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WIVB-TV in Buffalo was set Friday to lockout 31 off-camera workers starting at 12:01 this morning, as a contract dispute over wages heats up.

The lockout comes six months after expiration of the contract between Channel 4 and National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 25, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America.

Local 25 represents 80 off-camera workers at WIVB, but union representatives don't expect the lockout -- which targets only broadcast engineers -- to provoke a broader strike.

"People going in (to work) will be providing financial and moral support" for the locked-out workers, said Jim Diavastes, production director and NABET negotiator at the CBS affiliate.

Local 25 represents WIVB photographers, producers, assignment editors, graphic artists, writers and technicians.

The union expects WIVB to replace the locked-out engineers from sister stations to keep the news operation running. The station's 6 p.m. newscast was rated No. 1 in the market in the most recent Nielsen survey.

"This lockout can be avoided if the union accepts our outstanding offer before the lockout becomes effective," WIVB General Manager Lou Verruto said in a memo to union members Thursday.

He and other company officials could not be reached for comment Friday. WIVB is owned by Lin Television Corp. of Providence, a nine-station broadcast group.

On-camera workers at Channel 4 are represented by the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which recently signed a new contract with the station, Diavastes said.

Members of NABET Local 25 who are not affected by the lockout will organize a community campaign against the station, pressuring it with tactics short of a strike, Diavastes said.

The company and union are far apart on wage issues, he said. The union sought assurances that workers starting at the $400 entry wage would be raised to the $725 top weekly scale within six years.

"The company said they didn't want to put anything in writing," Diavastes said. The union isn't seeking pay increases in the contract, he said.

Although Lin Television officials didn't return calls seeking comment, Verruto's memo said the company's contract offer was designed to "put the station in a competitive and reasonable position going forward."

The partial lockout is the station's right to bring economic pressure on the union to reach a settlement, the memo said.

If employees strike, other than the locked out engineers, the company has the right to make permanent replacements, Verruto's memo said.

The dispute follows the ouster of NABET-CWA Local 25 at Channel 2 last December, after the union lost a year-long boycott campaign against the NBC affiliate.

The broadcast union claims that media chains are increasingly using union-busting tactics.

"The climate seems to be for any corporation dealing with our industry to go for the throat," Local 25 president Roy Schrodt said. Schrodt is among the broadcast engineers facing lockout at Channel 4.

In its last contract negotiations with WIVB, Local 25 mounted a six-month public campaign against the station before reaching settlement in October 1996.

The union is seeking expert advice on whether the station's partial lockout is a legal tactic, Diavastes said.

"We couldn't call a partial strike," he said. "If they locked out the entire station, that would jeopardize the news operation."

Lin Television is owned by Dallas-based investment group Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst.

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