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DGA Tells SAG, WGA 'Don't Strike'

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The president of the Directors Guild of America has shivered at the thought of a 2003 or 2004 walkout--not by directors, but by actors or writers--in her January report posted on the DGA website.

Martha Coolidge, the DGA leader, cut to the chase in the opening paragraph, where she said, "Feature film production is just now recovering from the slowdown caused by both the de facto WGA and SAG strikes of 2001 and the aftermath of 9-11. In addition, production and earnings levels are returning to where they were in 2000, and many industry forecasters believe that the upcoming year will see continued growth."

She went on to say that the DGA health plan would experience "an $8 million deficit this year and a greater deficit next year." She attributed that primarily to spiraling medical costs. She then covered other issues important to directors, including illegal editing to censor films, runaway production, media consolidation, and Internet piracy.

But by the end of her report, Coolidge returned to concern over a possible walkout this year or next:

"What we don't need is another industry slowdown or de facto strike. SAG will soon enter into its commercial negotiations, and the actors and writers could potentially begin basic agreement negotiations with the studios toward the end of next year. We express the hope that all sides of the business, studios, networks, guilds, unions and even government, will work together not only to keep us working but to help create more jobs. I can assure you that the DGA will do its part to resolve issues, anticipate disputes and keep creating more opportunities for all of us to work."

The directors represent an interesting dichotomy, seeming sometimes to be pro-union, sometimes pro-producer. In 2000, the DGA provided office space for SAG commercial-contract strikers, and even forgave the rent. That came out in a Dec. 14, 2000 letter from William Daniels, the former SAG national president, to Jack Shea, the DGA prez before Coolidge. The DGA also joined with SAG to spearhead the first major study of runaway production in the U.S., starting the ball rolling on attempts at state and federal legislation to quell runaways.

On the other hand, as the WGA struggled through its 2001 feature-film-and-TV pact talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the DGA went to the producers to oppose the writers' attempt to altar the "film by" credit. The directors got their way. They followed that by entering early talks and easily reaching a pact with AMPTP, beginning bargaining on Nov. 26, 2001 and ending it in early December on a pact that didn't expire until the following June.

Just as the DGA's bargaining with AMPTP was premature, Coolidge's urging of no strike--and she seems to be aiming her call at SAG and WGA, despite her all-inclusive list--appears premature. Neither SAG, the writers, the ad industry, nor the producers have organized their proposals for the 2003 commercial or 2004 film-TV talks. When those proposals do come forth, and the battle lines are drawn for bargaining, the SAG and WGA leaders will probably be listening to their own members, and not the DGA.

Coolidge, in fact, didn't refer to the bitter, six-month SAG-AFTRA 2000 commercials-contract strike in her report, just as Melissa Gilbert, SAG's national president, didn't speak of it in her holiday state-of-the-union letter to her membership. But that strike is what made film and TV producers queasy, and led to their hurrying up productions to finish them before bargaining on the film-TV pact began the following year. That, as much as the sour economy and "de facto" strikes, led to the production slowdown Coolidge referred to.

It's obvious that Coolidge is working to protect her guild's turf, which is understandable. But the truth is the ad industry proved a tough bargainer in 2000, with some union leaders complaining that corporations behind the negotiations were attempting to break the unions. It took the AFL-CIO stepping in to crack management's hardened position. There's been no public sign that the ad industry's tough stance has changed. So Coolidge and other union leaders may find 2003 harder than they hope for. Which, if the spot-pact talks stall, could lead to a queasy 2004.

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