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Moderates on the March?

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The moderates' takeover of the Hollywood labor movement got a potential boost late last month when John Wells, the prominent TV writer and show runner for series such as "ER," "The West Wing," and "Southland," announced his candidacy for president of the Writers Guild of America West. Wells led the guild a decade ago and was part of the negotiating team that averted a strike in 2001 by continuing talks three days past the deadline for getting a deal.

That bit of history stands in contrast to that of his chief opponent, Elias Davis, WGA West's current secretary-treasurer and the favored candidate of outgoing president Patric Verrone. Davis and Verrone belong to the hard-line faction Writers United and helped lead the guild's 100-day strike from November 2007 to February 2008, a strategy that secured greater pay and jurisdiction for work in new media but failed to win systemic changes in the way writers are compensated.

One of the principal reasons for that failure was that the WGA lost its leverage when the Directors Guild of America agreed to a new contract in mid-January 2008—almost six months before its agreement was set to expire. Wells endorsed the DGA terms when they were announced, even as his own guild was striking. In an email to a fellow scribe, published on TheArtfulWriter.com, he wrote, "I think the DGA deal is good. Very good. For writers, for directors, for the future."

Other high-profile writers, such as Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, House) and Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing), also supported the DGA terms and tried to pressure WGA leaders into accepting them. Coincidentally or not, the DGA contract formed the basis for what the writers eventually did accept, as well as the deals agreed to by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and, last month, the Screen Actors Guild.

Although significant majorities of AFTRA and SAG members voted to ratify those contracts, a vocal minority of actors opposed them, mainly partisans of Membership First, SAG's hard-line faction, including president Alan Rosenberg, 1st vice president Anne-Marie Johnson, and a majority of the Hollywood division's board of directors. SAG's moderate faction, which holds a slight edge on the guild's national board, heartily endorsed the TV-film deal.

Why should actors concern themselves with the next president of the writers' union? Neither moderates nor hard-liners are doing backflips over SAG's new TV-film contract; privately or otherwise, they concede it is less than what they had hoped. And both sides point toward 2011 as an opportunity to strengthen the deal. That's the year that all the union contracts with the studios and networks expire. Many have indicated that it will take a united front by several unions to bolster their collective position.

The DGA is notoriously independent and reluctant to strike. That means a consortium of SAG, AFTRA, and the WGA would be needed, but getting Hollywood unions to align is akin to choreographing cats. The only hope is that their leaders have similar thoughts about strategy.

AFTRA has been dominated by moderates for at least a decade, and it seems that SAG is heading in that direction as well. Rosenberg, who has said he will seek a third term, faces long re-election odds given Membership First's defeats in the last two votes whose outcome was not predictable: the national board elections last September and the TV-film ratification last month. That leaves the writers as the wild card, and whoever wins the WGA West presidency will set the tone for the next round of bargaining.

Even if Davis were to win, however, the writers' guild could still work in harmony with the performers' unions. For one thing, there seem to be limits to Verrone and company's hard-line nature. When hard-liner Doug Allen, SAG's national executive director, was fired by the moderates last winter, the writers were conspicuously silent—even though Allen and other SAG hard-liners had lent them vociferous support when they struck. For another, it is highly unusual for a Hollywood union to strike in consecutive terms. The members lose a lot of money, at least initially, during a work stoppage, and they aren't so keen to take to the streets again a scant three years later.

Clearly, Hollywood labor is becoming more moderate. Whether that translates into more money and better working conditions is another matter.

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