SEPTEMBER ELECTION: John Wells Rebuttal To Larry Gelbart’s Open Letter

DHD will now start to become a forum for the coming WGA and SAG elections. All points of view will be welcomed. I especially urge the candidates, but also their supporters, to submit statements, open letters, position papers, videos kissing babies, etc. I’ll try to be as even-handed as possible. Some have been submitted to me already, and I’ll put them up in the coming days. Every candidate can have a say, and more than once within reason, but not every supporter will. (Only the more famous/activist names, and they must be verifiable.) Otherwise, there are the comments, as always, and I expect them to be lively. Please keep the personal attacks to a bare minimum so there can be a civil discourse.

The following was sent to DHD for posting today and I welcome all points of view on this election from union candidates and members. DHD will have much more election coverage in the coming days and weeks:

AN OPEN LETTER FROM LARRY GELBART

Dear Fellow Members,
George Santayana, my old writing partner on “Caesar’s Hour,” once wrote, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” I’m writing you because I have seen my share of Guild history and there is some of it I definitely do not want to see as a rerun. This is a major election. I know, I know, they all are, but the next MBA negotiations are only a year and half away, and they’ll be run by the next President. Whom we choose couldn’t matter more, and the choice offered you this year, Elias Davis and John Wells, couldn’t be more stark. The question is: how would these two men behave if they got into office? Luckily, both of them have a considerable history of Guild service, history which offers us a rare kind of sneak preview as to what kind of President each of them would make.

Elias Davis has been our Secretary-Treasurer for the last four years. He was a founder and prime mover of Writers United, which has transformed the Guild into what it is today, running it with openness, communication and democracy. Writers United built up our strength, worked in tandem with other unions, expanded our jurisdiction, toughened our stance at the negotiating table and got us our first real bargaining gains in decades. What would Elias do as President? History tells us that he would continue the Writers United policies and advance them, with the same dedication to the job that he showed as Secretary-Treasurer of the WGA.

John Wells has some history of his own. From 1997-2001, he served first as Guild Vice-President, and then as President. During that time, the Guild hired as its Executive Director and chief negotiator John McLean, prior to that the chief labor negotiator for CBS. Many of us look back on this era as the “The Two Johns,” a time when our once-proud Guild became timid and obsequious. Both the Johns were and are nice guys. One is very smart. Both were rogue operators. In 2000, after only a couple of outreach meetings to members, they told the town to be ready for a strike over an increased percentage on DVDs. If there was a strike coming, they never planned for it, never printed placards or organized phone trees. Needless to say, the companies sussed out that the strike threat was a bluff. And our DVD percentage? The two Johns traded it away for a one-time “script bonus” for including the text in the DVD’s “extras.” Better than nothing, but not by much. The two Johns were not big on organizing. As the network schedules ran rife with non-union game shows, comedy-variety shows and talent shows – for all of which the MBA guarantees us jurisdiction – the two Johns stood by complacently, getting only a few such shows covered.

In 2001, while John Wells was our sitting Guild President, as the new season of “THE WEST WING” started up, he reneged on paying the raises that were due his staff. He notified them if they wanted the fees their contracts guaranteed, their deals would not be renewed. Or they could return at last year’s rates. He did this well after all the other shows had staffed up, so those writers had nowhere else to go. Was this because “West Wing” was hurting? No, it was one of the most successful shows on the air.

In 2004, though John Wells was no longer President, he still had enormous influence within the Guild. He was on the Negotiating Committee. That negotiation is generally regarded as a disaster. Its biggest “win” was that the companies coughed up some extra funding for our health plan, but not enough to restore eligibility to the 400 members who had been dropped the year before. Could we have gotten that extra money? We’ll never know. In Committee, both Johns argued forcefully that we mustn’t even ask. If the WGA had its own flag, it surely would have been all white and then forced to fly at half-mast.

In 2005, with the election of Patric Verrone and the Writers United slate, a spirit of activism and engagement re-animated the Guild. When the 2007 MBA negotiations rolled around, John Wells was not on the Negotiating Committee. Unhappily, that did not prevent him from affecting our strike. Two months into it, the DGA decided to negotiate with the companies. The DGA made what was – for them – a surprisingly good deal. It wasn’t really their deal. Our strike had helped them grow a pair. The DGA deal was our deal. All it needed was a bit more tweaking to make it satisfactory for writers. But before the tweaking could begin, John Wells, on his own bat, decided to go public with an email that began “Dear Jim,” in which he urged writers to take the DGA deal and go back to work. That note, with force of an IED, cut off the legs of our negotiators.

Everything in the that-was-then column has its consequences. What sort of President do you want to lead the Guild in the critical period that lies ahead? Someone who makes decisions solo, consulting no one? Someone who thinks a management Quisling should be Executive Director? Someone who watches complacently as Guild coverage slips away? Someone whose bargaining style is to not even ask? That’s the history you’ll be condemned to repeat if you vote for John Wells. But if you want strong, smart leadership that knows that the Guild’s greatest power, its only power, has always been its members, leadership that keeps you informed and listens closely to what you have to say, leadership that bargains firmly and fights, hard, for every last – and first – win it can get you, then history tells us you should vote for Elias Davis, Tom Schulman, David Weiss, Dan Wilcox, Patric Verrone and Howard Rodman.

They’re the ones who have harnessed your courage and dedication and made our Guild strong again. They will build on the forward momentum they have generated over the last four years.

A Wells administration would carry us back to the weakness of the ‘90s. A Davis administration will take us forward. Which way do you want to go?

Sincerely, Larry Gelbart