More than two-thirds of guilds won't vote

More than two-thirds of the members of the WGA West and SAG won’t vote in their presidential races, should usual voting patterns hold — even though both contests involve hot-button issues such as a possible 2011 strike.

Ballots in both elections went out last week, with return dates of Sept. 18 for the writers and Sept. 24 for thesps.

WGA West voting participation tends to be between 15% and 25% of the 8,000 members; turnout in SAG elections is usually a bit higher, in the low 20s to low 30s. And with Michael Winship set to be re-elected as WGA East president without opposition, voting in the WGAE races will likely be scanty.

It’s always possible that the current SAG and WGA races could spark an increase in turnout, as both feature strong rhetoric with conflicting viewpoints on the issue of pragmatism vs. idealism in contract negotiations. But those concerns may seem fairly abstract to many members, since last fall’s contests saw typically scarce turnouts — even with fresh memories of the 100-day WGA strike and SAG pondering a strike authorization.

Seven months after the end of a bruising strike, Hollywood scribes who voted last fall strongly endorsed the stance of maintaining an assertive posture toward the congloms, but only 1,235 ballots were cast, or 51 fewer than in the 2007 election in which WGA West prexy Patric Verrone was re-elected.

Last fall’s SAG election — which saw a seismic shift that gave power back to the self-styled moderates — drew only a 25% return rate among those dues-current members who were sent ballots.

Even with the writers races heating up, the laggardly participation in voting has prompted WGA West presidential candidate John Wells and his slatemates Howard Gould and Christopher Keysor to ask members to go ahead and vote for the rival slate if they believe they are the better candidates.

“While we would appreciate your vote, it’s essential you cast your ballot no matter whom you choose to support,” the trio wrote. In the message, sent to WGA members last week, they contend that lower voting participation will embolden the companies to harden their bargaining stances at the next round of negotiations.

“During a work stoppage, we’re all engaged in our guild,” the missive said. “Walking a picket line and refusing a paycheck turns even the least engaged members into guild activists.  But when a strike ends, some members stop paying much attention to the guild, and the companies have historically used that apathy to push rollbacks and tepid contractual improvements in the next cycle of negotiations. Your participation is critical to keep this from happening again.”

The missive noted that there are differences among scribes but many more things that unite writers.

“If you read the election materials and find yourself more in agreement with the direction Elias Davis and his running mates wish to take the guild, please vote for Elias,” it said. “If you find our arguments more compelling, please vote for us. But please, vote. It’s essential we show the companies that we remain engaged in our union and fiercely committed to furthering our economic interests.”

Labor expert Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor, told Daily Variety that turnout in union elections tends to vary considerably. 

“If there are major issues a union is confronting or a hotly contested campaign, turnout tends to be higher, even much higher,” Shaiken added. “There isn’t really a norm as a result.”

The largest turnout by far among WGA members came two years ago in October 2007, when more than 90% of writers backed a strike authorization with 5,507 members out of about 12,000 casting ballots following several months of acrimonious negotiations between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. Such a result isn’t a surprise at all, Shaiken noted.

“Participation, particularly in votes authorizing a strike, can be critical in indicating that members are involved and support the leadership,” he added.

SAG participation has been fairly steady in recent years. Two years ago, on the eve of the WGA strike, 24.3% of 102,001 paid-up SAG members voted in an election that saw Alan Rosenberg narrowly win a second term over Seymour Cassel.

The largest SAG turnout by far came in 2002, when about 35% of SAG members voted in a rerun of an invalidated election in which Melissa Gilbert again defeated Valerie Harper for the presidency.

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