From both sides now
The new head of AFTRA, Hessinger used to negotiate for CBS
Dan Trigoboff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/12/2000 7:00:00 PM
Immediately after marathon negotiations produced an agreement that would eventually end the 5 1/2-month strike by Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists commercial actors, AFTRA opened negotiations with the Big Three networks over a contract for news correspondents. It was Greg Hessinger's birthday.
"That's not a lot of downtime," said Hessinger, who became AFTRA's national executive director in June after two years with the union.
But he may have a built-in advantage in preparing to face TV management across the bargaining table: He knows the other side. He used to be the other side-as assistant director of labor relations for CBS.
"When I first decided to become a labor lawyer, I felt I would be more comfortable working on the labor side," he said. "I've found that it's easier to make the arguments on the labor side of the table-and harder to achieve the objectives. Both of those flow from the fact that management is holding the purse.
"I never try to lower my own goals, but, ultimately, during the course of negotiations, you have to manage expectations. You have to recognize what is achievable..It's a very rare day you come out with exactly what you wanted or even what you expected."
The latest showdown over commercials, he noted, is "a good illustration of how what is achievable is tied to what members of the union are prepared to fight for. And the end result was very positive. But that's not to say that every time you're prepared to hold out for that long you're going to get what you want."
Given their sometimes famous members and perceived glamour of the professions they represent, entertainment unions have a naturally high profile. "It's a double-edged sword," he pointed out. "Many of our members are well known, and the public is interested in matters that concern those people. But the public is not always ready to sympathize with those people perceived as being very well compensated."
That equation clearly favors commercial actors over TV reporters and anchors, who are far less likely to be waiting tables or tending bar to make ends meet. And sometimes, Hessinger observed, a well-placed word to a Mel Karmazin by an Ed Bradley or a Dan Rather might have more effect than a lot of people with picket signs.
Hessinger had come to CBS through Westinghouse, where he had gone from mega law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Although Westinghouse had been a stagnant company that had been through some tough times, Hessinger recalled, "I knew it was an industry that interested me." And as luck would have it, the company was about to experience tremendous growth and complete some tremendous deals.
Later, after four years negotiating contracts with AFTRA and other unions, Hessinger was approached by AFTRA National Executive Director Bruce York about a job in the news and broadcast divisions of the union.
"There was a bit of tension when I first got here: Bruce had gone outside the organization to hire someone-from management, of all places. But he knew a lot about me, mostly from AFTRA negotiations I'd participated in. We wrapped it up very quickly."
Said Day Krolik, vice president of talent negotiations and labor relations for NBC, "There's no question that having worked for CBS helps him understand the company point of view, and that makes him effective at representing the union point of view.
"He's a tough, good negotiator," Krolik continued. "He's clearly an intelligent person with a good, basic understanding of the industry and the issues. The industry's going through a transitional phase, with cable, online and convergence. The unions are trying to respond to that."
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