As early returns from the SAG National Board elections come in this week it looks like a turn to moderation in the Hollywood guilds after several years of more aggressive policies by both actors and writers.
In the election for head of the WGA-West, John Wells beat out Elias Davis. Davis was the nominee from the same group that led the 100 day walkout of writers in late 2007-08. Wells comes from the more moderate wing of the WGA and was involved in a controversial effort to end the strike through back channel discussions with the Directors Guild while the WGA was on the picket line.
The strike was clearly seen as the brain chid of outgoing president Patric Verrone and WGA’s National Executive Director David Young. Young came out of a traditional blue collar union background and the strike was run in a manner reminiscent of that wing of the labor movement. While popular politically and sustained for more than three months in the heart of winter, many writers expressed disappointment with the modest outcome. The election results putting Wells into the presidency seem to confirm the view that the WGA must turn in another direction.
Over at SAG the presidential results are not in until Thursday night but there are results in three key contested board seats – Philadelphia, Seattle and San Diego. On a recent visit to LA I spoke with a leading SAG activist who thought that one of those seats might be won by Membership First and thus allow the more radical MF slate to regain control of the National Board. That has not turned out to be true with solid victories for non Membership First candidates in all three cities. Results in NY and LA have not yet been announced.
In another possible sign of encouragement for the moderate Unite For Strength faction their presidential candidate Ken Howard won an Emmy on Sunday for his work as a supporting actor in the TV series Grey Gardens. That reinforces the idea that Howard is well known among actors and can carry the presidential race particularly because the more militant side of the membership may split their votes between Anne Marie Johnson, the formal MF candidate, and breakaway candidate Seymour Cassel, a long time MF adherent who is known to be opposed to Ms. Johnson’s candidacy.
The question now is, so if the militants among writers and actors are not the way to go, what is the substantive content behind the change in leadership? On this front much less is known. The problems face by the guilds – technological changes, the economic downturn, a more aggressive management style – are the same as they were in the 2008 negotiations. Both guilds are committed to an early start to the 2011 negotiation round so there is only a year until the process starts all over again.
One way to read the turn to moderation: the membership of both guilds has lost the stomach for a strike in the upcoming round. That does not mean the guilds have lost the strike card, but it will require a thoughtful and savvy leadership to know how to build membership leverage.