Chris Keyser Is New WGA West President

Hollywood will be strike-free for at least another 2 years. The Writers Guild of America, West, just announced its 2011 Officers and Board of Directors after a surprisingly not-even-close election that turned a bit nasty towards the end. Newcomer Chris Keyser as President will continue outgoing John Wells’ moderate leadership of the once hardline Writers Guild West. The rejection of 2007-2008 strike leader Patric Verrone by a 60%-to-40% margin demonstrates that he’s still too polarizing a figure — even though the 100-day labor action yielded New Media payments from the Big Media studios and networks but also lost deals, big-time resentment, and public hostility from the other non-striking Hollywood unions.

However, the most recent round of WGA negotiations with the AMPTP lasted only 2 weeks and generated little in the way of pay increases or New Media increases despite promises to that effect. Negotiating committee co-chairs John Bowman and Billy Ray blamed “an economy still recovering from a deep recession; an economic pattern set in negotiations with other unions; and the willingness of the Companies to address the Guild’s most pressing economic need, regarding the solvency of the pension plan.” Screenwriters especially lost out big when the situations they despise like sweepstakes pitching and free rewriters were swept under the rug. So, apparently, WGA members want more of the same.

Today’s loss by Verrone shows an unwillingness by the WGA membership to pursue a tough stance with the Big Media studios and networks anytime soon. They are obviously breathing a sigh of relief that Verrone didn’t get in. So are the producer-friendly DGA and SAG (soon to merge with the even more producer-collegial AFTRA). Hey, the Hollywood guilds get the leadership they deserve.

Few people stepped forward to run in this September’s WGA leadership elections. Insiders told me that was because of “great apathy” inside the guild. Three races were unopposed for quite some time until writers could be convinced to throw their hats into the ring since the WGA constitution doesn’t allow for uncontested races. (One of those drafted was John Aboud who joked, “It’s going to be my honor to lose to Howard Rodman…”)

As for the election for WGA President, surprise morphed into curiosity at the contest between Patric Verrone vs Chris Keyser. Verrone, the animation writer, said he wanted to put the guild back on a more activist course by organizing additional shows to cover writers who work in cable TV and video games. He complained that the guild’s position in Hollywood and the American labor movement had “atrophied. For much of our 75-year history we have been at the vanguard of progressive thought and activism. Through careful and considered organizing efforts, tempered by a keen sense of member involvement and satisfaction, we can return there in the future.” Keyser criticized Verrone’s past organizing efforts. “What we need to be wary of is our own version of political dynasties, weighed down by old antagonisms, old baggage, old political fault lines that undermine in big and small ways our ability to sit down next to our ought-to-be allies and across from our employers and turn the page toward progress.”

John Wells and J.J. Abrams campaigned hard for Keyser. Verrone attracted support from high-profile WGA members like Matt Weiner and Paul Haggis. At first, their campaigns for president were expected to be gentlemanly, not rancorous which a lot of past guild elections have been because of the grudge-settling going on. Keyser was described to me as someone with “a lot of ideas, not a lot of anger”. But many say Keyser’s biggest weakness was that he wasn’t as well known as Verrone. “This is still largely a name recognition game,” I was told. Verrone’s candidacy, however, dictated that this election would turn into a referendum on the 2007-2008 WGA strike just as the last election was — which saw Verrone’s hand-picked candidate Elias Davis lose to John Wells.

That became clear when an email was sent to WGA members by guild vet and Secretary/Treasurer candidate Carl Gottlieb that boldly acknowledged it was negative campaigning. (“Is he still pissed at David Weiss for his first-time defeat in VP run in 2006?” one WGA wag asked me.) Interestingly, the message didn’t hurt his candidacy: he won today. His email (which I’ve edited for space) said:

.. Now, for some negative campaigning. We rarely see it in Guild elections, it’s considered déclassé, and it may even cost me votes. So be it. Some things need to be said; call me a jerk for saying them publicly. I urge you NOT to return David N. Weiss and Patric M. Verrone to Guild office. Whatever unity and progress they may claim has been more than offset by the mischief they’ve done during their carefully engineered ascendancy to power in 2005 and 2007, and by their grandiose plans for our future (please, read their Statements). By voting for John Wells in 2009, you began the process of reclaiming our Guild… By voting for officers and Board members who have demonstrated thoughtful independence, you can end a leadership cycle that began with “Organize, Organize, Organize!” and ended with a “Strike or Fail” philosophy that has not served our union well, and cost the membership hundreds of millions in lost wages and missed opportunities.

Verrone and Weiss helped bring us Executive Director David J. Young, as an extension of their desire to solidify control of the union. How pleasant and delightful it was when he exceeded all their expectations. He learned quickly, acted independently, and became a priceless asset to our Guild, no longer beholden to nor unduly influenced by any Guild faction or slate. I’ve seen at least five executive directors come and go, I’ve worked with all of them, and I look forward to working again with David Young. I’m less delighted that we permanently lost invaluable senior staff, who resigned or retired (or were forced out) during the “Writers United” years, taking irreplaceable institutional memory and experience with them. Enough of negative thoughts. Thanks for your attention, and your vote. — Carl Gottlieb

Back on April 27th, after the Writers Guild concluded its contract negotiations with the AMPTP, I wrote What WGA Leaders Didn’t Tell Membership (…And Neither Did SAG or DGA Leaders). It was a composite Q&A of the truth that Hollywood Guild leaders were saying in private and not telling members to their faces at a time when nearly all writers, actors, and directors are still hanging by their fingernails to maintain their livelihoods under the studio and network rollbacks. That day, the WGA membership voted to ratify their new TV/Theatrical Contract reached in March with the AMPTP. I was shocked and appalled by the lack of public dissemination of info by the Guild to its members during the process. But this kind of secrecy has marked all of the Hollywood Guilds’ dealings with its memberships on these contract negotiations and ratification votes. That’s to cover up the fact that neither SAG nor the DGA nor the WGA bothered to bargain hard for pay increases or barely at all for New Media increases despite promises to that effect during the last contract go-rounds.

I emailed and spoke at length with several members of the WGA negotiating team and board of directors to be able to collect the behind-the-scenes information. Because one of the WGA leaders emailed me to agree when I crapped all over this lousiest of lousy WGA deals with the AMPTP: “Off the record, your analysis of this deal is spot on.” Who else agreed with me? Stephen Diamond, the Santa Clara University Law professor and one-time candidate for SAG’s executive director, who called the deal a “clean sweep for big Hollywood studios as WGA negotiations end” and “the final domino in this year’s Hollywood collective bargaining round”.

My analysis included calling this the worst deal writers had ever been handed. Saying the Writers Guild leadership clearly decided it had no leverage after the Actors and Directors Guilds threw them under the bus by accepting bad contracts and even the WGA membership gave them no hand by overwhelmingly (and understandably) opposing any mention of a strike. Noting that the Big Media companies finding their financial footing again after the depths of the economic crisis. Stressing that New Media increases have gone the way of the VCR and the DVD: what was negotiated first is what you’re stuck with now and seemingly forever if the AMPTP continues to have its way. Laughing at the flimsy new meetings on sweepstakes pitching and one-step deals, and “contract provisions [which] have been added that require each studio to send to its creative executives a bulletin stating clearly that spec writing is not to be condoned” as if this will stop these hated but institutionalized practices. It’s such a WGA betrayal after guild leadership and Hollywood agencies pledged to work together to stop the studios’ blatant exploitation of movie scribes.

I had long predicted Hollywood could most likely expect quick and easy negotiations. Let’s see… SAG/AFTRA spent just 6 weeks of jointly negotiating with the studios and networks on a new 3-year TV/Theatrical contract. The DGA took just 3 weeks and change. And the WGA could have bargained right up until May 1st when its current contract ends but didn’t. The moguls behind the AMPTP always intended to negotiate with the writers last (even though their pact was expiring sooner) to ensure there would be the most Hollywood pressure (synonymous with antagonism) towards them if they negotiated too hard. Although SAG/AFTRA and the DGA traded information during their talks, they left the WGA out in the cold.

The whole point of this lead-in to contract negotiations was for all the Hollywood Guilds to better coordinate bargaining in order to present a united front to the AMPTP. Promises were made to “next time” secure better wages, benefits, working conditions. Even the AMPTP pledged it would reopen bargaining over those paltry New Media revenues. True, no one wanted another strike. But was the only alternative for the WGA to wimp out like the other Guilds? So all the Hollywood Guilds rubber-stamped what crumbs the AMPTP offered despite this rapidly improving economy. The DGA was first to make it plain early on that they weren’t going for big wages (just a 2% increase) or even a better New Media deal. Instead the DGA negotiators were focusing on increased Health Plan and Pension contributions. Same with SAG/AFTRA. The WGA also focused on the pension plan. But all the writers I know in the guild who aren’t yet or once were big names are most concerned about losing their health insurance. Nothing for them. But no Hollywood guild has the will right now to install new union leadership.