Writers, studios inch forward

With a strike deadline looming, negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the major Hollywood studios made limited headway in contract talks Tuesday as they met for the first time with a federal mediator.

After a months-long stalemate, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the writers union met until the early evening at the alliance's headquarters in Encino. Previously, talks typically adjourned in the afternoon.

It was unclear, however, whether the involvement of mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez would be enough to bridge the deep divisions between them and avert a strike as early as this week.

Even though all the thorny issues remain on the table, Gonzalez presided over the first serious negotiations since talks began in July, people close to the talks said.

The fractious negotiations have prompted major studios to prepare for the first writers strike in nearly two decades. Guild leaders have obtained authorization from their members to call a strike if they can't reach an agreement on a new three-year deal by midnight tonight. Although the two sides could extend the current contract, that's unlikely. Union leaders have signaled that they will be ready to walk out as early as Friday.

A long walkout would inflict pain beyond Hollywood's studio gates because scores of businesses -- including hotels, restaurants, florists and dog groomers -- rely on the entertainment industry, which contributes 7% -- an estimated $30 billion annually -- to Los Angeles County's $442-billion economy.

The lack of progress and growing threat of a showdown with writers prompted Nick Counter, the alliance's president, to suggest that Gonzalez participate.

"Both sides worked on modifications to their proposals," Counter said in a statement Tuesday night. "We are committed to a fair, reasonable and sensible agreement that is beneficial for everyone. However, opportunities do not come without challenges. We will not agree to any proposals that impose unreasonable restrictions and unjustified costs."

For their part, guild officials expressed little optimism after Tuesday's meeting.

"No significant progress was made," according to a guild statement. "At 4:30 p.m., we informed the [alliance] that we would prepare a comprehensive package proposal for their review today. At 6:45 p.m., we told them the proposal would be ready in 15 minutes. Management negotiators responded by saying they preferred to leave for the day and hear our proposal tomorrow."

Gonzalez is an employee of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government agency that handles arbitration and mediation of labor disputes and contract negotiations. The agency was last involved in writers contract talks in 1988, when writers ended up on strike for 22 weeks.

"Our interest is in helping the parties reach an agreement and avert a work stoppage," said agency spokesman John Arnold.

Tuesday's meeting focused mainly on secondary issues, such as ceilings for health and pension contributions, and didn't tackle the major points, including guild demands to double pay for home video residuals and secure payments for shows that are streamed over the Internet.

Though guild officials agreed to invite Gonzalez, they have downplayed his role.

"A mediator has no power to impose a deal, and mediation is no substitute for serious negotiations," Patric M. Verrone, president of the West Coast writers guild, wrote in a recent e-mail to members.

Also Tuesday, writers visited various studios to hand out fliers to Teamsters union truck drivers to enlist their support.

The Writers Guild recently received a big boost from Teamsters Local 399, which represents 4,500 truck drivers, casting directors and location managers. The local voiced strong support for the writers.

In a statement posted on the Teamsters' website, local secretary-treasurer Leo Reed reminded union members that while though must honor their contracts, they were protected under federal law from employer retribution if they chose to honor picket lines.

Counter responded by sending a letter to Reed, reminding him of a no-strike clause in the Teamsters contract. "We expect each union to comply with this no-strike obligation and order your members to work," he wrote.

The guild's Verrone was grateful for the support from the Teamsters.

"The Writers Guilds are personally indebted to each and every Teamster who chooses to respect our picket lines," he said in a statement.

Negotiations were expected to resume at 10 a.m. today.



David Lazarus' Consumer Confidential column does not appear today.