with experienced negotiators] in 10 years, so for many of our members it's a new experience and perhaps they imagine the worst. The reality is, there is nothing on the table. There have not been any meetings and there is no indication that we can't work out a deal. To assume we're having a strike when there has not been any discussion makes me wonder why we are there and why do they think that. The studios want exactly what we want, so why are we at loggerheads?

"It's very troubling," Mangan said, "because it creates a certain atmosphere, and you don't want a self-fulfilling strike...that's very troubling. Everyone needs to step back to the beginning. We need to know what we are looking for and how we can get our needs addressed. Typically you have strikes and those kinds of labor issues in industries that are in decline, where markets are contracting, or where you have tremendous relocations of manufacturing. None of those are true in entertainment today.

"There may be an issue of decreasing the cost of production, but I don't think that's smart business because it hasn't worked for anyone before. I suppose you could essentially knock the writer off the production line, but it's not going to make a big difference in movies, because writers are not that expensive in terms of final projects." They can spend $85-$120 million on a movie but that's not what the writer is getting paid. In other industries, labor costs are very high by comparison. In other words, there are $20 million stars, but there aren't $20 million writers--not even close."

Mangan said that while writing may be a relatively small line item on a film budget, there is a correlation between the strength of a script and the production value of a movie. "The less effects and production costs there are involved with a film, the greater the need for a stronger script," Mangan suggested.

The WGA strongly supports the monitoring of writers' works on the internet, an area of key interest in the SAG commercial strike, where the actors seek union jurisdiction over their commercials on the Internet.

"I don't know how SAG prioritizes new media," Mangan said, "but we prioritize it as a very important thing. We don't see the Internet as fledgling, but as an important new market that will take revenues from the other markets."

Mangan explained that her members are "really upset with what they make with cable television," with cable rates that were established at roughly the same time as SAG's were in the early '80s. While Mangan says that SAG has "complex issues that are their own," the writers are like the actors in that they get paid less for cable because those negotiations took place "when they [producers/studios] barely had any [market] penetration."

"Back then, they negotiated a lower rate," Mangan said, "but now they've got 70 percent penetration worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But we're still sitting here with a residual format from the '80s when they [producers/studios] were worth much less. So, we need to come into our own in the cable area."

Establishing Internet jurisdiction is important for the writers, Mangan added, because as far as the Internet is concerned, the WGA does not want to go down the same road that it did with cable. Another problem with theatrical work that doesn't exist with commercial work, Mangan said, is that WGA writers get a percentage of the licensing fees that are negotiated by studios when they sell shows.

"When Disney licenses movies to show on ABC," Mangan says, "[we question how] they set a fee based on the 'fair market value' of the show." Ensuring that programming is priced fairly to protect the WGA member's percentage is something the union is concerned with. "We have to deal with those problems," Mangan said.

Mangan emphasized that the WGA is not in a rush to strike. The union executive is readying a newsletter for her members that outlines several of the points discussed here.

"Strikes are always unbelievably hard," Mangan said. "Everybody is always upset on the management side because nobody's doing work and the union is saying, 'My gosh, we can't go to work.' So, everyone tries hard to avoid it. Once you strike, there are great stakes involved. If you haven't worked in a while you have a tremendous stake in protecting your investment in the strike, so it's important that you get reasonable gains. Neither side gets what they really want. The Japanese say you should both walk away feeling that you did very well."

[As reported, the executive boards of WGA East and West will meet in Los Angeles on Sept. 18 to discuss the union's fundamental contract with producers, the Minimum Basic Agreement.]

-- By Murdoch McBride