Gelbart blasts WGA exex for ignoring rank and file

Larry Gelbart launched a SCUD missile Monday aimed directly at the executive offices of the Writers Guild of America West, charging that the union’s leadership has repeatedly made crucial decisions that concern guild members without ever bothering to inform the membership.

He should have aimed it at Washington, D.C., though, as all of the WGA’s officers and many of its top brass had flown east for the presidential inaugural celebrations.

Gelbart’s five-page indictment came in response to statements made last week by the guild’s officers, who publicly reproached Gelbart and other WGAW members for information they released Jan. 5 on a new telephone hotline. While those officers denied that the guild’s executive staff had ever conducted business secretly or inappropriately, Gelbart yesterday reiterated that this was untrue.

“Do any of these officers remember the talks that the executive director had with Nick Counter (prexy of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers) over a period of many months concerning the possibility of extending the contract without most of the board on the West Coast and no one on the East Coast knowing anything about them?” Gelbart asked.

In response, WGAW official spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden said: “The members approved the contract extension overwhelmingly–the elected leadership approved Mr. Walton’s contract and the foreign levies agreement. Mr. Gelbart has repeatedly declined to participate in the guild’s electoral process. There is nothing new in these assertions.”

Board member Michael Russnow, though, noted that while the membership did overwhelmingly approve the extension, it nonetheless voted down seven board members (in the two subsequent elections) who had strongly supported the extension. Conversely, several board members who opposed the extension were elected, he said.

Gelbart, in his charges, pointed to a Daily Variety story in December 1990 that reported that Walton had not told his WGA East counterpart, Mona Mangan, or the board of WGAW directors about his ongoing talks with Counter for a possible contract extension for several weeks.

“When the executive director deigned to inform the board of his secret negotiations, it absolutely voted to allow him to continue, permitting him to keep not only the membership in the dark, but also the board,” Gelbart said. “This strategy, (Walton) said, was to give the board ‘deniability’ in case they ultimately opted not to accept whatever agreement he, repeat he, reached with the AMPTP.”

Further attack

Gelbart went on to attack the manner in which Walton’s current five-year employment contract was approved, quoting from a political statement made in 1991 by Ann Marcus, who was running for (and won) the post of secretary-treasurer.

In her statement, she made allegations of “covert preset agreements” being made by the then-elected board.

Gelbart accused Marcus of flip-flopping in her opinions since then, noting that she had recently added her name to the list of officers who came out in support of Walton and the guild’s activities.

Marcus was in Washington and could not be reached for comment.

Gelbart also reiterated his charge that Walton’s salary had dramatically increased from 1987 to 1992, by 137%, while the WGA contract’s provisions for writers only rose 22%.

“When the executive director was urging us to accept the extension raises of 4.5% (because, in his view, that was all the market would bear), his salary rose 18.6% in that same year,” Gelbart said. “This was made possible because, when the board extended his contract through 1996, the last year of his existing contract was renegotiated upward.”

Salary raise

The officers stated that Walton’s salary rose from $ 118,658 in 1987 to $ 236 ,324 in 1991, but that it was bumped up to $ 280,000 in ’91 per the terms of the new contract (which was negotiated a year early).

“And to the officers’ contention that … the executive director’s contract was widely reported, discussed at the time and debated publicly in the guild election of 1991, they conveniently leave out that all of the above took place after it was a fait accompli and nothing could be done about it,” he continued.

As for the foreign levies agreement, which the guild’s officers had stated were reached after much public debate, Gelbart chastised the board for not drawing members into the levies discussion.

“In fact, we did not have a great deal of information at all during the four years these negotiations took place,” Gelbart said. “We knew about the tax on blank videocassettes in Europe. We knew that the Europeans wanted living authors , not studios, to share in that tax. We knew that there was a disagreement between us and the American companies as to who should get the money. And we know that the executive director made lots of trips abroad to deal with this.

“That pretty much sums up what we knew,” he said. “General stuff, pieces of the mosaic, never the whole picture and mostly repeating what we’d heard before.”

Russnow concurred with Gelbart, saying that the information given to members during the years of hashing out that settlement was sparse.

“The membership was not very much informed with specifics or details about the agreement,” Russnow said. “They received a line here and a line there in the summary highlights of the board meeting. The members had no input about whether the settlement should have gone the way it did.”

The settlement, reached between the WGA, the Directors Guild of America and the MPEAA, lets the two guilds split 15% of monies sent from Germany and France, while MPEAA companies share 85%. The money comes from a tax placed on the sale of blank videocassettes and is paid according to what programs are run on television abroad.

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