A lawyer and political scientist by training, Brian Walton believes in the power of reason to resolve disputes.
As chief negotiator for the striking Writers Guild of America, however, Walton also believes that 9,000 movie and television writers are being perfectly reasonable in their rejection of a company demand for cutbacks in TV residuals.
Soon, the 40-year-old guild leader may be forced to choose between his articles of faith.
Now in its third week, the writers' strike against the entertainment industry appears to be approaching a decision point.
By softening their positions somewhat, the two sides might still settle on a new three-year contract without serious damage to production schedules and writer-company relationships. Or they can freeze their demands--and risk the irrationalities that creep into any prolonged work stoppage.
"We're approaching the point where positions tend to harden," Walton said at the guild's West Hollywood headquarters last week. "We're starting to get members who say, 'If they're going to keep us out there for two, three, four months, let's really go for something (big).' "
Radicalization of that sort would pose a severe test for London-born Walton, who has proved more a mediator than a fighter during his 2 1/2 years as executive director of the guild's 6,500-member western division.
"My knowledge of strikes . . . is derivative," said the soft-spoken Walton, who worked as a business attorney before being hired by the guild in a 1985 leadership shake-up.
Blond and solidly built, Walton retains a slight British accent even though he has lived in the United States since the age of 18. A former Mormon, he studied political science at Brigham Young University and received a law degree from the University of Utah.
If he generally counsels conciliation, Walton has been known to pick a professional fight or two. (And his office sports a "Scarface" poster, complete with an obscenely bellicose inscription from writer Oliver Stone.)
As an attorney with the Los Angeles firm of Selvin, Weiner & Rubin, for instance, Walton represented the guild in a bitter contract dispute with producers over the definition of videocassette residuals in 1985.
Convinced that the guild case was almost airtight, he advocated litigating the matter--which might have cost the companies $200 million in back payments to various unions if the guild's position prevailed. But the guild instead accepted the company stance as part of its contract settlement that year.
A 1987 strike by guild newswriters against CBS and ABC was led by Mona Mangan, head of the guild's eastern division. Walton, meanwhile, spent much of his tenure conducting informational meetings that were supposed to defuse tensions in the faction-racked guild and pave the way for smooth contract talks with some 200 companies represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Apparently, the tensions are gone. Guild members voted near-unanimous support for guild negotiators in mass meetings earlier this month. And even writer Lionel Chetwynd, who led a dissident union faction during the stormy 1985 negotiations, has publicly expressed approval of Walton's stance.
But the talks--which broke off more than a week ago, with no new sessions scheduled--were anything but smooth. According to sources, company negotiators several times accused Walton of excessive stubbornness in refusing to "sell" his members on a package the companies claim would increase writers' compensation by about $50 million over the next three years.
Walton said the companies overestimate his ability to influence the writers, whom he described as younger, more confident, and filled with higher expectations than an earlier generation of guild members who struck for three months in 1981.
It may be a mark of those growing expectations that a stiff program of creative demands--including extensive consultation rights regarding any changes made by directors or producers to original screenplays--remains on the writers' agenda, despite the companies' insistence that enhanced writer power could cause chaos on movie and TV sets.
Since the beginning of the strike, some writers have suggested sharpening those demands still further if the producers force a long walkout by insisting on the TV residuals give back. In a letter to Walton, one guild member proposed to "legislate the writer so far into the bowels of the creative process that we are building condos in the directors' trailers."
Walton said he wouldn't necessarily welcome such a thrust.
As the strike wears on, however, he will follow will of his members and their elected boards. "If they perceived that I was selling them soap, their trust and confidence in me would be gone," he said.