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Writers Guild election brings out dirty laundry from 100-day strike

Outgoing leaders accuse John Wells, who is running for president of the union, of having undermined talks with studios. Wells calls the allegations 'false' and 'ludicrous.'

August 29, 2009|Richard Verrier

The contest to elect a new leader of the Writers Guild of America, West, took an ugly turn Friday when the union's current president and a key figure in last year's contract negotiations blasted John Wells, the writer and producer who is campaigning to be the union's next president.

In an e-mail to guild members, Patric M. Verrone, the union's outgoing president, and John F. Bowman, the former head of the negotiating committee, accused Wells of undermining their efforts during last year's contract negotiations.

They openly disputed Wells' claims that he worked with guild leaders in the last contract negotiations to forge a deal that ended a 100-day strike in February 2008.

The men alleged that Wells kept them in the dark about his involvement in negotiations that the studios were holding with the Directors Guild of America. The DGA trumped the WGA by reaching a preemptive agreement with the studios that ultimately served as a template for the writers, who went on strike to squeeze better payment for their work online, among other things. Wells had openly supported the DGA deal in a widely circulated e-mail he sent out last year, before the writers concluded their own talks.

"As it worked out, after John publicly supported the DGA deal, without also publicly stating his own involvement, our hands as negotiators were tied," Verrone and Bowman wrote.

"We'd been on strike for three months and people wanted to go back to work. We understood this. What we did not understand, and still don't, is why one of our own would negotiate with the DGA without informing his guild's president or the chair of its negotiating committee."

"This is what you get with John Wells. He does his own thing. He doesn't depend upon the will of our guild's membership, but upon the strength of his relationships with management," the e-mail continued.

Wells called the allegations "false" and "ludicrous." Wells said he was not involved in the DGA negotiations but had been asked by members of the WGA negotiating committee to keep them updated on the talks.

"This is another attempt to obscure the real question, which is how, in the midst of a very well-run strike, did we end up at such odds with our sister union that they felt they could come in and negotiate over us?" Wells said.

"The current leadership has to accept some responsibility for that."

The missive from Verrone and Bowman, which was distributed to union members the same week they received their ballots and candidate statements, underscores just how split the union is as it prepares to pick a new leader. In addition to the election of new officers, 17 candidates are competing for eight open seats on the guild's board. Ballots will be counted Sept. 18.

Verrone and Bowman are supporters of Elias Davis, the former "MASH" and "Frasier" writer. Davis is currently the union's secretary-treasurer. He is running against the better-known Wells, a powerful figure in television who is executive producer of NBC's "Southland" and the hit TV shows "ER" and "The West Wing." Wells previously served as the guild's president in 1999 and 2001.

Davis' supporters back the current administration of Verrone, who is prohibited under guild rules from seeking a third term, against Wells, who keeps an office on the lot of Warner Bros.

Wells' name recognition and past experience as union president would appear to give him the edge, but the election has been closer than anticipated, with both candidates drawing high-level endorsements. A majority of board members are backing Davis, while most of last year's negotiating committee is supporting Wells.

Davis' supporters include "Crash" writer-director Paul Haggis, "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan, "Tootsie" writer Larry Gelbart and many of the strike captains who successfully mobilized the union's rank and file during last year's walkout.

Wells has drawn endorsements from writers such as "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry; Bill Condon, who wrote and directed the movie "Dreamgirls"; and Robert King, one of the founding members of the Writers United group, which swept Verrone into office four years ago on a campaign to unify the guild and adopt a tougher stance in negotiations with the studios.

Wells backed the strike but has criticized the leadership for alienating the directors union, waging an unsuccessful campaign to organize workers in the reality TV sector and adopting overly confrontational tactics with industry executives.

Supporters have touted Wells' experience as a negotiator, citing contract gains the union achieved in 2001, when he was president. They have rejected assertions that he is too close to management.

"There's a huge difference between being cordial with management and being beholden to management," Wells wrote in his candidate statement.

"Vilifying those across the table may feel good, but it's bad business for us, just as they've discovered vilifying writers was bad business for them. . . . You can't accomplish anything if you're not talking."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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