The Writers Guild of America, West elected John Wells, executive producer of the hit TV shows “ER” and “The West Wing,” to be the union’s new president, in a partial repudiation of the man who led the guild during last year’s strike against the Hollywood studios.
Wells, a past guild president and a powerful figure in the television industry, narrowly defeated Elias Davis by a 53%-to-47% margin, capping an unusually close race to lead one of Hollywood’s most powerful unions. Davis, a former writer for “MASH” and “Frasier” and the union’s secretary-treasurer, was endorsed by outgoing President Patric M. Verrone, who led the union during a 100-day strike that ended last year.
Although Wells backed the writers strike, he criticized outgoing leadership for alienating the Directors Guild of America, waging an unsuccessful campaign to organize workers in the reality TV sector and adopting overly confrontational tactics with the studios. But Wells’ victory was only a partial one for the so-called moderates who supported him. Two of the three top officers voted in ran with Davis: Tom Schulman, who was elected vice president, and David Weiss, who was elected secretary-treasurer.
Davis’ supporters also retain control of the national board, winning a majority of the eight seats up for grabs.
The results could presage a similar outcome in the Screen Actors Guild, where so-called moderates also are seeking to consolidate their power in a challenge to the more hard-line negotiating style of outgoing President Alan Rosenberg, who led the union during a yearlong contract standoff with the studios. Both unions’ contracts expire in the summer of 2011, potentially giving them more clout at the bargaining table during the next round of negotiations.
Wells downplayed the differences with his opponents. “I’m certain that we can all work together effectively,” he said in an interview. “The things that unite us far outnumber the things that we disagree on.”
Davis also sounded a conciliatory note. “Now it’s time to pull together and work to the benefit of us all,” he said in a statement.
An executive producer of “Southland,” Wells was favored to win because of his name recognition and past experience as union president, between 1999 and 2001.
Still, the contest was closer than many had expected, thanks to aggressive campaigning by Davis and his supporters, who portrayed Wells as someone who couldn’t be trusted to stand up for writers because of his ties to studio management.
Supporters countered that Wells’ industry knowledge and experience as a negotiator were assets.
Wells’ campaign may also have been aided by growing unease among the guild’s 8,000 members. Writers have suffered a loss of work and income as a result of the recession -- which has forced studios to make fewer movies and TV shows -- as well as the spread of reality TV and the decline of scripted prime-time shows.