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Deal ending writers strike scores rare victory for unions, expert says

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

Michael Leroy
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U. of I. Photo

Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and industrial relations and of law, says the writers' deal would score a rare victory for unions.

2/12/2008

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A deal that ended a three-month strike by Hollywood writers also scored a rare victory for unions by giving workers a financial stake in new technology, a University of Illinois labor expert says.

“Advances in technology frequently harm employees by devaluing their work,” said Michael LeRoy, a professor in the university’s Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. “Many unions have lost out when employers exploited a new technology, but in this case the writers union used the Internet to its advantage.”

Members of the Writers Guild of America approved a three-year agreement Feb. 12 that gives the union a piece of revenues when television shows and movies are streamed or downloaded over the Internet.

How to divide digital revenues was a key issue when 10,000 writers walked out Nov. 5 in a dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The walkout, which shut down TV and movie production, was the longest since 1988.

The deal also bucked a trend that often hands companies property rights to “intellectual capital” created by their employees, said LeRoy, who also is a U. of I. law professor.  He says the deal hammered out by the Guild is a notable exception, treating the writers’ work product as a continuing property interest that will pay off into the future.

“That is a huge leap, not only for this union, but because it sets a precedent for nonunion workers in professional fields such as computer engineering and the like,” said LeRoy, who advised the President’s Council on Economic Advisors during a 2002 labor dispute that shut down West Coast ports.

Editor’s note: To contact Michael LeRoy, call 217-244-4092; e-mail m-leroy@illinois.edu.