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CBS News Writers Mull Strike; ABC Showdown Looms

While thousands of drama and comedy writers hit the picket lines in New York and Los Angeles last week, 500 employees at CBS News represented by the Writers Guild of America East were preparing to take a strike vote of their own.

News writers for CBS News TV and radio operations in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles have been working without a contract since April 2005. Members overwhelming rejected the company's contract proposal in November 2006.

On Thursday, Guild employees will vote on whether to authorize a strike—and WGA leadership predicts a landslide on that ballot as well. An affirmative strike vote doesn't mean CBS News employees will strike, only that they authorize their leadership to call a strike.

“The news [programming] would be substantially diminished,” says Ann Toback, assistant executive director of the WGA East.

“These are skills that many [WGA members] have honed over years and years. I do believe in some instances it might be very difficult for the company to get anything on the air.”

A labor stoppage on the news side could not come at a worse time for CBS, which, like ABC and NBC, will rely increasingly on their news divisions to fill schedule holes left by the WGA work stoppage on the entertainment side.

There is also a showdown brewing at ABC News, where the WGA represents about 200 people at ABC's local and national bureaus in New York and Washington. WGA members at ABC News also have been working without a contract since 2005.

ABC News also is in the midst of contentious talks with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians/Communications Workers of America (NABET/CWA), which represents 2,500 ABC/Disney employees across the country including camera operators and video editors. The NABET/CWA contract expired in March and last week there were rumblings of a job action by the unions, according to an ABC News source. A spokesperson said the company was unaware of any such plans, but said that ABC “is prepared for any contingency.”

There are several issues for CBS News writers, but the thorniest are the company's proposals to withhold retroactive pay and implement a two-tiered wage package that puts television and network radio members on one pay scale and local radio members on a lower scale. Retroactive pay is significant because WGA members are going on two-plus years without a contract during which they have not seen a pay raise. The company proposed a 65-month contract with yearly increases of 2.2% and 1.48% for TV and network radio workers and local radio workers, respectively.

CBS's position on the two-tiered wage package is that it simply reflects the economic realities of the faltering radio market. CBS Corp. reported third quarter radio revenue fell 12% from $508.1 to $445.7 million due to weak ad sales and divestitures of numerous stations.

WGA representatives have not met with ABC management since November 2006. The company, says the WGA, has refused to negotiate unless the WGA takes a proposal to exempt several writer/producer jobs at WABC in New York from the Guild. Many of those producers, who also write news copy, actually want to have their jobs severed from union representation, according to an ABC News source. The WGA has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over ABC News' refusal to negotiate on “permissive” issues unless the WGA agrees to the writer/producer exemptions. The WGA expects a decision from the NLRB in the next few weeks.

Many WGA news writers at ABC News, such as writers who pen intros for newsmagazines including 20/20 and Primetime, also have personal services contracts with the company. That may make them harder to organize than the legions of WGA entertainment writers currently picketing network headquarters or even the WGA members at CBS News, who have become embittered by what members have characterized as a management that is dismissive of their basic concerns.

“We don't want to walk out,” says a CBS News writer. “But it's kind of insulting to work so hard and win awards and be asked to do more and then not have a raise for three years when we know that executives are getting raises and big bonuses.”

According to the latest SEC filing, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves earned north of $20 million in salary and bonuses in 2006.

“That's not to say he doesn't deserve it,” continues the CBS News writer. “He turned the network around. I'm not upset that he is getting money. I'm not upset that any of my managers are getting money. They all work very hard. What I'm upset about is that we also are working hard and they seem to think that we don't deserve a raise. We're not asking for the moon here. We're asking for something that's reasonable.”