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Writers Guild Files Labor Complaint

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LYNN ELBER | December 13, 2007 10:12 PM EST | AP

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LOS ANGELES — Union officials representing striking Hollywood writers said Thursday they filed an unfair labor practices complaint claiming studios violated federal law by breaking off negotiations.

The Writers Guild of America also demanded that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers return to the bargaining so the six-week strike can be ended and thousands of workers idled by the walkout can return to their jobs.

Negotiations broke off Dec. 7 when the alliance refused to bargain further unless the union dropped a half-dozen proposals that included the authority to unionize writers on reality shows and animation projects.

The producers alliance criticized the complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

The "baseless, desperate NLRB complaint is just the latest indication that the WGA's negotiating strategy has achieved nothing for working writers," the producers fired back in a prepared statement.

The labor board did not immediately return a call to its Los Angeles office.

The guild said in its statement that it was "a clear violation of federal law for the AMPTP to issue an ultimatum and break off negotiations if we fail to cave to their illegal demands."

It also said it was irresponsible for the alliance to break off talks in the midst of the holiday season, "with thousands of our members and the membership of other unions out of work."

It's not unusual for opposing sides in a labor dispute to file such complaints in an attempt to turn up the bargaining pressure, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The guild said it expects the labor board to assign an investigator and complete an inquiry within 30 days.

Generally, if the board decides a complaint has merit, it can require a hearing that could lead to an order to resume bargaining in good faith or punitive measures such as fines.

Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney and former associate counsel for the writers guild, said the union made an "ill-considered and inflammatory" move that jeopardizes back-channel efforts to restart talks.

"The AMPTP would not want to look like it's caving into a legal threat," Handel said.

The complaint came on the same day the Directors Guild of America said it may open its own contract negotiations with studios next month, a move that's expected to put more pressure on writers to reach an agreement.

A quick deal by directors could undercut the bargaining power of writers by serving as an industry template for new media and other issues.

Both sides in the writers strike have said the central issue is compensation for programs, movies and other content streamed or downloaded over the Internet.

That issue is also expected to dominate upcoming studio negotiations with directors and actors. The contracts of both those guilds expire in June.

In a statement, directors said they were deeply disappointed by last week's collapse of talks between writers and the studios.

Directors delayed starting their contract talks for two months "out of respect for our sister guild," directors union President Michael Apted and negotiations chair Gil Cates said in the statement.

"But now the situation is dire. The WGA-AMPTP impasse has cost the jobs of tens of thousands of entertainment industry workers, including many of our own members, and more lose their jobs every day the strike continues," the statement said.

New York-based writer Warren Leight, executive producer of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," said he believes the studios would welcome a deal with directors as a way to force concessions from writers.

"We've always known the DGA was the alliance's fallback position," Leight said. "I hope it tells the DGA something that the studios are licking their chops to get into the negotiating room with them."

The studio alliance said it looked forward to talking with directors but cautioned it would be "an extremely difficult process" because of the complexity of the rapidly changing new-media marketplace.

The writers guild wished directors well in their talks but said "they do not represent writers. Our strike will end when the companies return to negotiations and make a fair deal with the WGA."

The directors guild represents about 13,500 directors and associated production workers.

In a letter to members last week, Apted and Cates said the guild has been studying the issue of digital media for nearly 18 months and is determined to get a fair deal for members in both old and new media.

"There is a reason that few in the industry ever accuse the DGA or its members of being pushovers. We've never been that, and we don't plan to start now," the letter said.

After talks broke off last week, the alliance claimed guild leaders were trying to increase their power at the expense of members. Union leaders accused the alliance of "lies" aimed at sowing doubt and dissension in union ranks.

"There are a few people who are starting to panic, but they're only a few," Erin Maher, a writer for the TV show "Moonlight," said while picketing Thursday at Paramount studio.

Union sentiment so far contrasts sharply with the previous writers strike in 1988 that lasted 22 weeks, said Ross Brown, a longtime member of both the writers and directors guilds and an assistant professor at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

"Nobody likes the fact that there's a strike. But I heard open complaining in 1988 about the strike, and there were meetings of open dissent," he said. "I haven't heard a peep about that this time."

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Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.