This article was updated at 7:49 p.m.
Facing the prospect of tough contract negotiations, Hollywood scribes have closed ranks quickly following the sudden resignation of Victoria Riskin as president of the WGA West.
Riskin’s resignation at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday triggered the appointment of VP Charles Holland to the presidency.
“It’s embarrassing for everyone involved and it’s very sad for Vicki, who did a great job,” said John Wells, who preceded Riskin as WGAW prexy. “Rules are rules, and the constitution is the constitution, and that’s why the board went to an outside investigator. But I don’t think it will have any impact on the upcoming negotiations.”
Other WGA members sounded similar themes Tuesday, following Riskin’s early-morning decision to give up the fight for her office. An independent investigator found she was ineligible to hold the office because she was not an active member when she sought re-election last summer.
Riskin said she chose to step down because the issue of her violating WGA rules would have been a distraction during negotiations.
“I don’t want to be a part of a big controversy over the meaning of the WGA constitution during the next few months,” Riskin told Daily Variety. She admitted the prospect of a possible federal investigation into the issue of her eligibility also had prompted her to step aside.
Members praised Holland as a smart, well-respected moderate; he’s also the first African-American to head a Hollywood guild.
“I believe the guild will be stronger, more focused and better served, both in the upcoming negotiations and in the days beyond, with Charles Holland ascending into the guild presidency,” former board member Charles Pogue said. “He is an honorable man and devoted advocate for the guild and is universally admired by the membership. They will rally behind his dynamic and forceful leadership.”
Daniel Petrie Jr., who served as WGAW prexy from 1997-99, echoed that assessment. “What’s happened with Vicki is unfortunate, but I don’t think the guild will lose a step,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much esteem the members and the board have for Charles Holland.”
Wells noted Holland was co-chief of the negotiating team in 2001 and is a former VP of business affairs for 20th Century Fox Film. As a result, he added, Holland is intimately familiar with the details of the WGA contract, which expires May 2.
Holland could well bring some toughness to the bargaining table: He’s a former member of the Army Special Forces.
Key issues will likely include DVD residuals, healthcare and jurisdiction over reality TV and animation.
For her part, Riskin said she was sorry, but blamed the WGA West staff for failing misleading her as to what she needed to do to remain eligible by securing an agreement for work last June.
“I’m disappointed by the staff, which told me I was qualified to run,” she said. “I did what I was told by the staff but that doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes.”
Riskin also disputed the report by William Gould IV, former head of the National Labor Relations Board, which found that she had not fulfilled the requirement of being a member in good standing during the 12 months before the election because her membership had lapsed last July 1.
“Accordingly, the election for President of the Guild on Sept. 19 must be set aside,” he wrote.
Riskin asserted that a payment last month should have made her eligible by the deadline but Gould found otherwise. “Since compensation for Ms. Riskin was not received until Dec. 22, the renewed membership does not exist until Dec. 31,” he said.
Riskin stepped down at the end of a marathon meeting of the guild’s board of directors that started at 3:30 p.m. Monday and ended at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“My election as president of the Writers Guild is a trust I hold sacred,” she said. “However, I know we cannot proceed into negotiations with these charges hanging over us. It is with the overriding concern for all writers that I have offered my resignation. I know I am leaving the leadership of the guild in strong and wise hands. I urge my fellow writers to stand behind their new president.”
Riskin’s official statement contained no criticism of Guild staff and by resigning, Riskin was able to prevent a formal vote by the board to remove her. Instead, the board voted unanimously to accept the resignation “with deep regret,” with Holland and treasurer Patric Verrone abstaining and Riskin’s husband David Rintels recused.
Holland said in a statement, “It is with a heavy heart yet strong determination that I assume the presidency of the guild. We must and shall move forward with the business of the guild, most importantly the 2004 negotiations.”
The moves, though expected, still represented a stunning end to the second term of Riskin’s presidency. She beat challenger Eric Hughes in a contentious election in September by 846-425, but Hughes contended Riskin was ineligible.
WGA member Ron Parker filed a formal complaint with the board, triggering the hiring of Gould.
Gould, who headed the NLRB between 1994 and 1998 and is on the law school faculty at Stanford U., also recommended the election results be overturned and that Holland fill Riskin’s slot until a new election can be held. The WGA constitution provides that the replacement for a president serve until the next officer election, which would be in September 2005.
Riskin contended during hearings before Gould that she had attempted to comply with the rules as she understood them. Holland echoed that assertion Tuesday, saying, “I believe what Victoria Riskin did she did on a good-faith understanding of guild procedures.”
But Hughes took exception to Riskin blaming the staff. “I take great offense to Victoria Riskin’s assault on the that staff, which she egregiously compromised,” he added.
In a Jan. 3 statement, WGAW inhouse attorney Countess Williams and outside counsel Anthony Segall disputed Riskin’s assertions about being misled, contending that Riskin should have known that mid-level staffers do not have the authority to interpret the constitution. “As a two-term member of the board and a president finishing her first term, Riskin was well aware that only the board has the authority to interpret the constituion,” they said.
Gould also determined that no violation of federal labor laws in conducting the election took place as Parker had alleged.
“We really were concerned about certain corrupt practices at the guild,” said Parker, who has 30 days to decide whether to take the matter to the Dept. of Labor. “So it’s encouraging to see that these problems are being addressed.”