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Writers become fighters in bicoastal guild battle

As usual, Hollywood's writers are spinning tales of greed, power and ego. Only this time, they're talking about each other.

The Writers Guild of America, the last union to shut Hollywood down when it struck for 22 weeks back in 1988, is locked in a series of bitter internal feuds, with tensions boiling over last week when writers in the East torpedoed a contract their Western counterparts had just approved, albeit amid strong internal opposition.It's a wonder any script writing got done late last week, with letters alleging election shenanigans, power grabs and potential lawsuits seemingly clogging the fax machines of every writer in town.

The two sides of the argument boil down to this: One believes that leaders of screen and TV writers in the West, who effectively ride herd during negotiations because they represent a lot more writers, have deftly leveraged the threat of a strike and used a more cooperative negotiating posture to squeeze good contracts out of producers and TV networks the past nine years without a single picket line being set up.

Leading that faction is executive director Brian Walton, a London-born lawyer who serves as chief negotiator for the guild and who argues that the negotiating tactics, although not foolproof, have worked better than more traditional, confrontational approach. Forget about the 11th-hour brinkmanship that often characterizes labor disputes because you can get more out of the studios and networks when you treat them as partners.

"The guild is not solely an army whose task is to march on the castle at the top of the hill," Walton says. "In the past, it has been necessary to have that army and to make that march. But now we have had nine years of uninterrupted labor peace, and progress - insufficient progress - but progress."

The flip argument is that a lot of the 10,000 writers nationwide are getting shafted in the booming cable and foreign TV market because Walton and other union leaders have been too cozy with producers since 1988. They wonder what good is a union if it doesn't seem to have the stomach to mix it up with producers every so often.

Critics cite a clause in the current agreement that effectively tables until a later date the issues of cable and foreign residuals.

"If you can't get residuals negotiated when you have a real deadline, it certainly is going to be impossible to negotiate when the guild can exert even less pressure. What kind of negotiating is going to go on in a meeting when you have less leverage?" said Mona Mangan, executive director of the Eastern group.

As the tension has grown, the arguments have gotten personal. Critics say the leaders of the West are inflexible and monolithic, more interested in preserving their power within the union than in getting the best deal.

"This guild is being smashed on the anvil of Brian's vanity," says prominent writer Larry Gelbart, a dissident member of the Western faction. He refers to the union sarcastically as "Walton's Guild of America."

Walton replies that he's only out to get the best deal for writers. And, he notes, such criticism ignores a number of other issues he works on for writers, such as fighting the proposed Los Angeles home business tax, working on copyright issues, helping restore credits for blacklisted writers from the 1950s and working to get rid of "vanity credits" where directors proclaim that a movie is "A film by" them.

What no one disputes is that the guild is now facing what may be its biggest internal crisis ever.

"There are a lot of worst-case scenarios, and I would have to say that we're in one right now," said "Beverly Hills Cop" screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr., newly elected president of the guild's Western group.

Last week, Western leaders, in a move that shocked members and labor experts, decided to go it alone without their Eastern colleagues. The Western leaders will resubmit essentially the same contract to their members and leave the East to fend for itself.

The Eastern and Western factions are separate guilds, but they historically join at the hip when it comes to negotiating and ratifying new contracts. In a letter to members, Petrie said the decision was difficult but necessary if the West guild's leaders are to look after the well-being of its own writers.

Gelbart calls the action a "Draconian, Nixonian move." Members of the Eastern wing argue thang business with an uncertain future, writers get 2 percent of the price a show is sold for to a cable channel. Making matters worse is the era of "vertical integration," where lots of studios own cable channels that they sell their shows to in what amounts to taking money out of one pocket and putting it into another.

In the booming foreign TV market, it's even worse. A writer would get 35 percent of that $8,300 over the first three reruns and nothing after that. With foreign broadcast, satellite and cable exploding, U.S. shows are being increasingly used to fill programming slots.