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Silence starts WGA hearings

Hearings that were to have begun Tuesday into allegations of improprieties in recent Writers Guild elections were a non-starter.

More than 90 members who had signed a petition protesting various aspects of September’s election received letters earlier this month inviting them to testify under oath before a special committee set up to investigate the members’ complaints, which they filed with the Dept. of Labor. Cheryl Rhoden, a spokeswoman for WGA West, said Tuesday that no witnesses had been slotted for the first day of hearings, and she could not say whether any were set to appear for the other nine days of scheduled testimony.

Rhoden said she did not know whether any of the petition-signers had responded to the committee’s invitation. The committee, composed of three union officers and two alternates, does not have subpoena power.

But Larry Gelbart, who spearheaded the members’ complaint to the Dept. of Labor, said at least 12 members planned to testify to the committee.

“I am not aware that anyone won’t speak,” Gelbart told Daily Variety. He said the election, in which the proposed contract was overturned by WGA East members, should be overturned. “It’s not a question of who won or lost, but rather how the election was conducted,” he said.

Members complained that the guild spent funds in support of candidates who favored ratification of the proposed contract with film and television producers. They alleged also that the union caused confusion by bundling the contract vote and the election of its officers in the same ballot, and that WGAW exec director Brian Walton spent guild money to support passage of the contract, which, members said, unfairly helped certain candidates win election.

Some union members said they objected to the tone of the committee’s letter, which informed them they would be questioned by legal counsel and that their testimony would be recorded by a court reporter.

“The way they’ve done this is very bullying — it’s creepy,” said Nancy Weems, a film writer and past chair of the guild’s Women’s Committee. “I understand they have to investigate themselves, but I was offended. I think it frightens people.”

But other guild members thought better of the proposed hearings. “It’s giving a lot of writers a forum where they can speak openly and honestly about their feelings about what has been transpiring at the guild for the last six months,” said Lynn Roth, who lost a close election for the WGAW presidency to Daniel Petrie Jr.

Ann Marcus, a board member, also welcomed the hearings. “I’m glad … that the leadership problems in the guild will be aired,” she said. But Marcus was less happy about Walton’s actions during the campaign, among them his decision to send out postcards to members advocating ratification of the proposed contract.

“The executive director was directly involved in campaigning for the contract,” she said. “It’s not his job —he should remain neutral.”

Rhoden, the WGAW spokeswoman, said the hearings, once they start, will serve a crucial function. “There needs to be a full and clear airing of all charges and any evidence in support of those charges,” said Rhoden, who insisted there was no intention to intimidate anyone. “The guild is committed to an unbiased review process of the election.”

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