Fierce fight for WGA post

Prexy candidates press hot-button issues

The gloves have come off in the contest for the WGA West presidency between Daniel Petrie Jr. and Eric Hughes.

The battle pits Hughes, a challenger to the status quo, against veteran guild insider Petrie, who was president in 1997-99, VP in 1999-2001 and was tapped again as prexy by the board in March after Charles Holland resigned.

Campaigning has kicked into high gear, with both candidates pressing hot-button issues such as screenwriting credits, the long-running dispute with the WGA East and how the guild has handled now-stalled contract negotiations, leaving writers working under an expired contract for the past two months.

The WGA’s official announcement of qualified candidates for president, VP and eight board seats went out Wednesday.

The contest is being closely watched as a referendum on guild strategies and priorities among the 8,000 WGA West members, who showed little interest in last year’s election, with turnout under 20%.

The upcoming contest — which will fill the one year left in the term of former president Victoria Riskin — is under the unprecedented supervision of the Dept. of Labor.

The feds’ investigation was prompted by a complaint from Hughes’ campaign manager, Ron Parker, over how last year’s election was conducted. Complaint included allegations that WGA West staff unlawfully helped Riskin conceal her ineligibility and promoted Riskin while undermining Hughes.

Settlement between the Labor Dept. and the WGA West provided Hughes be afforded the opportunity to run without going through the usual procedures.

Hughes touts writers

“Let’s celebrate this as the year in which writers got their voice back,” Hughes said in his candidate statement. “For members, the story is: Writers have prevailed. And thanks to the Secretary of Labor, we have the chance to give the Writers Guild back to the writers.”

Petrie didn’t name Hughes in his statement, but criticized “excessive rhetoric” during the campaign. “If we want a stronger guild, we cannot permit a disagreement, however passionate, to divide us into permanent camps that are demonized by the other side,” he said in his campaign statement.

Petrie made a similar argument against campaign criticism of WGA senior staff as “irresponsible, unjustified and spectacularly ill-timed.”

He has formed a “Stronger Guild” slate with current VP Carl Gottlieb and board candidates Ron Bass, John Bowman, Ted Elliott, Craig Mazin, Aaron Mendelsohn, Lisa Seidman, Dan Wilcox and Larry Wilmore. Bass, Seidman and Wilcox are incumbents.

Hughes has no plans to form a slate and blasted the WGA’s approach to contract negotiations as unfocused.

“Unlike SAG, which last year entered AMPTP negotiations with a limited goal of gaining a one-year extension so as to be better situated for negotiations this fall, the guild entered negotiations without any strategy at all,” he said.

Hughes pledged to form a team of experienced writers, negotiators and lawyers to develop a new approach to the current stalemate. “We cannot afford to sit back and do nothing, as it seems we have been doing since May,” he said.

Petrie defended the WGA’s negotiations strategy, saying SAG and the DGA have more leverage than the WGA because the companies want to make an early deal well before the SAG and DGA contracts expire next June 30. And he said a WGA strike would harm the negotiating positions for SAG and the DGA.

“Our going on strike would obviously undercut that leverage, since there’d be no incentive to avoid a de facto strike when an actual strike was taking place,” he said. “My stance on the current negotiations? Simple. We should stick with the current strategy, unanimously supported by your negotiating committee.”

A look at credits

Hughes also said he will move to change the credits system, long a sore point with writers; he singled out the WGA West administrative procedure under which staff determines whether a writer is eligible for an arbitration.

“As president, I will immediately convene a working committee of active and respected writers, who will be charged with proposing new writers-controlled credit manuals for motion picture and television, which reflect the needs of writers and not the guild bureaucracy,” he added. “I consider it one of the paramount purposes of my campaign and one of the primary goals of my administration to repair the credit system.”

The WGA West was sued earlier this year by Michael Alan Eddy over its refusal to hold an arbitration over credits for “The Last Samurai,” which resulted in credits being assigned as submitted by Warner Bros.

Petrie proposed creating a panel of arbitration advisors to give informal advice and a blue-ribbon committee to evaluate procedures used by staff in administering the credit arbitration process.

Both Hughes and Petrie promised they will attempt to improve relations with the WGA East, which reps about 4,000 members and is based in New York.

Hughes noted the WGA East recently won an arbitration against CBS for negotiating exclusively with the WGA West over excluding supervising producers from the guild contract with CBS news writers.

Neither WGA branch has commented; Hughes proposed that WGA West exec director John McLean should apologize and explain.

More contact with East

Petrie pledged he’d seek more meetings with the WGA East. He singled out issues of lack of uniform standards on voter eligibility and the lack of an agreement for the WGA East to reimburse the WGA West for costs of collecting residuals for WGA East members.

The Dept. of Labor is monitoring every step of the election, which will conclude Sept. 21, including mailings, guild publications, voter eligibility, preparation of ballots and returned ballots. The “Meet the Candidates” event will take place Sept. 1.

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