UNITED STATES: Writers' strike holds strong

February 1, 2008

After starting contract negotiations on January 12, the Directors' Guild of America reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on January 17. It was expected that the DGA and AMPTP would come to an agreement, but the swiftness of the deal was a surprise, especially because there were six months remaining on the existing contract.

The AMPTP, the corporate media and sections of the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) argue that the DGA's new contract resolves many of the differences that are outstanding in the WGA contract, and that the main blockage in those negotiations has been the WGA leadership's intransigence. There is, however, considerable doubt about whether the writers' demands have been addressed, and their strike continues.

The only information about the directors' agreement that has been made publicly available was that contained in a brief DGA media release on January 17, and the WGA is waiting for more information about the AMPTP's offer before making a formal assessment.

On January 29, Doug Allen, the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) executive director and chief negotiator, and Allen Rosenberg, SAG president, wrote to SAG members criticising the DGA agreement. The SAG's contract expires on June 30 and it is expected to make similar demands to those of the writers' guild. In their letter to members, Allen and Rosenburg state: "Some have rushed to anoint their [the DGA] deal as the 'solution' for the entertainment industry. We believe that assessment is premature."

A number of problems with the DGA contract are immediately apparent. The first is that many of the issues that are important to writers and other workers in the film and television industry — notably residuals (royalties) — are not as important to many DGA members, such as assistant directors, because they are not entitled to them.

Second, the offer made to the DGA around residuals is only 12.5% of the WGA's claim. Third, many of the concessions made by the AMPTP contain large loopholes that make them virtually meaningless. For example, the deal offers the DGA jurisdiction over internet productions, yet the high minimum budget threshold excludes the majority of shows produced for the internet.

Despite these failings, the deal indicates the AMPTP's willingness to begin to negotiate around issues of concern to writers, a shift that former WGA president John Wells and the SAG leadership attribute to the pressure created by the strike.

Nevertheless, there is also pressure on the WGA and its members to be "reasonable" and accept the studios' offer, and the WGA on January 22 dropped its demand for automatic coverage for writers employed in reality TV and animation shows. Instead, the WGA will look for alternative avenues to unionise these workers.

The writers continue to hold strong, maintaining daily pickets outside the studios with support from other unions within and outside the industry. On January 28, more than 1000 people, including 500 SAG members, joined a Unity Day rally outside Fox Studios.

The big media conglomerates that make up the AMPTP are under a lot of pressure as their losses mount and new financial deadlines appear. The strike is estimated to have already cost the Los Angeles economy US$1.5 billion.

Although the WGA have agreed to not picket the Grammy Awards, no such agreement has been made for the Oscars on February 24. With the SAG and many individual actors, such as Viggio Mortensen and Daniel Day-Lewis, pledging not to cross WGA picket lines, the award ceremony looks likely to flop, potentially costing the American Broadcasting Company US$100 million.

Those award ceremonies that have gone ahead, such as the Screen Writers' Guild Award, have become platforms for actors to pledge their support for the striking writers. In her award acceptance speech, Julie Christie said, "It's lovely to receive an award from your own union, especially at a time when they're being so forcefully reminded how important unions are". Christie told Variety, "Without unions, we would not have anyone to represent us over injustices".

Josh Brolin, in his acceptance speech, said: "It's a risky movie, and it's nice to have risky movies now, especially this year, which is a cornucopia of change ... The studio system is backfiring and it's fun for us actors."

The AMPTP agreed on January 24 to begin informal discussions about reinitiating negotiations with the WGA. If the strike continues to the end of February, TV networks will face losing seasons of shows and the huge advertising revenue that comes with them.

While some producers have raised hopes that writers might return to work under an interim deal to allow the next TV season to be salvaged, this seems unlikely unless the AMPTP makes considerable concessions.

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