Scribe tribe fires McLean

This article was updated at 8:21 p.m.

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America West have fired exec director John McLean in a move that further muddies Hollywood’s already unsettled labor picture.

The WGA West board, in its first meeting since president Patric Verrone’s slate swept last week’s elections, axed McLean late Monday night and replaced him on an interim basis with organizing director David Young, 47, who was hired 15 months ago. The board has already started holding discussions about McLean’s future role during the final 11 months of his contract.

Verrone insisted Tuesday that pushing McLean out for Young was a follow-up to his campaign promise to make organizing non-union work the cornerstone of his presidency — particularly in light of the loss of nearly 1,000 writing slots covered by the WGA West in recent years, due largely to the soaring popularity of reality TV.

“We had to compare John’s track record vs. that of someone who’s a professional organizer,” Verrone told Daily Variety. “We’re elevating organizing; we’re not doing this to punish John.”

But canning McLean, who took the post in 1999 after 18 years as a CBS labor relations exec, also sends a message: The WGA’s leaders plan to take a far more confrontational stance with studios and nets. And it comes on the heels of a seismic shift at SAG, where Alan Rosenberg’s Membership First faction took control late last week, amid pledges of being significantly tougher with employers.

Rosenberg’s indicated he has no plans to ask the SAG board to replace chief exec Greg Hessinger, who came over from the same AFTRA post in the spring to fill the slot vacated by Bob Pisano.

“I have a great deal of respect for Greg and I look forward to working closely with him in his capacity as executive director of our union,” Rosenberg said Tuesday.

Verrone’s victory elated Rosenberg’s associates and supporters, with the new presidents asserting that they’ll work closely together on common issues such as new contracts. The WGA’s current film-TV contract expires in October 2007, while SAG’s and the DGA’s both run until July 2008.

The question of ditching McLean — though it had been discussed privately among candidates — didn’t come up in any public statements during the two-month campaign between the Writers United and Common Sense slates headed by Verrone and Ted Elliott, respectively.

“We ran on a platform of organizing and expanding our membership, and reaching out to find ways to work with our sister guilds,” Verrone said in a statement Tuesday. “The members of the WGAW clearly responded to those priorities. Today we begin that process in earnest.”

Eager Young

The board also appointed a search committee to replace McLean, although that panel could decide to select Young, who said Tuesday he would be interested in the job if it’s offered. The WGA West’s constitution requires that the entire membership OK a new exec director, so it’s likely that the approval question will be part of the ballots in the guild’s elections next September.

Verrone and several slatemates — Robert King, Joan Meyerson, Howard Rodman, Phil Alden Robinson and Tom Schulman — were among the 14 members of the guild’s negotiating committee who publicly rebuked McLean’s “patience and discipline” leadership strategy after the WGA had concluded contract negotiations with studios and nets last fall. That announcement included the launch of Verrone’s Writers United slate.

Proponents claimed the deal, which amounted to a $58 million hike over three years, was the best the guild could have received even with a strike. But the opponents were upset over the WGA’s failure to achieve any gains on DVD residuals and reality TV jurisdiction; they asserted the WGA wasn’t aggressive enough and didn’t make enough of an effort to coordinate its strategy with the DGA, SAG and AFTRA.

The WGA walked away from the table in June 2004 when the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers offered a $32 million package, telling its members they needed to wait for the DGA and SAG to negotiate. The DGA asserted after its negotiations in September 2004 that the AMPTP would not budge on the DVD issue without a lengthy strike and perhaps not at all.

Verrone insisted Tuesday that organizing was the only significant factor that figured in McLean’s dismissal. But insiders say McLean had lost support among the elected leaders, due to a series of damaging developments in the past two years:

  • An ongoing feud with the WGA East generally and with WGA East exec director Mona Mangan specifically. The National Labor Relations Board found last year that CBS had violated labor law by negotiating exclusively with the WGA West in 2002 without including the WGA East; the branches then sued each other last spring in a bitter financial dispute that’s still unresolved.

  • The guild was required to run last year’s presidential election under the supervision of the Dept. of Labor after the feds found that the WGA West had failed to properly qualify Victoria Riskin’s candidacy in 2003, leading to her resignation.

n?A pair of high-profile lawsuits — the WGA West was sued last year by Michael Alan Eddy over denying him access to its credit arbitration process on “The Last Samurai” (Eddy lost but is appealing) and this year by William Richert over allegedly lacking authorization to collect foreign levies for non-members. Guild’s holding $23 million in the levies amid criticism that it hasn’t moved aggressively enough to pay out those funds.

McLean was chosen in 1999 over 109 other applicants. He replaced Brian Walton, who had been ousted amid criticism by members over preference for fast-track negotiations and a perceived lack of aggressiveness at the bargaining table.

McLean received his current contract in April 2002. During the fiscal year ended in March 2004, his salary totaled $453,781 — one of the top payouts for labor execs in the country.

During the campaign, Verrone and his allies said the WGA West needed to boost the amount of money spent on organizing from 3% of the annual $20 million budget — or $600,000 — to 30%, the same range allocated by several other U.S. unions. The WGA West’s organizing department has five employees; in addition, three employees in the WGA West’s independent film department also work on organizing.

The WGA West has been seeking jurisdiction over reality TV and animation this year, most recently by aiding reality show employees in the filing of two lawsuits against nets and producers alleging wage and overtime violations.

The WGA West board voted Monday to hire additional staff and researchers for the organizing campaigns. Young said he anticipates filling six more slots in the coming weeks.

Before Young joined the WGA West, he’d spent five years as assistant director of organization at the Laborers’ California Organizing Fund, signing up dozens of new construction industry employers to work agreements.

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