(The Hollywood Reporter) — Writers’ Guild of America West’s new board has wasted no time in firing executive director John McLean and replacing him with one of its allies, organizing director David Young, it was announced Sept. 27.
Less than a week after taking power, the board instigated the leadership change at its first meeting Sept. 26. The move signaled an immediate intent to follow through on campaign promises to aggressively expand jurisdiction in animation, cable, independent film and video games.
“We hit the ground running because we intend to make a difference,” said WGA West president Patric Verrone, whose party swept into power Sept. 20. “We ran on a campaign of organizing the union and, with less than a year on his contract remaining, John [McLean] and we agreed that a clean sweep deserved a fresh start, and so the board decided to put an organizer in charge of our union.”
Board members also voted to hire six additional staffers for its organizing department. More members means more leverage in negotiations, Verrone said, something the union lacked last year when it demanded higher DVD residuals from the studios and networks.
“We believe that union strength comes from an engaged membership and coverage and jurisdiction in the workplace — both of which have atrophied over the past years,” Verrone said.
McLean declined comment.
The vote to fire McLean was 14-1 with 1 abstention; the vote to hire Young was 13-3.
A search committee has been appointed to find a full-time replacement for McLean, who has led the 9,500-member union since 1999. Young is expected to be among the candidates.
“The guild has a bright, capable and hardworking staff. I am deeply honored by the board’s trust and will work hard to fulfill the duties of executive director,” Young said.
Verrone’s group campaigned openly on the need to fight harder in contract talks and organizing but privately shared a desire to replace McLean, sources said. Among other complaints, McLean was accused of not pressing hard enough in negotiations on issues like DVD residuals.
Nonetheless, Verrone said in a statement Sept. 27, “There was great praise and appreciation expressed by the board for John McLean’s dedication and commitment to writers over the last six years.”
Discussions are under way to have McLean continue to play a role in the union. As a result, there was no immediate move to buy out his contract, which was renewed in 2002.
According to a Department of Labor filing, McLean was one of the highest-paid union leaders in the U.S., earning an annual salary of about $470,000 in the year ending March 2004.
Under McLean’s leadership, the union generated budget surpluses in each of the past five years. As of March, the union had $30.8 million in net assets, including more than $11 million in its strike fund and welfare fund.
An 18-year veteran in industrial relations at CBS, McLean was hired by the guild in 1999 because his experience could be an asset in negotiations.
When McLean’s contract was renewed in 2002, the elected leadership praised him for securing “breakthrough provisions” in the 2001 contract, including residual gains from Fox, cable, made-for-pay TV, video-on-demand and the Internet.
McLean again served as chief negotiator in last year’s contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. At his insistence, WGA was the first to make DVDs a priority and, observers say, McLean pressed the issue more than the Screen Actors’ Guild or the Directors’ Guild of America, neither of which were any more successful in getting the AMPTP to budge.
“All I can think is that they’re punishing [McLean] for not getting what nobody else got,” one labor expert said.
WGA settled for a $58 million deal that brought significant gains in health and pension benefits and was approved by members of WGA West and East by a 74% margin.
Still, David Weiss, WGAW’s new VP, and several other negotiators quit in protest over the DVD issue. They formed a new party, Writers United, that Verrone led to victory.
The election sweep came days after a similar victory by like-minded writers at WGA East and was followed by the overwhelming victory of the SAG faction that also intends to take a more aggressive stance in negotiations and organizing. Altogether, the election-season upheaval at these unions has put Hollywood on edge as SAG and WGA intend to be more confrontational on issues like DVD residuals.
Verrone and WGA East president Chris Albers also hope to end the feuding between their unions, a conflict over more than $1 million in annual dues money that has sparked lawsuits and countersuits. The matter is currently being addressed in settlement talks and members in the West have even floated the idea of merging the unions.
Since taking office, Verrone has also vowed to strengthen WGA’s ties to Hollywood’s other guilds.
WGA has had a tense relationship with the DGA over possessory credits. The two unions have been fighting over it since 1966, and just five years ago WGA was still trying to get the credit eliminated during its contract talks.
DGA sought to resolve the conflict last year by offering concessions and guidelines to help studios award the credit. Then-WGAW president Charles Holland welcomed an opportunity to take “a fresh look at this troublesome issue.”
Young was named director of organizing in July 2004.
He has since led WGAW’s most recent and ambitious organizing effort, one seeking to bring reality TV writers and editors under guild jurisdiction.
The organizing effort got under way in May, when about 1,000 story producers signed authorization cards requesting that WGAW be their bargaining agent. More lawsuits have been threatened, but none of the targeted production companies have agreed to negotiate. So far, two lawsuits have been filed against networks and production companies for alleged violations of California labor law.
A career labor activist, Young organized construction workers as assistant director at the Laborers’ California Organizing Fund. Before that, he was a supervisor of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Southern California Construction Organizing Project and an assistant national director of organizing for the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
The search committee for a new executive director will include Verrone, newly elected VP Weiss and secretary-treasurer Elias Davis as well as board members Craig Mazin, Phil Robinson and four members at large.