As negotiators return to the bargaining table today to hammer out a new WGA film and TV contract, the guild has offered a rare peak behind the closed doors that led to the talks breaking off on March 23 after two weeks of bargaining. As it turned out, it literally was a game of chicken.

In a nearly hourlong guild podcast taped before the talks got back under way(listen to it here), four members of the WGA negotiating committee – former WGA West president Chris Keyser, board members Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray and WGA East member Kate Erikson – spoke candidly about the events leading up to the impasse.

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“I just want to clear something up,” Keyser said, “because there has been such a misinformation campaign by the AMPTP about how the talks broke down in the first place – this idea that the Writers Guild walked out of the talks. It’s just an absolutely provable falsehood. We made an absolutely major, major step in the negotiations, which I thought had been going pretty well. On Wednesday of the second week, we made a major step in one of the proposals that we made to them. We actually, by that point, had taken 44% of our economic asks off the table, unilaterally. And the response from the companies was not the commensurate step. The response from the companies was actually two huge rollbacks and a lot of ‘Nos’ in a lot of areas – a proposal that they knew we couldn’t come close to accepting. We then said that we don’t have a response to your proposals – we’re holding to our proposal until you bring us something that is actually real. And their response was to say, ‘Don’t come back tomorrow.’ And we actually have a voicemail from someone on the AMPTP that can demonstrate this fact – that we were told not to come back the next day. And in fact, just to make a point of it, the catering for our room was cancelled for the next day.”

“Before they told us,” Johannessen laughed.

“Before they told us,” Keyser said, adding jokingly: “That’s really where we drew the line. You can insult us, but don’t cut off the catering.”

“No chicken tomorrow?” Johannessen laughed. “We were outraged.”

“And that’s really the first proposal on the table for us when we come back,” Keyser said, continuing the gag – “that the catering has to start up again.”

“Can I insert a thought here?” Johannessen said on a serious note. “It’s good to clear all this up, but I just want people to understand that this by no means has been the kind of tone of the negotiations over these two weeks. I thought that they were very productive. Cordial is maybe not quite the word, but polite certainly was. A lot of us are sitting across the table for the third or fourth time or whatever times, and there’s a lot of respect in the room. So it wasn’t — there was no petulance, there was no anything like that. That hasn’t been the tone, and I assume it will continue to not be the tone. There’s not a battle of personalities, somehow. There’s absolutely nothing like that. That’s the good news, but it’s also the bad news, which is to say that the impasse that we have here is bona fide. We really have a very serious difference in opinion about what writers are worth.”

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“I think that for people who are outside and watching this there’s probably some frustration when they listen to the two sides saying, ‘You walked out,’ ‘No, you walked out,’” Keyser said. “A member could rightly say, ‘Look, my livelihood is at stake here. I’m not going to be interested in you guys squabbling about who walked when.’ So I just want to talk a little bit about the way this works so that people can understand why some of these things actually matter.”

The talks got started, Keyser said, with both sides coming to the bargaining table with a set of proposals – and expectations. On management’s side, the expectation was that a deal would be worked out along the lines of the agreement reached with the Directors Guild last December.

“You know,” Keyser said, “we come in at the beginning of the two weeks and each of us – the companies and the guilds – they have a set of proposals to make about the negotiations. And they’re pretty long, each of them. We had close to 30 and they had more than 30. For us they include, the big, big things like short season proposals and script parity and residuals and family leave and all of that stuff. For them, they have a lot of housekeeping things. They also have a lot of stuff that they negotiated with the DGA – a lot of which is fine, a lot of which is actually not fine; some of which was okay for the DGA but is not okay for us.”

Keyser then gave a blow-by-blow description of how the first round of talks came to a sudden end. “The truth is that what needs to happen here is that we each get close to what our bottom lines are – what things we need to make this deal. And in doing that, we take things off the table, back and forth. The first week or so of the negotiations was a good conversation where we identified – and I say we, that means David Young, who’s our chief negotiator, and Carol Lombardini, who’s the companies’ chief negotiator – we identified, through signaling, which things matter to us in the long run – what we’re gonna need to make a deal. And then the sides begin to take things off the table. That’s a necessary part of the process. We did that on Wednesday. We removed a bunch of things, and we expected in turn that they would do the same thing so that in a kind of even-handed way we’d begin to reach that point where we could wrap negotiations up. Instead, they made a tactical move, which they’re allowed to do, in which they put stuff back on the table. They put stuff back on the table which they had taken off before. They added a rollback of health care, at the same time as not putting a single penny on the table for writers’ economic demands. It was necessary, for us, at that point, to say, ‘Okay, the step after that can’t be for us to take more off the table. If we’re the only side taking things off the table, we’re giving everything up. It has to be a kind of mutual – unfortunately, a kind of mutual game. Although it’s not really a game. But it’s got set rule. And when they didn’t do that, the right response for us was to say, ‘It’s your turn. You gotta do something.’ They decided – they sent a signal that said, ‘We don’t need to deal by the end of these two weeks. We’re willing to stretch longer and see if we can put some pressure on you to get closer and closer to your bottom line.’ And what we’re saying to them is that they don’t have that amount of pressure to put on us because we have writer power behind us where we say are certain things that we’re going to expect out of the negotiations. So that’s what’s going on. It is not a kind of, you know, standing on principle and formality and saying, ‘No, it’s your turn next.’ It’s a very deliberate attempt on David Young’s part to make sure that this negotiation proceeds toward a reasonable bottom-line for the guild.”

Guild negotiators then informed management’s AMPTP that they were going to seek a strike authorization from their members, and the AMPTP cancelled the next day’s catering and told the guild not to bother coming back until they were ready to resume bargaining.

In seeking strike authorization, Ray said: “When we say, for an example, in an email to the membership, that they did not address our economic proposals, we’re not saying that they didn’t do a good job of addressing our economic proposals – we’re saying they didn’t do anything at all. They literally came in and said, ‘We’re not going to address your economic proposals.’ So there really wasn’t a deal on the table. There was nothing, and then at the last moment, there was less than nothing because they introduced all these health rollbacks.”

“I think that was the thing that was so shocking to me,” Johannessen said, “is that the tone of the first week, I actually would say it was cordial and I thought it was extremely productive and I thought it was very candid. Both sides were talking about things that mattered to them and kind of educating the other side.”

“Yeah,” Erikson agreed, “we had great conversations, where I felt like we really learned a lot about the others’ perspective.”

“When push comes to shove,” Keyser said, “although none of us want a strike, the single piece of leverage that we have, the biggest piece of leverage that’s gotten us everything up to this point in our guild – our pension and health and our residuals and our jurisdiction over new media – is either the threat of or the actual practice of a strike. So it is the leverage we have.”

“It was not a surprise to the AMPTP when they put a deal on the table that they knew was unacceptable to us that our next piece of business would be to start the strike authorization vote happening,” Johannessen said.

WGA negotiating committee co-chairs Keyser, Johannessen and Ray sent this message to the guild’s members today:

Dear Fellow Members,

Today your Negotiating Committee is returning to the bargaining table with the AMPTP. Our goal remains to get a fair contract for writers.

You probably won’t hear from us during the days to come. We will communicate with you directly if there is a significant development, or we will see you at the member meetings scheduled April 18 and 19.

In the meantime, we wanted to let you know how much we appreciate the support you have given the Negotiating Committee. It means a lot to us. We are resolved and hopeful that with your support we can achieve a fair deal.

In solidarity,

Chip Johannessen, Chris Keyser, Billy Ray