Longtime ABC Labor Chief Jeff Ruthizer Weighs in on High-Stakes Talks: ‘No Responsible Leader Wants a Strike’

During a labor negotiation, management almost never speaks publicly. The current negotiations with the Writers Guild of America are no exception. The studio chiefs have said almost nothing, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has limited itself to a few prepared statements.

But Jeff Ruthizer is talking.

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Ruthizer retired in 2009 as senior vice president of labor relations at ABC. Over a 40-year career, he worked for ABC, NBC, RKO and then ABC again. He negotiated hundreds of contracts and went through numerous strikes, several of them involving NABET, the broadcast technicians’ union.

Ruthizer has written a memoir, “Labor Pains,” that gives his view of the history of broadcasting going back to the “Mad Men” era. He recounts tangling with the Teamsters during a strike in the 1970s – the one time he says he was genuinely afraid – and having his name affixed to a giant inflatable rat during a lockout in the 1990s.

Throughout, he is unapologetic in defending the company point of view. During one contentious bargaining session in 1997, a union official made much out of the fact that Disney CEO Michael Eisner had just been awarded a $500 million stock grant. Ruthizer writes that he gave a rousing justification of the pay package, which earned jeers from the labor side of the table. To this day, he remembers it as one of the best speeches of his career:

“Eisner is the head of a cruise line, a movie studio, several cable networks including ESPN, a major television network, three or four giant amusement parks, many radio stations, a radio network, the most successful group of TV stations in the United States, foreign broadcasting assets, a publishing company, a record company, and several major sports teams. He probably deserves more than $500 million.”

Ruthizer knows many of the company representatives now bargaining with the WGA. He has not spoken with them about the talks and is not following the issues. But he does have a good idea of how these negotiations go, what a company hopes to achieve, and how a company weighs the risks of a strike.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You were around for the 2007-08 writers strike. How does a company think about how to endure that?

You prepare as great as you can in advance. You’re shutting down Hollywood, basically. (In the 1988 writers strike) we had to get product from all over the world. We had a plan on getting product from English-speaking countries – Australia. Reality shows took off big time. More sports things were produced. You’ve hopefully inventoried a considerable amount of things. We had tried once upon a time to do some of the soaps by bringing in extra writers. My wife was one of those writers. It was a failure, honestly, because she wasn’t a fan of soap operas and she didn’t really know the storylines. That didn’t really work.

I would imagine they have a plan that they pull off the shelf every three years or so.

Yeah, you have to dust it off, take the cobwebs off of it, and update it. They all go into negotiations with a strategic bargaining plan in mind. And part of that is how are we going to function during a strike if this is what happens. They all have that in varying degrees. Now it’s many more companies in the room. It’s not just the major studios and the networks controlling it the way it was done in the past. With Netflix and all the others out there, it’s more complicated.

You hear from the labor side sometimes, “Well, the company really wants a strike.” The writers say, “They can force majeure all of our contracts.” Or there’s another reason they think the company wants a strike. Can you give me your perspective on that?

No company ever wants a strike. It’s just nonsense. “Oh yeah, we really want a strike, because if we get a strike then we can do this, we can do that.” No. It’s just foolishness. “Oh yeah, we can do the force majeure” – no. The havoc that it brings to a company – organizationally, economically, publicity-wise. It’s just – no. Nobody wants a strike. And no responsible leader of any of these companies, whether it’s ABC or Disney or Warners, no responsible leader wants a strike.

To succeed at your job, at a certain point you do have to be willing to accept a strike if you’re not going to give on certain things that are important to you.

Absolutely. You reach the point – you’re going to do everything in your power to prevent a strike. But at the same time saying, if they go out on strike, there are going to be some things that we get fixed in this contract negotiation that we otherwise might not have the opportunity to do. At some point you reach a bottom line. That bottom line changes. People’s position changes as you approach the deadline. But every negotiation reaches that moment of truth, where we’re at our last, best and final offer. Those were magic words that I used very, very sparingly. But we’ve whittled down our proposals, and reached a moment of true finality. It’s a major, major business decision. When you have many companies in the same room, that makes it more difficult.

You write about how the fighting between the members of the AMPTP can be as fractious as between the AMPTP and the guilds.

Not quite. In those days, the networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) were not part of the AMPTP. The networks were independently owned, and we were not part of the Hollywood studio configuration. We had some major differences with the AMPTP on some major issues.

Do you think it’s different now, with Amazon and Apple involved?

It’s absolutely different. Carol (Lombardini, the president of the AMPTP) has a very, very hard job, keeping everybody together on all these issues. What might be a strike issue for Netflix or for Warners, may not be (for others). But at the end of the day you will have to compromise and you have to come down to common positions and deal with whatever union you’re dealing with on that basis.

You have these legacy labor relationships that go back many decades with the studios. Then you have newer entrants, Netflix, Amazon, that are tech companies. Do you think they might lack the respect for the traditional arrangement that the studios have?

I don’t know if it’s a question of lacking the respect. I think it’s more gaining the understanding. Many of them, if not most of them, have hired as their chief labor relations officers people who came from the studio and the network side of the business. Maybe their management didn’t come from a studio or network operation. Maybe it’s just a techie who knows what he wants to do and thinks, “Why the hell do I need this union?” But it’s not that easy. They are bound by these contracts. They have to learn to live with those arrangements. There are probably people up there in the executive suites of these companies, saying “Why the hell are we going along with this?” But at the end of the day they’re going to be swept into the whole thing just like everybody else.

If you’re going to produce high-quality entertainment, it’s going to be with labor.

There’s no way to get around it. And the best labor are going to be the people who belong to SAG and the Writers Guild and the other unions. There are others who are tremendously creative. But no – there’s no way – you’re going to live with the arrangements.

Let’s talk about the dynamics in the room. You have a line in your book where you say that the negotiations are a “constant battle for respect, control and dominance.” Explain that.

Dominance? I think back to some of our negotiations, where the contracts were so bad – thinking of the technical areas – that the (networks) in many ways had lost control of scheduling, of so many things, and the company had to regain control of the balance. Not to be dominant, but to be able to control its own economic future, in a way that the contracts for many years didn’t allow. The contracts had grown in such enormous detail. I refer to it in several places like a Hammurabi’s code. Poor Hammurabi wouldn’t like his name to be taken in vain like this.

Looking at the psychology from the company side, you’re looking to say, “We run this place.

Yeah. We manage it. Do we have a partner in you? OK. But who’s going to be the senior partner? That’s what every negotiation really is all about – we manage this place. We will do whatever we can for the benefit of our people within reason. But if you push us too hard, if you decide to go out on strike, just beware that it may not be that easy.

Talking about Hammurabi’s code and work rules. Sometimes you hear from the labor side, “We made this proposal, and it’s not about money. It’s just about how we organize our work. And it’s not going to cost the company anything, and they should agree to this.” But from your perspective, you don’t want to pay more than you have to, but you really don’t want to be told “Here’s a bunch of work rules.”

The work rules are on the technical side. On the technical side, the work rules were absolutely enormous. Work rules are simply, what you have to do, how much you will be paid if you work during the evening hours, how many hours you have to have off between assignments, when can the meal period be scheduled, what happens if you don’t give the meal during the corridor. It made it difficult if the union had control over the scheduling of manpower. In those days, a senior union guy – one of the higher paid guys – was in charge of scheduling. We had to take that back. It was called “running the bridge.” Who runs the bridge? Does the company run the bridge, or does the union run the bridge?

There is a parallel. You talk about manning requirements – you have to have so many workers per camera. The Writers Guild is proposing if you want to make a TV show, it’s got to have this number of writers. What they’re looking for is not necessarily a dollar figure for that. But I would think that would run into that same issue.

It kind of does. My initial reaction to that – I wasn’t aware of that as a proposal – but my reaction if I were sitting there at the table, I’d say “Hell no. You’re not going to tell us how many people it needs.” Obviously the complaint is, “Oh, these poor writers are working too hard. They can’t produce these shows. Now they gotta turn it around in two days and get a script out there. They’re being worked to death. And that’s because you don’t have enough writers engaged. You have to have more writers.” So every show – a half-hour (show) has to have eight. Every hour(-long show) has to have 12 – whatever it is. If that is a proposal, I think my company would absolutely take a strike over that issue, because no one is going to tell us how many it takes. There are so many variable factors. No, to me that would be an absolute horror show.

It sounds like you’d almost rather spend more money than put up with something like that.

If necessary. It’s something that is anathema. It’s like saying every tape machine has to have two people, and every person at a tape machine can’t be asked to make more than 12 duplicate copies of programs per night.

One of the themes that’s come up in this negotiation from the writers’ side is the idea that the companies, as they switch to streaming, are using that as an excuse to devalue our labor and pay us less. I wonder how that strikes you.

It’s not to pay anybody less. Technology is what it is. I think it’s just another fiction the unions love to roll out there to encourage their people and get them to go along with what they’re recommending. I just don’t accept that.

The company is looking for efficiency, and if there’s new technology, to be able to take advantage of it. 

You gotta be able to take advantage of efficiency. You can’t just live with artificial rules that make no sense. There’s no business that can be successful unless it can be an efficient business. As a business objective, of course efficiency is a primary goal of every company, union or not.

If there’s a strike, the person in your job must be under pressure from your CEO – whether it’s Bob Iger or whoever – along the lines of “Are we doing everything we can do to get this resolved?”

It was often called the most stressful job in any of the companies. We had to satisfy our CEOs and we had to satisfy the unions. The pressure chamber is just absolutely enormous. I was always very fortunate. I had business leaders, including Bob Iger, who completely supported me. I also had incredible support from Tom Murphy and Dan Burke after Capital Cities bought ABC in 1986, and that led to needed reforms of the technicians’ contract. Iger worked for them in those days, before the Disney acquisition.

You write about strikers picketing outside your house.

There was that factor – the personal threats and bodyguards and death threats and “don’t stand too close to the edge of a subway platform.” And those things all have an effect upon the chief negotiators. It’s inevitable. As you say, the picketing at the house. It’s done to embarrass and humiliate the chief negotiators. The good companies know you can’t allow that to (accomplish anything). I had to deal with all that, take all that, and sort it all out in my own mind.

There must be a lot of pressure on both sides to come up with something that the other side will agree to but that you can also present as a win. And sometimes if you come up with a bad deal, you might not be back for the next negotiation.

I don’t think a company goes into a negotiation with a desire to “win.” That’s more of a union term. “We gotta win this.” I don’t think companies view it as winning.

How do they view it?

Every company goes into negotiations with a certain set of objectives. Those are the proposals. Some are more important than others. They do not propose them just for the hell of it. They’re proposed because the company wants to achieve what they’re proposing. To the extent the company is able to achieve those things, it’s not a “win.” It’s achieving things that make sense for the company from a business standpoint. They don’t deny they’re pleased they achieved those things, to the extent they achieve them. (But) companies are smart enough to know, even if they’re going to prevail on some of the issues, they’re not going to broadcast their victories and boast about it.

You don’t want to say “We really beat ‘em.”

You can’t say that. You can never do that, because then you then have to win the ratification vote. You do take some inner satisfaction home with you.

There’s another thing that comes up, that you talk about in your book. Today it’s “Look how much David Zaslav paid himself last year, and we’re only asking for this much.” In your book it was Eisner’s $500 million stock grant. You give a very impassioned defense.

That was my best speech ever – Oh my God. I walked out into the hall and people couldn’t –  “Jeff, what came over you? We can’t believe it.” That was one of my best speeches ever. “Are you kidding me?! Eisner is president of a sports team, a network, studios, this and that. He should be paid more!” (Mimicking boos from the labor side.) “Ohh!” (Laughs.)

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