Friday, November 30, 2007

ABC News Writers Throw In The Towel With New Contract, And Maybe Throw Away Their Future In The Process

Deal Could Make it Even Harder for CBS Staffers Represented By The Writers Guild To Get A Decent Contract Without Striking

First things first. In another life, I was a shop steward for the Writers Guild of America East while working at CBS News. I helped negotiate two contracts, including the one that's remained in force because the WGA and CBS have been at loggerheads since 2005 over a new deal. And I am still a WGA member, though my status is inactive.
So, it's from first-hand experience that I can state unequivocally that the deal agreed to by ABC News staffers represented by the WGA has a big stink, no matter how the union spins it.
The 250-person bargaining unit has been without a contract since Jan. 31, 2005. Like CBS, ABC was in no hurry to change that. Make no doubt about it, the network got the better of the deal. By far.
At first glance, it doesn't seem that way. There will be annual raises of 3.5 percent, and a one-time $3,700 bonus. Sounds good, except when you do the math and realize that's about 60 percent of the pay staffers have missed out on by not getting annual raises since 2005.
But then come the real concessions. First, the WGA gives up an hour when staffers could be paid a 15 percent bonus for working late at night.
Then come two whoppers: first, the Guild agreed to a reduced payment for when staffers are asked to work a full shift without a lunch hour, which amounts to a pay cut. Editors and writers who have such shifts over the course of a week could lose $5,000-$6,000 annually, more than eating away any salary increase.
Most egregious is agreeing to a two-tier wage scale that would pay new employees at a lower rate if they work in operations, i.e. those who do the interviews and edit the sound you hear on radio newscasts.
CBS Guild members have always viewed the time-and-a-half paid for the no-lunch hour as sacrosanct, even though the company always puts it on the table every three years. It's no longer regarded as the basis for a serious discussion. That the ABC unit would even broach the subject is unfathomable.
Similarly, CBS is demanding a two-tier wage scale, where employees at its local radio stations covered by the contract to have smaller pay increases. That has bogged down talks, precisely because it is one of those Pandora's Box clauses that could mushroom into something more onerous down the line.
But the ABC Guild members are on the verge of creating their version of Animal Farm -- yes, you're all entitled to be represented by the union. No, you're not entitled to all be paid the same, even when you're doing the same job.
CBS negotiators must be giddy over what ABC has wrought. You can practically hear them screaming in unison "Me, too." They smell weakness. The CBS unionistas must prove them wrong.
WGA contracts at ABC and CBS have been rife with concessions over the years, as the networks and the unions adjusted to changing market conditions. But the existing contracts have no fat left. So, it's inexplicable that the ABC rank-and-file would choose to get a cleaver and whack at the muscle.
Plain and simple, this is a bad contract, setting the table for future agreements that will only be worse.
By not taking more aggressive steps to reach a more-equitable agreement and essentially hand the network a large cash windfall, the ABC negotiating committee has made one thing easy for its members -- voting no on this debacle.
This was a deal made out of desperation. Common sense, courage and a firm resolve had long since left the building.

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