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Technical Difficulty

ABC grinds down its locked-out tech workers.

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For a bunch of folks who have just had their medical benefits axed by the Walt Disney Company, the picketers outside ABC's Upper West Side studios don't seem too heartbroken. The scent of hot chocolate is everywhere, and a passing pizza-delivery guy almost gets roped into handing over his pies to the strikers. One techie even idly swings around an open canister of gasoline for the generator that inflates the group's enormous "Mickey Rat" prop. "This is our company's last shot at us," crows Paul Vasquez, a WABC videotape operator turned strike-crew chief who volunteered to picket on Thanksgiving. "Nothing they do seems to be working."

Within a few minutes, though, the line's ranks thin from two dozen to a paltry six. Much of the crowd, it turns out, was made up of a City College class studying a dying breed: members of the country's labor movement. "We discussed the differences between strikes and lockouts," says instructor Bill Henning. "As one of the picketers said, 'Welcome to the lab.' "

Since the November 3 lockout, strikers have enjoyed a big boost from their brethren at WNBC and WCBS, who've been trying to get replacement workers booted from press conferences. The likes of Tony Bennett, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, and Al Gore have done their part by refusing to cross the lines. But the coalition-building hasn't translated into success at the negotiating table, and now the dispute is stretching on far longer than anyone planned. The Columbus Avenue picket line looks more and more like a slice of history -- a marching, shouting object lesson on Disney's invulnerability to public embarrassment.

Of course, the lockout continues to cause some hardships for the company. Replacement workers, after all, don't come cheap: Per diems are rumored to run higher than the norm, and one local news correspondent observes that WABC always sends out two-man crews, sometimes with a security guard to maintain a visible presence amid picketers who trail them around town. And a few early on-screen stunts by picketers did move local-news affiliate WABC to curtail its use of live remote broadcasts.

The difference, however, is barely noticeable. "I look at the ratings on a daily basis, and I don't see it hurting them," says Clayton Sizemore, field-operations manager for WNBC. And while November broadcasts had several replacement-worker snafus, the temps are getting more comfortable every day. "It looks like some of the per diems are starting to get the hang of it," notes Don Collins, a former WCBS technician who now works for Direct Broadcast Services, a nonunion subcontractor.

Meanwhile, union mobilization director Jim Joyce and other organizers are rushing to prove rumors of ABC treachery. On the line, there are whispers that the network masquerades as ESPN when hiring replacements and pressures other stations not to hire locked-out workers. There are also whispers, although Joyce denies them, of simmering discontent with union leadership. "The guys I talk to on the line say the union's led them down this line and there's very little they can do," says WCBS technician Steven Bikofsky.

Any grumbling would come as good news to management, which is eager to spin the lockout as a morality tale about reckless labor chiefs. "ABC has a contract that is more expensive and more restrictive than that of any other broadcaster in the country," argues ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover. She insists that ABC does not want to bust its union shop -- but she's also quick to mention all the nonunion technicians who would love to work there.

Are the locked-out workers the victims of crafty management or the short attention span of union sympathizers? As the lockout story loses freshness, the one stunt the union really needs to pull off -- taking its cause to the airwaves -- seems less and less workable. Last Monday, workers came out to jeer Disney chief Michael Eisner at the entrance of the amfar benefit. Maybe they should have brought along Mickey Rat: Even replacement workers knew that the money shot was on Tom Hanks.


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