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Union bargainers for the striking Writers Guild of America (WGA) are scheduled to meet with representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on Monday, November 26, to resume negotiations. Other than a brief and mutually acrimonious, "Are you sure you know what you’re doing?" meeting held the day after the writers hit the bricks (November 5), this will be the first brokered sit-down since the strike began.
While we’ll never know if either or both parties were even interested in seeking a compromise at this point, one thing is certain: this meeting didn’t get scheduled by accident. Nor is it likely that, after only 21 days, Nick Counter (the Alliance rep) picked up his phone, called David Young (the WGA’s chief negotiator) and suggested that the parties get together for a heart-to-heart. Big-time strikes don’t work that way.
In truth, the meeting was arranged through the efforts of the mediator assigned to these negotiations. Whether this was Juan Carlos Gonzales, the commissioner first involved in the talks, or his replacement, his associate (sometimes they use more than one) or his boss (making a surprise entrance to prove that the sperm count has been raised), it was the feds who got the two sides talking again.
Even if it was one of the two parties who privately contacted the FMCS (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service) and urged them to arrange a meeting (and pretend it was the FMCS who initiated it), it’s up to the mediator to convince the other side to attend. Unlike an "arbitrator," who listens to both positions in a dispute and then picks a winner, a "mediator" has zero authority at a contract bargain. All he or she can do is offer assistance. Nobody has to listen to Gonzales or anyone else. It’s a thankless job, really.
I’ve personally seen mediators screamed at, cursed at, told to sit down and shut up. I’ve seen a mediator get locked out of a meeting room (left outside, knocking on the door, the union refusing to answer). I’ve heard of a union team moving its caucus to a secret location so the mediator couldn’t find them. I’ve heard of a company spokesman telling a mediator who’d threatened to contact the media and accuse their side of dragging its feet that "she could go and pound salt up her ass," for all he cared. (the mediator herself shared this story.)
An anecdote: Some years ago, I was a negotiator on a bargain that resulted in a long strike. On the strike’s 33rd day, having had no contact with the company since the morning we walked out, the mediator (whom I’ll call "Fred") got management and the union to agree to meet at a Hilton Hotel in Orange County.
The one-month mark in a strike is a milestone. Health benefits run out after a month. Bills start coming in. People begin to readjust their priorities. They look at their calendars and realize the shutdown is no longer being calibrated in days or even weeks. Pages are being turned.
Despite the loss of production (they’d already lost nearly 100 shifts) the company was reluctant to meet. They told Fred that unless we were willing to abandon our "unrealistic" demands, there was really no point. The union more or less told him the same thing. If all they were going to do was regurgitate the same statistics and give us the same tired lectures, we’d rather not waste our time. If they have a meaningful offer, fine; if not, we’ll see ‘em next year.
But Fred was determined. He reminded both sides that bargains don’t get settled by themselves. You have to meet sooner or later. Even when the parties are miles apart, and harsh words have been exchanged (and threats have been made, vandalism has occurred and lawsuits have been filed), you eventually have to begin inching your way toward an agreement. Nobody stays out forever.
The Hilton sit-down lasted three days. Sessions began at 9:00 a.m.and didn’t end until 9:00 p.m. Most of that time was spent in private caucuses, with the union adjourning to consider a company proposal, and the company doing the same. Back and forth it went. The total amount of face-time across the table was probably less than 45 minutes each day. Nobody was in the mood to talk. Negotiations had dragged on for almost five months, even before the strike was called. Both sides were talked out. It had come down to offers and counter-offers.
During one of our caucuses, following a lunch break, we caught Fred spying on us. He was hiding behind a curtain in the foyer of the convention room we were using as union headquarters. One of our team members returned late from lunch and caught him there, hunched down, quietly listening to what we were saying.
It wasn’t as ugly as it could have been. For one thing, we’d become sort of fond of Fred. He’d been honest with us, he understood our dilemma, he hadn’t given us any false hopes. For another, he’d bluntly warned us from the outset that he’d do anything he could to get a settlement. He didn’t care who won, who lost, or whose feelings were hurt; what he cared about was signatures on the dotted lines.
When we asked what the hell he was doing hiding behind the curtain, he answered honestly. "Hoping to learn something. See if I could figure out a way to get this thing moving." And that was it. With him coming clean, there was little more we could say, other than warning him never to pull a stunt like that again, which he promised. Even though we could no longer trust him, and were especially careful when discussing sensitive topics, we didn’t hold a grudge. It was business.
The Hilton sit-down ended in stalemate. When the membership heard that no agreement had been reached, it cast a pall over the local, and things became very tense. The strike wouldn’t be settled for another 23 days. The tentative agreement was signed in a different setting-another hotel in another city-and with an additional mediator present. Fred’s boss, "Sam," joined us for the final session, which lasted a grueling 22 consecutive hours.
Sam showed up after midnight, having been summoned by Fred, believing (rightly) that his boss could get us over the hump. Even though he was the oldest person in the room-older than all the reps and the company lawyers-he seemed to have the most energy. He pestered both sides for hours, until 7:00 a.m., working us, cajoling us, challenging us. Some people in the room believed it was Sam who brought the sides together; others said it was plain old wear and tear. After 22 hours, we’d simply run out of gas.
When the mediator meets with the WGA’s reps on Monday, he’ll do his standard FMCS number. He’ll remind them that they have 10,000 good people out there relying on the union to do the right thing, to get them back to work as soon as possible.
And when he meets with the Alliance he’ll remind them that pretending there’s not enough money in Hollywood to go around makes them sound like jackasses, if not greedy bastards. He’ll work both sides. He’ll use every trick in the book. In the end, who knows? Maybe he’ll get signatures.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: email@example.com