Q&A: WGA President Patric Verrone

Writers Guild of America West President Patric Verrone is an unreasonable man. Unwilling to negotiate, he's intent on leading WGA membership into a catastrophic strike that will cripple the industry — or, at least, that's how the opposition portrays him.

Since the start of contract talks in July, Mr. Verrone's strategy has been to negotiate largely by refusing to negotiate. With the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers proposing what the WGA considers unacceptable roll backs to the current payment system, the guild leadership has taken a firm stance: they will not discuss proposals they consider unreasonable. In turn, the AMPTP has said Mr. Verrone is the one who is being unreasonable.

Last week, with the WGA asking members for strike authorization and a Oct. 31 contract deadline looming, this non-negotiation tactic finally seemed to pay off: The AMPTP took their most contested proposal – tying residual payments to production-company profits — off the table.

"The reason we pulled [profit-based residuals] off the table is we were getting grief from other guilds and people who were pretty moderate," said an industry source on the network/studio side. "The town was galvanized against us. So we took off this huge impediment and the WGA's biggest excuse for not negotiating. This was viewed by their working members as huge. And to not even treat it like anything happened means only one thing: They want to strike and they're going to keep as much stuff on the table as they can."

After the producers dropped the profit-based residual proposal, WGA left the talks for five days, saying the producers are keeping too many other unacceptable measures in play. Union members voted to authorize the strike on Oct. 19.

In an interview with TelevisionWeek conducted Friday afternoon as strike authorization votes were being tallied, Mr. Verrone elaborated on the WGA's negotiation tactics, and what comes next:

TelevisionWeek: Presuming the votes comes back overwhelmingly in favor of a strike, what does that do for you at this point?

Mr. Verrone: It would help to clarify to the industry that writers want a fair contract and are prepared to do what's necessary to get it. I think it's a show of support for the goals of this negotiation and the leadership of the negotiation committee.

TVWeek: Do you feel that the AMTPT pulling [the residuals payment plan] off the table was a victory?

Mr. Verrone: I wouldn't call it a victory. It was expected and inevitable.

TVWeek: The AMPTP's take is that removing the proposal was a major concession and that the WGA hasn't done anything to reciprocate.

Mr. Verrone: They put proposals on the table about which they were not serious and which we refused to take seriously. By removing one of many, that doesn't show to us that they're prepared to bargain about our proposals.

TVWeek: What's the next biggest thing that's a roadblock to a deal?

Mr. Verrone: The biggest roadblock is they're not talking about our proposals. We have reasonable proposals about DVD residuals, animation, new media, reality and other important issues about which they refuse to talk.

TVWeek: Regarding DVD residuals, a source in the opposition camp says: ‘That's our sacred cow. They're not going to get it. As long as that's on the table, they're not getting a deal.' With new media dominating a lot of the discussion, how key are DVD residuals in this round?

Mr. Verrone: All of our information and projections from major accounting firms we've seen shows that DVD revenue will continue for the foreseeable future. And after 20 years of a bad deal on home video, writers want a correction there.

TVWeek: Another AMPTP message is that networks have taken steps to prepare for the strike. But some of the information coming from your camp has suggested that's not the case, that there hasn't been the surge in game shows and stockpiling of scripts that some expected.

Mr. Verrone: My information is they are not prepared for a Nov. 1 strike and that they were caught off guard.

TVWeek: The gaps of time spent away from the table is something else the AMPTP points to as showing the WGA is not serious. They say that's clear evidence you are racing to strike.

Mr. Verrone: We were there on Tuesday and they continued to only want to talk about their untenable proposals. We're ready to talk any day and every day about our proposals.

TVWeek: Doesn't – even just from a industry perception standpoint- doesn't not meeting them at the table signal a lack of seriousness to negotiate, even if that's not your intention?

Mr. Verrone: We don't want to waste our time and the time of hard working writers on issues we will never agree to. Now we have bargaining scheduled for Monday. We hope they are prepared now talk about our proposals.

TVWeek: And if they're not?

Mr. Verrone: It will be another day taken off the calendar.

TVWeek: So you must believe that not being at the table is a more effective tactic than trying to negotiate at the table.

Mr. Verrone: It's a more valuable use of our time to not talk about their proposals than to talk about them. But the most valuable use of our time would be talking about our proposals. They're characterizing us as unwilling to bargain. We are absolutely willing to bargain over our proposals. We are prepared to talk every day between now and when we have the contract.

TVWeek: But you realize how that sounds: Give us what we're asking for and only then will we negotiate.

Mr. Verrone: But their next proposal is that all programming can be used on the Internet for free. The [next proposals are] cut from the same swatch as the profits-based residual program. Just as we're not going to bargain off that, we're not going to bargain off the other ones. They're willing to remove a single untenable proposal. But until they actually start talking about our proposals, they haven't moved.

TVWeek: It's funny how similar the complaint is from both sides. Both of you are essentially saying that the other is refusing to seriously consider the other's proposals.

Mr. Verrone: But we came in with reasonable proposals. They came in with massive rollbacks. And then when they drop one of them they expect us to be grateful. We don't have a comparable proposal to gutting the current contract. It's like if your boss comes in and suggests a 50 percent salary cut. Then he comes back and says, ‘okay, it's only a 45 percent salary cut,' and then says, ‘Where's my reward?'

TVWeek: So what happens Nov. 1?

Mr. Verrone: We will re-evaluate where we are in the bargaining at that point, and at every point.