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ABC, Unions End Talks With No Agreement

ABC and the unions representing engineers, desk assistants, news writers, and producers, among others, have failed to reach agreement on a new contract, which expired March 31. 

The network says that crucial changes to the seniority system remain at the crux of the impasse, with ABC making what sources there characterize as a major concession on the issue of workers' pensions. 

No new talks have been scheduled, but both sides agreed to "keep the lines of communication open," said the union in an e-mail update to members. 

That came after an eight-day bargaining session in Chicago between ABC and negotiators for NABET and CWA. The unions said progress was made on a number of issues, but remaining impasses prevented a master agreement. The unions had walked out on talks in March, but the face-to-face meetings resumed in Chicago in May.

According to the unions, ABC presented what it characterized as "pretty close" to a final offer. NABET and CWA negotiators said that offer still included proposals "that, if adopted, would create multiple separate seniority lists for purposes of layoff," which has been a nonstarter for the unions from the outset. 

That and the issue of changes to the pension plan are the two major issues yet to be resolved. 

An ABC source familiar with the negotiations pointed out that network had modified the seniority proposal to enable them to establish seniority subgroups by job function. But rather than pick and chose within those groups if layoffs became necessary, the network must go by straight seniority. 

ABC had also proposed freezing the pension plan, given the volatility of the market. But the network agreed not to do so for the next four years only if the unions agree on the seniority change and if other details of the plan are worked out. And it wants to reserve the right to reinstate the freeze if the unions take too long to ratify the deal or if there is a financial market "catastrophe" in the interim. 

Chief NABET-CWA spokesman John Clark called such contingencies a "devil's bargain." ABC has made clear that the seniority change is staying on the table and that rejection of it is a deal-breaker.  

Arguing that ABC had made numerous concessions, the network source pointed to proposals to give the union workers additional guaranteed work on sports remotes and scripted basic-cable dramatic programming. The source also pointed to an agreement, struck before the current talks began, that gave NABET jurisdiction over production at any digital multicast channels ABC stations or the network might launch in the future (it doesn't currently have any). 

One of ABC's key issues all along has been finding a way to keep younger people with the computer skills that the network says it needs to be competitive in the digital world. NABET sees it, instead, as a way to get rid of higher-paid, more senior workers in favor of younger, lower-paid ones.