Writers' union backs deal to end Hollywood strike

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Union leaders for striking Hollywood writers voted on Sunday to formally endorse a deal with studios to end their bruising three-month-old labor clash, calling an immediate halt to picketing and paving the way for writers to return to work by mid-week.

The unanimous approval of the deal by the governing bodies of the Writers Guild of America came a day after the union and studios finalized details of a settlement hinging on how much writers should be paid for work distributed over the Internet.

While WGA leaders acknowledged the agreement falls short in some areas, they emphasized it avoided any of the rollbacks initially sought by studios and made key, if modest, gains in the burgeoning arena of new media.

“This is the best deal this guild has bargained for in 30 years, after the most successful strike this guild has waged in 35 years,” WGA West president Patric Verrone said at a news conference announcing the outcome of the board action.

Union leaders said they were pulling the plug on further picketing, which has become an almost daily occurrence outside many of the studios and production facilities around Los Angeles and New York.

But the 10,500 film and TV writers who walked off the job on November 5, shattering 20 years of Hollywood labor peace, are not expected to officially return to work before Wednesday.

That’s because the governing boards of the East and West Coast branches of the union opted to wait for members to vote on the plan themselves before the strike is officially lifted.

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The union rank-and-file will be able to cast ballots in person or by proxy at membership meetings scheduled for Tuesday at the Writers Guild Theater in Los Angeles and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The deal is expected to win ratification.

Striking writers gave a largely warm reception to the proposed settlement at membership meetings on Saturday in New York and Los Angeles, where they were briefed by union leaders who urged them to accept the accord.

The tentative pact announced early Saturday capped more than two weeks of negotiations following months of on-and-off bargaining, impasse and rancor between the two sides.

The TV industry has been especially hard hit, with most prime-time comedies and dramas shut down since mid-December, idling thousands of production workers. Ending the strike now would allow networks to salvage some of the remaining broadcast season, as well as show development for the fall.

Film studios can restart numerous stalled movie projects but will be wary of rushing too many into production too soon for fear of another labor confrontation with the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract is up for renewal in June.

A writers’ settlement at least ensures the Academy Awards proceed as planned on February 24 without disruption.

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John Bowman, chairman of the WGA negotiating committee, said a key turning point in the stalemate with studios came when the union managed to force cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony in January.

The usual star-studded awards show was replaced by a news conference after many actors threatened to boycott the event rather than cross writers’ picket lines, demonstrating the solidarity of the town’s creative community, Bowman said.

The writers’ deal is modeled largely on a separate labor pact for Hollywood directors that helped pave the way for the studios and the WGA to resume bargaining on January 23, after weeks of stalemate.

Both deals essentially double the rates paid for TV shows and films sold as Internet downloads, once certain break-points are reached. And they require studios to work with union talent on content produced specifically for the Web, though lower-budget productions are exempt.

Both pacts also set new “residual” fees for ad-supported online streaming of TV shows. But the WGA gained a modest improvement over the directors’ deal in the form of a higher potential residual in the third year of its contract.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Todd Eastham