A slate of candidates that had sought to take command of the board of the Writers Guild of America West and return to showdown-style negotiating was resolutely defeated in guild elections late last week.
The race hinged almost exclusively on how candidates felt was the best way to haggle contracts with management. The traditionalist slate, headed by former guild presidents Frank Pierson, Brad Radnitz, David W. Rintels and John Furia Jr., ran on the belief that the “contract adjustment” approach, in place for 10 years, weakens the guild by effectively removing the threat of strikes. Without that threat, they contended, studios have no incentive to make major concessions.
But supporters of the Contract Adjustment Committee — who include WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr. and vice president John Wells — claim their method has produced healthy gains in writers’ overall incomes in an environment unsullied by a strike for the last 10 years.
Thursday’s vote — 2,417 members cast ballots, out of 8,020 eligible members — means that the philosophy of the board remains essentially intact, with its negotiators continuing to try to find common ground with management well before a contract’s expiration. Board members insist that strikes can still be an option of last resort.
Poll in 2000
In any event, guild members will have an opportunity to vote on the merits of the CAC process in a referendum less than two years from now. Reached Friday after the votes were counted, Wells said the poll in 2000 should put to rest any doubts as to how the membership thinks the board should bargain with bosses.
“Nobody wants to proceed with the CAC if it’s not getting results,” said Wells, who believes the process “has been effective.”
He conceded that the board had felt “a little under siege over the last year,” what with a contract ratification vote that failed, an internal investigation into campaign anomalies, a protracted spat with the WGA East and the embarrassing dismissal of WGAW exec director Brian Walton.
“There was a lot at stake,” said “Jaws” writer Carl Gottlieb, who, with 1,394 votes, was re-elected to a sixth two-year term on the Western board. “It was a passionate election. Feelings ran very high. I hope that that same passion can be directed toward a unified guild that can advance the interests of writers.”
Gottlieb said the lopsided vote was a “revalidation of the CAC process as a valid means of negotiation.”
Walton an issue
The vote could also lead to re-evaluation of Walton, who was instrumental in establishing the CAC but whose ouster in August resulted from the failure of a members’ referendum that sought to alter the terms of his contract.
“It’ll be interesting to see if they re-hire Brian,” said Lynn Roth, the highest vote-getter among Thursday’s losing candidates, with 997 votes. “The referendum was so confused that to rehire him would be in keeping with that confusion.”
A highly placed guild source who asked not to be identified said there have been “no conversations” about rehiring Walton. “There’s no nefarious plan,” he said.
Roth, whose unsuccessful attempt to gain a seat on the board echoed her loss in the race for the WGAW presidency a year ago, said the victory of the pro-CAC slate “shows a high level of sophistication” in the manner the slate conducted its campaign.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a slate that got in like this,” Roth said. “If this is who the membership wants, they have who they want.”
With the current leadership in place, the guild is “going to be more of a service organization and less of a labor union,” she said. “Maintaining a nice relationship with management is important to them. I hope the guild is changing for the better, but I’m not sure.”
Brenda Lilly, an incumbent who was returned to the 19-member board with 1,211 votes, called the election result “a vote of confidence for the board of the last year, which has had a tumultuous time.”
The campaign “got confrontational, there’s no getting around it,” she said, “but all of us writers are confrontational at some point.”
Other incumbents elected with Lilly and Gottlieb were Jim Staahl (1,286 votes), Amy Holden Jones (1,273) and David Balkan (1,057). Dennis Feldman (1,127), Charles Holland (1,421) and Tim O’Donnell (1,255) were also elected.
The defeated candidates included Josh Friedman (the only incumbent board member to lose his seat), Michel Grilikhes, Craig Miller, Connie Zimmerman, Dyanne Asimov and former board members Beth Sullivan and Michael Halperin.
The CAC process, Halperin said, is a “New Age technology” that management “could use to the detriment of the guild.”
“The thinking is, ‘If we’re nice to the other side, the other side will be nice to us,’ ” Halperin said after learning of the vote count. “In reality we’re dealing with management, which believes in negotiating from a position of extreme strength and with a desire to weaken the guild.”
Still, Halperin, a trustee of the pension and health fund, said he was ready to work with board members, “if they want me to.”
“I hold no animosity toward what happened in the heat of political battle,” he said. “You’re dealing with a democratic process.”
On the winning side, Holland, a guild member since 1991 and the highest vote-getter of all, said the election result was “clearly a mandate for the progressive approach as against what could be termed a more radicalized approach.”
“People don’t want shouting, they don’t want division,” said Holland, a series writer running for the first time. “They want reason, and I think that’s what we presented.”
East Coast smoother
In New York, where the election was devoid of contention, members of WGA East returned incumbents Richard Wesley, Claire Labine, Walter Bernstein, Adrian Meppen and Catherine Twohill to the governing council, as well as Rafael Yglesias, Charles Rubin, Kate Miller, Frank Dalton and journalist Pete Hamill.
The two guilds operate autonomously and agreed to hold the balloting on the same day only after bickering with one another for months about that and other issues.
“What we would like is a good, friendly relationship with the West Coast,” said newswriter and former WGAE vice-president Adrian Meppen, who was re-elected to a seat on the board. “These are two unions that are tied with the same goal — to get a good contract for writers. All the fighting is wasted energy.”