Union leaders expect CBS News writers to back strike

From the LA Times, by Matea Gold:

NEW YORK — As Hollywood braces for its television and film writers to go on strike as soon as Monday, more than 500 CBS News employees represented by the Writers Guild of America under a separate agreement with that network are contemplating their own work action.

The CBS television and radio staffers — a group that includes news writers, editors, desk assistants, production assistants, graphic artists, promotion writers and researchers who work at a local or network level in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles — plan to vote Nov. 15 on authorizing a strike.

Union leaders said they expect the employees, who have been working without a contract since April 2005, will back a work stoppage.

"My expectation is we are going to have an overwhelmingly high strike authorization vote, and I hope CBS will take it as a final signal that they need to come back to the table with a fair and equitable offer," said Ann Toback, assistant executive director of the WGA, East, who has been heading up the negotiations with the network.

Contract discussions with CBS have been at a standstill since November 2006, when 99% of the employees voted to reject the network's last offer. The last meeting between the two sides was held on Jan. 8, when they were unable to make any progress.

"We gave them a fair and final offer nearly a year ago, which they urged their members to reject," said a CBS spokesman. "This offer remains on the table."

The guild called the contract offered by the network unacceptable, saying it would mandate lower wages for radio employees than for television and network news staffers, as well as allow CBS to combine union and non-union newsrooms.

The WGA is also seeking a 13% raise over the course of 4 1/2 years, noting that its members last received a raise in April 2004.

If the news writers went on strike, programs such as "CBS Evening News" would experience "an immediate diminishment of quality," Toback said.

But even if the union membership authorizes a strike, it remains unclear whether the guild would immediately call for one.

"I think it's largely going to depend on CBS' willingness to negotiate a fair contract," she said. "I'm hoping they will reconsider their position."

The threat of a CBS news writer strike underscores the complicated patchwork of union membership in the television news divisions. Some news writers belong to the WGA, which negotiates separate contracts with each network, while other employees are part of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which hammers out its own labor agreements with each company. Meanwhile, a large share of network news staffers — including many producers — have no union representation.

Complicating matters further, a handful of veteran writer-producers who work for network newsmagazines such as "60 Minutes" and "Primetime" are represented by the WGA when it comes to their writing functions. In the case of an industrywide strike, the guild expects them to refrain from performing their writing duties.