Hollywood edged closer to possible labor unrest Friday after film and TV writers overwhelmingly authorized their union to call a strike if no contract deal is reached with the studios by month's end.
Over 90 percent of the Writers Guild of America members taking part in the authorization vote backed the union's request for advance approval to declare a walkout should negotiators fail to conclude a settlement once the current contract expires.
The more than 5,500 ballots cast marks the largest voter turnout ever for the guild, surpassing the 4,100 cast in its 2001 contract ratification, the union said.
The WGA and studios remain sharply divided over union demands for higher "residual" fees, a key source of writers' income for TV and film work that gets reused in such formats as reruns and DVDs after initial broadcast or theatrical release.
The existing three-year contract covering the guild's 12,000 members expires Oct. 31. WGA members could continue working under the terms of the old pact beyond that date if both sides mutually agree to keep negotiating.
But studios and TV networks have been treating the end of the month as a de facto strike deadline as they stockpile scripts and speed up production on some projects in anticipation of a walkout.
Obtaining strike authorization is a step unions routinely take during labor talks, and union leaders said the outcome of the vote demonstrated the resolve of rank-and-file members.
"Writers have spoken in resounding numbers to give our negotiating committee the power we need to negotiate a fair deal," John Bowman, the panel's chairman, said in a statement.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, issued a brief statement saying the outcome was no surprise, adding "Our focus is on negotiating a reasonable agreement with the WGA."
The authorization does not set a deadline for a walkout to begin. It merely empowers the guild's governing board, in consultation with the WGA's negotiating committee, to call a strike if they deem it necessary, after the contract lapses.
Hollywood screenwriters last walked off the job in 1988 in a 22-week strike that delayed the fall TV season and cost the industry a reported $500 million.
Earlier this week, studios sought to remove a major sticking point in the current talks by withdrawing a proposal to revamp residuals in such a way as to withhold those payments until after production and development costs were recouped.
But producers also have vowed to resist writers' demands for greater residuals on DVDs, digital downloads, pay-television or basic cable.
The next round of bargaining, the 11th face-to-face session since talks began in July, is scheduled to begin on Monday.
The outcome of the writers guild talks also sets the stage for subsequent negotiations with actors and directors, whose separate contracts run out next summer.