To some members of the Writers Guild of America West, today’s board elections could be the most momentous the union has held in a decade.
A group of veteran candidates, headed by four former WGAW presidents, is seeking to take control of the 19-member board and oust the predominantly younger group that has espoused a more measured approach to contract negotiations without the immediate threat of strikes.
The former presidents — Frank Pierson, Brad Radnitz, David W. Rintels and John Furia Jr. — and their cohorts believe the “contract adjustment” approach robs the guild of its most effective tool and enables studios to withhold significant concessions because the stakes are not as high as in the days when strikes were more common.
On the other side, those who have run the Contract Adjustment Committee and held firm to its philosophy have pointed to 10 years of relative calm between Hollywood labor and management and what they say are healthy gains in writers’ overall incomes.
“This election is a simple choice between the past and the future,” said a longtime WGAW member who did not want to alienate his colleagues by identifying himself in print. “Personally, I think the CAC has been working. We’ve had a decade of labor peace, no rollbacks and tremendous gains in certain areas, although there are gains still to be made in other areas.”
Opponents of the CAC, he said, “want to take a step backwards to a time when we were more confrontational with the studios.”
Just as emphatically, those opponents say the studios have been allowed to get away with refusing to substantially increase writers’ residuals from basic cable and foreign broadcasts, fields that have grown markedly in recent years. Many scribes feel that in the last contract talks, guild negotiators capitulated to the studios’ demand for a two-year study of the residuals question, effectively postponing a decision that would have made a difference to writers’ pockets now.
“Lots of producers are working on the assumption that there’s going to be a massive strike in 2001,” when the current contract expires, said a guild officer who also asked not to be identified. He predicted that, by then, resentment against the impasse on residuals will have reached fever pitch. And other unions sometimes follow the guild’s lead, making an industrywide walkout a possibility.
To help them make their decisions, the WGAW’s approximately 8,000 eligible voters were sent a 96-page book with statements from the 20 candidates, who are running for eight seats. The book also contains the words of other guild members who paid $100 each for the privilege of giving their endorsements and opinions, many of them filled with truculence and name-calling.
WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr., who is not up for election this year but who supports a pro-CAC slate, told Daily Variety he regretted the contentious tone that has enveloped the race.
“If you look at Writers Guild ads and statements in the past, while sometimes personal and sometimes unfortunate, they’ve not reached the level of personal attack that’s been reached this time,” Petrie said. “There are some new lows. It’s part of democracy.”
Petrie pointed out that a referendum in 2000 will give WGA members an opportunity to vote on whether to retain the CAC approach in the contract negotiations the following year.
“I think once the passions of this particular election cool, the vast majority of the guild and most of the people running for office will realize that the jury is still out” on the CAC question, he said. However, he acknowledged that “there is a lot for writers to be dissatisfied about.”
Members may vote by mail or at tonight’s annual membership meeting in the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Results are expected Friday afternoon.