Scribes West wing counters WGAE over dues

Read Daniel Petrie, Jr. letter to WGAw

Read Herb Sargent letter to WGAE

NEW YORK — The Writers Guild of America West slapped its East Coast counterpart with a lawsuit Tuesday in Los Angeles, seeking to force arbitration in a simmering dispute over membership and dues — one day after WGA East sued WGAW in Gotham for refusing to engage in mediation

The battle, which has grown increasingly pitched in recent months, centers on WGA West’s demand that screenwriters hold dual membership in both guilds and that half their dues be sent west. WGAW insists provisions are clearly laid out in the guild’s 1954 constitution, although they haven’t been enforced since the mid-’70s.

WGA West has of late been more proactive in seeking to reinstitute the regs, and claims that the eastern wing forfeited its right to mediation by missing a number of deadlines. People close to WGAW also said the sister branch’s newfound commitment to mediation, which is nonbinding, is a stalling tactic that would drag out the conflict for many more months.

Brief suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, calls the WGAE’s “refusal to participate in the arbitration process … in bad faith” and requests: an order directing arbitration, judgment in accordance with the order, legal costs and “such other and further relief as the court deems proper.”

WGAW has agreed to mediation starting in July — but only if WGA East commits beforehand to quick arbitration, which is binding, if the mediation fails. East won’t do it and claims the guild’s dispute resolution standards, inked in 2003, don’t require arbitration.

In a letter to members sent Tuesday, WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie said the grounds of WGA East’s suit “seem to make no sense and contradict statements of East members and staff made of the past several years. Obviously, they are trying to buy time — for what we aren’t sure, because the board and officers are resolute in wanting to resolve this constitutional problem.”

Petrie claims WGA East reps commented at a meeting last month: “We have nothing to gain and everything to lose in arbitration, so we want no part of it.”

WGA West has been seeking closer ties and backs an eventual merger of both guilds.

“Ignoring history and law, they want to treat us as two entirely separate entities bound by nothing more than occasional common interests,” Petrie said.

However, WGAE prexy Herb Sargent wrote in a recent letter to members: “I cannot recall another time in the more than 40 years that I have been a member in which so many guild resources and so much energy have been wasted on a matter which clearly neither strengthens our hand with management nor helps us to represent writers better. I am stunned by the sheer waste of it,”

But supporters of the WGA West see such statements as tantamount to emotional blackmail that’s discouraged it from seeking legal remedy in past years.

“The pattern has been West complains, East screams, East goes to the press, West backs down,” said one.

A person close to WGA West said the “best guess” is that the eastern wing should be forking over about $750,000 a year. Initially, WGAW was only looking to collect the fresh cash going forward, not retroactively. Now, however, it might seek to go back at least four years, which comes to about $3 million, the person said.

Petrie said settlement talks are scheduled for mid-June in New York. A mediator has been invited to facilitate the discussions. “Given the East’s profound resistance to mediation and the extremes to which they have gone to avoid engagement, we are not optimistic these talks will prove fruitful.”

WGA West, based in Hollywood, has about 9,000 members and an annual budget of about $20 million. WGA East has about 4,000 members and a $6 million budget.

Letter from Daniel Petrie, Jr. to WGAw membership:

April 26, 2005

Dear Member:

Yesterday, we were sued by Writers Guild East. In an eight-page complaint, they asked a U.S. District Court judge to declare that they have “no obligation to arbitrate” a dispute with us, even though arbitration is explicitly provided for in our Constitutions and in the affiliation agreement between the two unions.

We were not surprised. At our National Council meeting on April 10, the East representatives were very candid about their desire to avoid arbitration at all costs, saying “we have nothing to gain and everything to lose in arbitration, so we want no part of it.”

Two noteworthy things about the lawsuit. First, the grounds alleged in the suit seem to make no sense and contradict statements of East members and staff made over the past several years. (The lawsuit is posted on our website for your perusal.) Obviously they are trying to buy time — for what, we aren’t sure, because the Board and officers are resolute in wanting to resolve this constitutional problem. Second, the complaint is eight pages long without once mentioning the Writers Guild Constitution or the affiliation agreement between our guilds. Ignoring history and law, they want to treat us as two entirely separate entities bound by nothing more than occasional common interests. As tempting as it might be, in the throes of being sued, to go along with this thinking and take steps to sever all ties with the East, and push for separate health funds, pension funds, MBA contracts and the like, we want exactly the opposite: we want to move closer to the East members and show them that in this day and age, we are much stronger as one union, with one staff, one body politic, and one collective voice. We have said all along that the best way to begin improving relations with the East, and to bring writers into our guild who belong here, is to begin honoring the Constitution.

At each step of the way we have attempted to play by the rules, and conduct ourselves civilly. We will continue to do so. When mediation under the agreed-upon resolution failed, we tried mediation at the National Council. When the East refused to participate in that, we began the arbitration process set forth in our Constitution. The East’s response was to file a lawsuit trying to stop us and let this conflict go unresolved. We have no choice but to file our own lawsuit, asking a federal court here in Los Angeles to order Writers Guild East to participate in arbitration, as set forth in our joint Constitutions. That suit was filed today.

It is a sad time when writers are filing lawsuits against one another. But the alternative — ignoring our Constitution, even disdaining it — is even more unacceptable. We have every confidence a court will ultimately agree with our position, and we can begin the arbitration process. The East, to their discomfort, seems to share our confidence that we will prevail in arbitration; that is why they filed their lawsuit trying to stop us.

Settlement talks are scheduled for mid-June in New York. A mediator has been invited to help facilitate the discussions. Given the East’s profound resistance to mediation, and the extremes to which they have gone to avoid engagement, we are not optimistic these talks will prove fruitful. But we will do our best, seizing on any opportunity to resolve this dispute.

As always, we will keep you apprised as events develop.

Sincerely,

Daniel Petrie, Jr.
WGAw President

Letter from Herb Sargent to WGAE members:

April 25, 2005

Dear Member:

As you know, we have been trying to resolve the WGA west’s demand that, for the first time in the history of the two Guilds’ longstanding affiliation, our screenwriters be converted forcibly to dual membership in both the WGAw and the WGAE and that half of the dues of these dual members be allocated to the west. They also demand that the membership of any WGAE member who remains in the west for three months or more be automatically transferred to the WGAw without consent.

In early April, our Council flew to Los Angeles to meet with the WGAw Board. In addition, the next day three delegates from our Council met with three delegates from their Board for a National Council meeting. The meetings concluded with a promise to meet again in May and June to continue discussing the issues that have pushed us apart. I have asked Warren Leight to describe those meetings to you, which he has done in the attached letter.

Eight days after the meetings Warren describes, the WGAw filed an arbitration demand against us. By rejecting mediation and attempting to force arbitration, they have placed the resolution of this issue with lawyers, rather than in the hands of writers, where it belongs. On the one hand they say they hope to resolve this issue during our upcoming meetings while on the other they file for arbitration. Their words are very different from their actions. We can only wonder whether they ever intended to settle this matter member to member.

We would still like to work this out member to member, guild to guild. We remain prepared to mediate, having selected a mediator and chosen July dates offered by that mediator. We’ve always been open to discussing the matter in an amicable way.

It was never our intent to litigate this matter. Unfortunately, in the face of the west’s demand for arbitration it became necessary for us to seek a declaratory judgment from the court as to whether we are obliged to arbitrate at all. Unsurprisingly, the west has responded with a motion to compel arbitration in a different court, thus perpetuating litigation.

We believe that our resources are better spent protecting the residuals of screen and television writers from the self-dealing of ever more powerful studios and networks. We must also focus on our stake in the Internet and new technologies. That is where our true interests lie.

I would particularly like to thank the writers on both coasts who have expressed their support and solidarity. They join us in looking forward to the day when the guilds can again work together to improve members’ lives, instead of wasting energy and money in needless litigation.

Sincerely,

Herb Sargent
President

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