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WGA to talk peace

East, West discuss divisions at sesh today

Like warring nations tired of battle, the two fractured factions of the Writers Guild of America plan to sit today in New York and negotiate peace — or at least a truce.

Senior officers from the eastern and western guilds hope to lay to rest the animosity that marks their dealings and get on with the task of firming up a contract for their members.

“We must start talking with each other,” newly elected WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. wrote Nov. 26 in a letter to members. Petrie and his New York counterpart, Herb Sargent, have exchanged a flurry of letters leading up to this morning’s gathering at WGA East’s offices on West 57th Street. The meeting, reflecting the palpable sense of urgency, is being referred to as the “immediate talks.”

The talks follow an outreach meeting scheduled by WGAW officials for Monday evening in a hotel just down the street, which struck some eastern guild officials as presumptuous. Some saw it as a veiled expression of WGAW’s support of a formal merger between the two guilds, a notion not generally viewed with favor in independent-minded New York.

Bad relations

Relations between East and West have been particularly bad since September, when WGAE members overturned the West’s ratification of a new contract, or minimum basic agreement (MBA). That caused great sputtering among the union hierarchy in Los Angeles, and dark plans were hatched to cast the East off from the two guilds’ collective bargaining agreement should the East fail to reconsider its opposition to the contract.

Petrie, in particular, has criticized what he sees as anomalies in the way eastern members vote in guild elections, and objects to WGAE’s eligibility requirements for membership. But Petrie insists he is holding out an olive branch. “We have to have a relationship that’s functional, that’s not in an atmosphere of hostility and distrust,” he said in an interview.

The WGAW president pledged a “major new effort at reconciliation” in a letter to members on Oct. 31. “Our efforts up to this point have not been successful,” Petrie went on. He and WGAW exec director Brian Walton, accompanied by board member Irma Kalish, announced they would hold an outreach meeting Dec. 1 with guild members in New York to, among other things, “improve communication and our working relationship with Writers Guild/East,” according to the text of a full-page ad placed in Variety. The gathering was to take place at the Parker Meridien Hotel, not far from WGAE headquarters.

Miffed by ad

But the guild hierarchy in New York was miffed that the ad appeared before they had been formally notified that Petrie and his associates intended to do some outreach in their territory.

“We thought it was pretty strange that they planned to carry out this outreach meeting at the same time that they’re planning this conciliatory meeting,” said Jerome Coopersmith, a former VP of the WGAE council. “This is a sensitive time. The division and conflict between the two guilds helps no one except management. The membership on both coasts would like the differences to be resolved.”

In today’s talks, Petrie plans to discuss his desire for voting procedures that are uniform on both coasts, elections nationwide on the same day with the same ballot information, and an exchange of observers, among other matters. He will not, however, insist on a merger. “Ultimately that would be the best for all writers, but only as long as it’s something that’s sought by the East as well,” Petrie said. “That’s a long-term goal.”

In the wake of the September balloting, in which the contract was rejected by a mere 16 eastern votes — largely over the issue of foreign and basic cable residuals — WGAW officials raised hackles back east by negotiating that very same contract with studios and networks. Eastern officials filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, saying the companies could not negotiate with the West alone.

“Not long after they negotiated their ‘West-only’ deal, the Writers Guild West leadership unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the East,” Sargent wrote to his members on Nov. 26. “Their central attack is that our vote on the contract was not held in a ‘fair and democratic’ way. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Sargent then turned the tables, alleging that there were “substantial questions as to whether the West conducted its own election and MBA ratification properly.” Those questions prompted 95 western members to sign a complaint to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, which ordered WGAW to conduct an internal investigation into the election. It is now under way, with a special committee questioning some of the 95 complainants in closed hearings.

Intercoastal conflict

With the committee keeping quiet about its investigation, it’s the attacks by the West against the East that have everyone talking.

“This time I feel that the East is being demonized,” WGAW board member Ann Marcus, who opposes the proposed contract, told Daily Variety. “I’m getting really tired of Dan Petrie continually writing letters about undemocratic procedures and everything else. I don’t know how he expects us to join with them if he keeps talking about undemocratic procedures in the election and if he keeps insisting on the same contract that’s been rejected. I know Dan is trying hard but I think he’s going in the wrong direction.”

Regardless, guild officials in New York seemed to welcome the chance to hash out some sort of peace.

“There are deep divisions between us as well as within your own membership which were reflected in the contract vote itself,” WGAE’s Sargent wrote on Nov. 14 to his counterpart in Los Angeles. “It is time to heal those divisions.”

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