ABC Submits 'Final' Proposal to Unions

Changes to Seniority System Remain Sticking Point Between NABET-CWA, ABC

ABC said it is done talking for now and it presented what it described as its comprehensive and final proposal for a new contract for 1,100 engineers, news writers, publicists, desk assistants, plant maintenance workers and traffic coordinators.

The network sweetened the deal with raises that only apply if the contract is ratified by Nov. 30. The raise would be an extra half-percent in the first year of the four-year contract and another half-percent in the last year of the contract.

"We are eager for the union to put [the contract proposal] to a member vote so the eight different bargaining units can vote on it," said Julie Hoover, vice president of corporate communications for Disney/ABC Television Group.

But despite tentative agreement on changes to the company pension plan that the unions conceded was progress, that vote doesn't appear likely to happen if the response from the negotiating committee for NABET-CWA is any indication. NABET-CWA president John Clark had not returned a call for comment at press time.

In an e-mail to members, the unions called "absurd" ABC's claim that it was surprised that the unions did not show up for an Oct. 19 meeting, saying ABC knew full well that the union did not plan to attend, having said it did not see anything productive coming out of the talks.

That's after a bulletin from the union Oct. 18 that called it "a blatant act of corporate terrorism" to make the pension agreement contingent on changes to the seniority system, which is the network's essentially one non-negotiable point.

In an Oct. 22 letter to Clark, ABC senior VP of labor relations Jeff Ruthizer said the network's key proposal remains reconfiguring the seniority system for 900 or so engineering staffers into separate seniority groupings by job function. That, ABC has said previously, is so that it has the ability to keep younger people with some of the technical skills it needs to be competitive in world of diminishing audiences and multiplying delivery platforms.

“As we have said," Ruthizer told Clark, "we cannot contemplate any circumstance where there can be a deal between us that does not contain this item in the form and substance we have presented to you." Ruthizer added that ABC had already made significant revisions even to that proposal, which included limiting it to the 900 engineers and not to all of the covered workers.

"Your rejection of virtually everything the company has sought in these talks," Ruthizer said, "coupled with your unwillingness to meet Friday, particularly in light of your lack interest in further meetings, has led us to the conclusion that no useful purpose would be gained by prolonging these talks any further."

NABET-CWA sees it, instead, as a way to get rid of higher-paid, more senior workers in favor of younger, lower-paid ones.

"We believe the comapany's issuing of a final offer at this point is premature and innappropriate," Clark told B&C. "There are many issues left that need to be discussed. " Clark called conditioning the pension on accepting the seniority change "despicable."

He said the union has not yet decided whether to put the proposal to a member vote, but expects to have made that call in the next several days to a week.

Back in May, NABET-CWA members voted to give the negotiating committee the authority to call a strike -- not an unusual move in a contentious negotiation. The two parties have been in talks since mid-February.

The four-year contract expired March 31. The two sides started talking in mid-February but the talks broke off in late March, resuming in May and continuing on and off.