Strike averted: Writers Guild of America reaches agreement with studios

David Ng
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Hollywood can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The Writers Guild of America early Tuesday morning reached a tentative deal with the major studios and networks for a new film and TV contract for the union’s nearly 13,000 members.

“It came right down to the wire,” said one person close to the talks who was not authorized to comment. “We didn’t get everything we wanted and they didn’t get everything they wanted, which is usually the result of a successful negotiation. We made real and substantial gains for writers in a number of areas.”

In a statement to members, guild leaders said the agreement provides gains in minimum pay as well increases in contributions to the union’s health plan that “should ensure its solvency for years to come.”

The three-year contract also provides for a 15 percent increase in pay-TV residuals, job protection for paternity leave and residuals for comedy-variety writers who work in pay TV.

No strike: The last-minute agreement averts a potentially devastating strike that would have impacted production throughout the industry and buffeted Los Angeles’ entertainment industry that employs about 240,000 people.

The cliffhanger announcement comes after several weeks of tense and sometimes contentious negotiations that included discussions over how much writers should be paid at a time of dramatic changes in the industry, in particular increases in pay and streaming residuals to counterbalance the effects of shorter TV seasons. The talks also focused on the guild’s health care plan, which has come under financial strain.

The WGA was set to strike if the two sides hadn’t reached a deal by May 1.

Picketers march outside the entrance to Sony Pictures Studios in Cilver City, California, as a 2007 strike by film and television writers gets under way.

Guild leaders have argued that entertainment companies and executives have been raking in money while writers’ compensation continues to languish, especially for the most junior staff writers.

The union has been negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining organization that represents major Hollywood studios, networks and independent producers.

In a statement Tuesday morning, the groups said they had reached an a tentative agreement on a new three-year film and TV contract but did not provide specifics.

Since negotiations began in March, the two sides have broken off talks twice. The guild’s membership voted in favor of a strike authorization April 24. The vote was approved by a 96 percent margin, a high degree of support from union members that may have strengthened the hand of negotiators.

Despite the strike authorization, neither side seemed to have an appetite for a walkout, which would have caused widespread disruption of production at a time when the TV industry is booming. The previous writers strike in 2007-2008 lasted 100 days.

Concessions: The sides seemed far apart until studios made some significant concessions over the weekend.

On Sunday, the alliance bumped up its offer to the WGA’s health plan, making a “substantial increase” to the $60 million offered in the alliance’s previous proposal, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to comment on the talks.

The alliance also addressed some chief guild concerns about the length of TV seasons and exclusivity clauses, which prevent many writers from working on more than one show per season.

The shrinking TV season, accelerated by the move toward streaming, has reduced earnings for writers. The new contract provides additional pay for writers affected by shorter TV seasons.

“We also made unprecedented gains on the issue of short seasons in television,” guild leaders told members.