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Labor expert: Writers strike involves new issues and old problem – money

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

Peter Feuille
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Photo by Christopher Rory
Peter Feuille, a professor of labor and industrial relations, says the writers strike involves new issues and and old problem – money.

11/6/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A strike by film and television writers is just another sequel to the reruns about how to divvy up riches from the nation’s lucrative entertainment industry, a University of Illinois labor expert says.

“The buzz words in this strike may be new – ‘DVD,’ ‘streaming Internet, ‘digital media’ and so on, but this strike is over an issue that is older than quill pens: ‘Show me the money,’ ” said Peter Feuille (pronounced FOY), a professor and former director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations on the Urbana campus.

The New York and Los Angeles chapters of the Writers Guild of America walked off the job Monday after the latest round of talks failed to yield a new contract. Writers are seeking a bigger share of revenue from DVD sales and from programming viewed over the Internet and mobile phones.

Disputes over splitting up revenue surface every time the entertainment industry develops a new technology or medium to deliver content, from television reruns and syndication rights to video cassettes, said Feuille, who has handled more than 600 workplace disputes as a mediator and arbitrator.

“The writers’ basic work has not changed, thinking up and writing the words we hear in the TV shows and movies,” Feuille said. “But the number of entertainment delivery vehicles has increased --- DVDs, Internet, cell phones. With these new media come new revenues, and the writers want their fair share of the cash.”

“For their part, the producers know they must pay the writers something from these new revenue streams,” he said. “And so we have the age-old dilemma: how much for labor and how much for management?”

The stalemate between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers threatens to shut down film and television production, though most studios have stockpiled scripts for movies and prime time TV. The first casualty would be late-night talk shows, which depend on current events for monologues and other skits.

“Until the Writers Guild and the producers alliance answer the ‘how much’ question, let’s hope that Leno and Letterman show us their best reruns,” said Feuille, who has written numerous articles in journals such as the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Arbitration Journal and Journal of Labor Research.

The strike by the 12,000-member Writers Guild is the first since a 1988 walkout that lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry more than $500 million.

Editor’s note: Contact Feuille by calling 217-333-1489; e-mail: feuille@illinois.edu.