Citing competition from nonunion shops like Fox and CNN, and hits from Fox News Radio defections, ABC tells news staffers it has put its best contract offer on the table.
Saying their union has been stalling talks and "denying reality" on the "few occasions" they have met, ABC has told news staffers represented by the Writers Guild of America East (WGA East) that they have until Oct. 31 to accept its final contract offer or it could be off the table.
WGA East characterized the letter as "disturbing."
ABC does not discuss ongoing contract negotiations--and these have been ongoing for 20 months. But according to a letter obtained by B&C and delivered Monday to the affected staffers in Washington and New York, ABC tells those staffers it has agreed to a number of compromises while the guild has agreed to "zero."
ABC says that the union is defending "antiquated and non-competitive contract provisions" that deny ABC the "operational efficiency" of its nonunion competition "like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg News and others."
ABC says it is also feeling the crunch from satellite radio and new network competition, arguing that it needs to lengthen work days and cut costs on the radio side given the "sudden emergence of Fox News Radio as the news supplier of many Clear Channel radio stations which have disaffiliated from ABC News Radio."
The network also said it is losing news and non-news audience to DVD's. the Internet, iPods, computer games" and more, serious challenges to the network business it says the union is ignoring.
"The guild rejected each and every one of our most critical proposals and made no counterproposals to virtually any of these at any time," ABC said in its the letter.
ABC says one of those proposals was a 10.25% pay increase over three years, "real wage and fee increases" that it says are designed to keep those employees "among the highest paid in the industry."
WGA East has complained that the pay increase, which it pegged at 9.5%, is not retroactive to the end of the contract and so is smaller than it appears, but ABC says it has made clear from the outset that the pay would not be retroactive. If it were, unions would arguably be under less pressure to avoid protracted negotiations.
ABC wants to remove news writer/producers who have gained management functions from the union, saying news show producers should be treated like managers, and that having them also do some writing outside of union coverage is "a fact of life for the overwhelming majority of local TV stations nationwide."
Removing those news writers/producers is a key issue with the guild, which has complained, including in an FCC media-ownership hearing in L.A. two weeks ago, that removing them from the union would have an adverse impact on news quality by reducing their editorial independence, a rationale ABC called "insulting."
The contract, which expired Jan. 31, 2005, covers about 250 staffers in New York (including WABC TV) and Washington.
The ABC offer was made in an Oct. 4 meeting, the first talks since June 29. New talks have been scheduled for Friday, Oct. 20, with ABC saying it hopes the union's bargaining committee "now recognizes the realities and challenges facing ABC."
WGA East is also in protracted contract negotiations with CBS over similar news staffers, though WGA says there was been progress in its latest talks Sept. 29-30, with more meetings scheduled.
CBS also proposed removing writer/producers from the union, but has revised that proposal, says WGA. CBS' last pay-increase proposal was also not retroactive.
A federal mediator has been present at each of the most recent negotiations with ABC and CBS, at the request of the guild.
"ABC's letter threatening to punish their own employees is very disturbing," said Mona Mangan, executive director of Writers Guild of America, East.
"When negotiations first started, they came to the table with proposals that cut salaries by 20% and removed members from the bargaining unit. Our members refused to agree to the proposals, and the company spent the next 21 months inflexibly demanding to have its own way.
"Now, the company announces that members won't get any increases for the past 21 months of hard work, and members still must come out of the bargaining unit," she told B&C. "ABC's message is simple. Anyone who refuses to bend to the corporate will will be punished and broken. That ABC missed the ethical implications of what they are saying is frightening."