Writers Guilds in uncivil war

Civil war has broken out at the Writers Guild of America between the East and West branches.

As with many show business battles, this one’s over money. The WGA West is accusing the WGA East of cheating it out of more than $500,000 per year in dues by failing to observe provisions of the 51-year-old affiliation agreement that set up the two branches and another $500,000 annually in services it provides to WGA East members.

The board of the WGA West recently voted 17-1 to send the dispute to mediation after a videoconference between Petrie and WGA East prexy Herb Sargent went nowhere.

Angry reply

Sargent reacted angrily to the announcement, accusing Petrie of union busting. “Your board has chosen to engage in action which is clearly designed to destroy or cripple a sister guild,” he said.

Key reasons for the dust-up: provisions that require WGA East members who are screenwriters to pay 50% of their dues to the WGA West and that any WGA East member who lives west of the Mississippi for more than three months transfer membership to the WGA West. Petrie contends the Western members are already subsidizing the Eastern members to the tune of an additional $500,000 annually by conducting 95% of credit arbitrations, filing legal claims and monitoring creative rights issues.

“Your board’s fiduciary responsibility to you and your fellow members requires us to try to resolve this,” Petrie said.

Petrie told Daily Variety that the West has made repeated efforts to resolve the situation, adding, “Their position is that to even bring it up is so hostile that it wrecks any unity between us.”

Petrie said in the letter that the mediation would start by April 10 and that the ultimate goal was to improve relations between the branches — an assertion that he admitted seemed paradoxical.

‘Friction and resentment’

“But the current imbalance is not good for anyone,” he said. “It breeds friction and resentment, undermining WGA cohesiveness.”

Sargent strongly disputed Petrie’s financial numbers and asserted that enforcing the affiliation agreement for the first time in three decades would create tax complications and confusion for members. “I remain mystified as to why you would attack your sister guild when the universe of the entertainment business grows more complex and writers lose power and leverage every day,” he added.

Moves follow a period of strained relations last year between the New York-based East, which reps about 4,000 members and has an annual $6.5 million budget, and the Hollywood-based West, which reps about 8,000 with a $20 million budget.

Upset over DVD issue

East leaders were critical last fall of the failure of the guild’s negotiating committee — dominated by the West — to gain on DVD residuals and reality TV jurisdiction; in addition, the East won a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that found CBS had violated labor law by negotiating exclusively with the WGA West in 2002 without including the WGA East.

WGA East VP Warren Leight told Daily Variety that the West’s action had blind-sided the Eastern branch on two fronts — the WGAE’s focused engaged in negotiations with ABC and CBS; and the East and West recently completed negotiations for an annual $240,000 payment to the West for the cost of handling residuals. “I told Dan Petrie that I was sickened and appalled by this,” Leight said. “It means a lot of members’ dues are going to be spent on lawyers for the next two years. I think the East is being made the scapegoats for the bad contract.”

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