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Gunfight At The Writers Guild Corral

September 01, 1985|JOHN HORN

Fade in: West Hollywood, March 18, 1985, evening.

Interior: Writers Guild of America, West, board room. A disorderly debate about contract negotiating strategy is in progress.

Cut to: WGAW board member Lila Garrett, who is shouting at an attorney retained by the WGAW.


"You are the most corrupt labor lawyer in America! You should be disbarred!"

Cut to: Close up of the attorney.

Cut to: John Gay, a member of the WGAW contract negotiating committee. Gay, shaking with anger and red in the face, rears up and comes at Garrett.

VOICES, pleading

"Stop it, John!"

OTHER VOICES, pleading

"Hit her, John!"

It was a confrontation that might be straight from a screenplay. But instead of spinning off a screenwriter's word processor, the scene--according to more than a dozen guild officials--is an example of the strife that engulfs the Writers Guild of America, West, the largest branch of the 9,000-member union of radio, TV and movie writers.

At the center of the storm are two strong women: Naomi Gurian and Lila Garrett. Gurian, recently fired as the WGAW's executive director, clashed repeatedly with WGAW board member Garrett, a writer-producer with a documented knack for generating imbroglios. Now that Gurian is gone, her supporters are critical of Garrett, charging that Garrett has taken over control of the 19-member board. The result: contentiousness among the leadership at the WGAW is at an all-time high.

"The guild isn't simply dying," says David Rintels, a former guild president and consistent critic of Garrett. "It's being devoured from within."

Untrue, says board member Oliver Crawford, a Garrett supporter: "Lila is absolutely, unequivocally, a positive force."

The WGA--which was ripped apart by the Communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1940s and '50s--is in even worse shape now, according to interviews with 35 present and former guild officials. The consensus is that the WGA is losing its traditional militancy and solidarity; that strong leadership is giving way to apathy and impotence--a far cry from the guild's glory days.

Board members on both sides of the Garrett debate agree on one salient point: Some board members have reneged on their obligation to the membership by placing petty personality conflicts ahead of the union's future.

The situation within the WGAW board room has become so consistently unpleasant--with shouts of "bitch," "whore," "moron"--that past leaders now refuse to serve, officials close to the nominating process add.

"For the first time in the history of the guild, people are saying 'No!' when you ask them to participate in the leadership," says Ron Cohen, a former member of the WGAW board and negotiating committee.

The most deleterious effect of the guild's turmoil can be found in last spring's guild negotiations with movie and TV producers and the two-week strike that followed. Because of a breakdown of leadership, the WGA failed to capitalize on what probably was an unprecedented opportunity to substantially improve its contract.

The way the WGA interpreted its contract with the producers before the 1985 negotiations began, it was convinced that millions of royalty dollars due writers from the sale of videocassettes were being withheld.

Says Gurian of the producers' payments to writers: "It was the greatest scam in recent Hollywood history." WGAW board President Ernest Lehman told his membership that it was "an outrage beyond belief."

The way the producers read the contract, however, they were abiding by it--and even overpaying the writers.

In an attempt to recover the royalties allegedly owed its members, the WGA initiated a series of labor arbitrations against the producers, hoping for a decision that would establish a precedent that its interpretation of the contract was the correct one.

Before any progress could be made in the arbitrations, the WGA went out on strike against the producers, giving the guild an even stronger position. "For the first time," says board member Stephen Lord, "the guild sat in the catbird seat with a weapon that scared the living hell out of management."

Yet, surprisingly, the arbitrations were dropped by the WGA even as its strike was crippling TV production in Hollywood.

Why? The guild, at a time when it had gained an advantage over the producers, lost control over its own membership. Guild leaders--who make their livings communicating to millions of moviegoers and TV-watchers--seemed unable to convince their increasingly fractious members that the videocassette issue was crucial to their future. A strong faction within the WGA was more interested in going back to work than in seeing the arbitrations continue.

In short, the arbitrations were dropped to unify the guild. But just a few weeks later, the guild was split again: Gurian, widely described as a "brilliant" executive director, was fired in a 10 to 9 vote, further exacerbating the wounds within the WGAW board.

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