A number of members of the Writers Guild of America West have launched an offensive against the union’s administrative procedure and its executive director, Brian Walton, charging that both undermine the Guild’s democratic process.
This week several writers activated a new telephone information hotline, with the first message recorded by Larry Gelbart (“MASH,””City of Angels”), that said it would strive to report “crucial” information on a twice-weekly basis to members that is being “deliberately” withheld.
In this first message, Gelbart openly attacked Walton, charging that the union’s exec director had negotiated a generous five-year salary package for himself (more than a year ago) but only managed to raise writers’ base pay by 4% a year. It also charged that Walton was making secret deals with the studios without ratification of the board or the membership.
While Walton could not be reached for comment, several board members came to his defense, saying that this attack marks “a sad day for writers.”
Additionally, nearly 30 members have come out sponsoring a petition to change the Guild constitution, to allow for pro-and-con statements and open debate in the months preceding any vote on future bylaw amendments. This petition grew out of last year’s election where critics charged that several constitutional issues were approved without a proper amount of information or time for debate.
Called the “Informed Voters Amendment,” the petition sets up a process whereby information about any upcoming constitutional changes would be disseminated to the members at least five months in advance of actual voting. It also calls for pro-and-con statements to encourage debate about the validity of the amendments.
“The unhappiness with this voting system, at least for some of us, dates back to the Guild’s decision to extend the writers’ contract,” said Gelbart, referring to a 1991 Guild-approved plan that extended the current contract three more years.
The turning point, according to one board member, was last year’s election of officers and concurrent vote on constitutional changes — an election that offered little time for debate, the critics charge.
“People just didn’t have a chance to digest information that was going to affect their professional careers, simply because they were not informed until the last minute,” said screenwriter Robert King.
As for the hot line, its founders — including Gelbart, Christopher Fink, Fred Haines, Peter A. Lake, Will Lorin, Allan Manings, Michael McDowell and Richard M. Powell — admit that it is notsanctioned, sponsored or funded by the Guild.
“The roughly 1,400 members of the Writers Guild who have modems can receive information through the BBS (electronic bulletin board),” Gelbart said on the tape, “but that still leaves 6,600 members in the dark. This hot line will be an information service by writers for writers.”
In this initial tape, Gelbart charges that Walton’s five-year contract upped his salary from $ 80,000 to $ 330,000 and that the contract has since been kept from the new board members recently elected.
Yesterday, WGAW spokesperson Cheryl Rhoden said that Walton’s contract, while confidential, is available to board members. She noted that only one board member has requested to see the document, but that the request was informal and that it was made at 1 a.m. after a seven-hour board meeting.
In response to Gelbart’s charges, board member John Riley said he was “appalled,” calling it “lies and innuendo.
“That message was specifically tailored to damage the working relationship between the rank-and-file writers and their elected leaders and their executive board,” Riley said.
As for Walton’s contract, Riley said the figures Gelbart gave were both wrong , and that the contract was arrived at in open session by the previous board of directors.
Another board member, John Wells, noted that it has become “easy to make innuendoes about alleged conspiracies…but that Brian Walton has been an exceptionally strong advocate for writers.”
In addressing the allegation of secret deals, both Wells and Riley pointed to Walton’s work in negotiating foreign levies payments for writers, which they say was unprecedented.
“We’re talking about a precedent-setting deal that is not part of the collective bargaining agreement,” Riley said. “And he only went forward on this after careful consideration with the board. He went to Europe and found money that writers had never been paid before. How could anyone argue with that?”