What's in possible deal for writers?

By Cindy Kaffen

PRESS REPORTS suggested a deal is near between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and major Hollywood studios, as Socialist Worker went to press.

On the United Hollywood Web site, WGA strike captains stated that they were "cautiously optimistic" that an agreement was near to end the three-month-old writers' strike, but they cautioned that they had not seen the terms of the deal and emphasized the need for continued picketing. Membership meetings are planned for New York and LA over the weekend.

Word of the possible agreement came after two weeks of informal discussions between studio heads Robert Iger of Walt Disney, Peter Chernin of News Corp. (which owns Fox) and Leslie Moonves of CBS Corp., and WGA Executive Director David Young, President Patric Verrone and Negotiating Committee Chair John Bowman. Under a mutually agreed upon news blackout, neither side has made any public comment.

Any deal would have to be endorsed by the governing boards of the WGA's East and West Coast branches and ratified by the union's rank and file, but writers could return to work as soon as the boards endorse.

The talks were initiated by studio heads after the Directors Guild of America (DGA) signed an agreement with the American Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in mid-January. The AMPTP had walked out of formal negotiations with writers in December, hoping to use the deal worked out with directors--thought to be the weak link in the chain--to set an industry-wide pattern.

Many striking writers felt the directors' deal was too weak in its formulas for payment for Internet downloads and streaming of ad-supported films and TV programs, as well as other issues specific to writers.

But the pressure put on writers by the DGA deal was increased by reports of that some writer-producers were cutting a deal with the studios.

On the other side, the media moguls are also under pressure. TV production is almost completely shut down, many films have been halted and stock prices are falling. Ratings are also dropping, which means less money from advertising--an important factor for the studios with the approach of the February sweeps--the ratings periods that networks use to lure advertisers.

Also important is the pressure from the writers' solid picket lines for three months and the overwhelming support of the public for the strikers.

As informal talks continued last week, strikers kept up the pressure with strong picket lines and a unity rally with the Screen Actors Guild that brought 1,500 people out to Fox Studios in Los Angeles.

The support of the 120,000-member Screen Actors Guild, whose own contract comes up June 30, has been critical. SAG members have been visible on the picket lines. When actors pledged not to cross a writers' picket of the Golden Globes award show, NBC was forced to scrap their event. SAG has also pledged not to cross if the writers' picket the upcoming Oscars ceremony.

SAG leaders issued a critique of the DGA agreement, ending with the statement, "Each guild must act in the best interest of its own membership, including rejecting management-imposed 'pattern bargaining.'" If SAG goes on strike this summer, they will need WGA solidarity.

Any agreement now will likely be a step forward for writers and the result of the inspirational solidarity and dedication of the strikers. Unfortunately, though, WGA negotiators had made some concessions even before the most recent announcement--for example, dropping the demand for an increase in the DVD residual formula and for jurisdiction over unorganized reality TV and animation writers.

Most crucially, the strike has changed the writers themselves. As one striker on the picket line at CBS Studios last week, a WGA member for over 20 years, put it, "I am really heartened by this experience. Our unity, the support of the other unions--I've never seen anything like it. We're fighting for what we deserve, but not just for ourselves. We're showing others that you can stand up and fight."