Unlocking Labor Disputes

By — on / Conflict Resolution, Daily

Adapted from “How the Writers Got Back to Work,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, May 2008.

When labor talks reach a stalemate, negotiators may be able to get back on track by avoiding extreme demands, thinking carefully about the other side’s point of view, negotiating in smaller groups, and enlisting the help of a neutral expert.

Those are some of the strategies suggested for preventing or ending strikes in the March 2008 Negotiation article, “The Strike Zone: How to Defuse Protracted Labor Conflicts.” The Writers Guild of America (WGA) West and East’s strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), then in full swing, was presented as an example of a costly conflict with untapped opportunities for resolution.

On February 12, 2008, the writers and producers announced they had reached a new three-year deal that would end the 100-day strike. Both sides expressed satisfaction with the new contract, which granted the writers their key demand: a percentage of revenues generated by digital formats such as the Internet.

Here are three factors that made a difference in the final days of resolution:

1. A looming deadline. A deadline, whether real or self-imposed, can offer disputing parties a real incentive to break through impasse. Both sides in the WGA strike were motivated to come to agreement before the end of the spring television season and before the February 24 Academy Awards show, which the writers were expected to picket.

2. A useful precedent. In mid-January, as the WGA strike dragged on, the AMPTP reached a tentative agreement with the Directors Guild of America for a new three-year contract. The directors’ new gains in DVD and Internet residuals offered a template for the WGA and spurred the writers to negotiate even better terms for themselves.

3. Improved communication. Lack of communication and a public war of words deepened tensions and distrust between the WGA and the producers. Negotiations finally got serious after company executives reached out to the WGA. Under cover of a media blackout, the two sides met in small groups and got to know each other. The talks “started off cautious but gradually warmed up and became very productive,” WGA lawyer Alan Wertheimer told Variety.

The most important take-away from the costly strike? It might have been avoided if parties had gathered regularly between contracts to discuss their concerns and plan for the future. “The lesson is, we shouldn’t meet every three years,” CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves told the New York Times.

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