Ex-WGA Chief Patric Verrone Likely to Face Strike Questions in State Senate Run (Analysis)

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The union leader is running on a jobs platform -- but did the strike he called save jobs or kill them?

WGA board member Patric Verrone, who as union president led the guild through a tumultuous 2007-08 strike, is running for state Senate in California's 26th district, he said in a fundraising letter Saturday. He faces five other candidates in the June 3 primary, but his biggest opponent may be his signature accomplishment -- the WGA strike -- whose effect remains hotly debated.

Verrone, an Emmy-winning writer on late-night shows and animation programs including Futurama, is also a lawyer admitted to practice in California and Florida. His bio and ballot statement, which the campaign supplied to The Hollywood Reporter, do not list any prior political or elective experience other than his union background.

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“I'm tired of seeing Hollywood jobs leaving Hollywood,” Verrone said in an exclusive statement to THR. “As Hollywood production goes, so goes tourism. And Silicon Beach and the aerospace industry are next. Hollywood needs a voice in Sacramento. Knowledge workers need a voice in Sacramento. The SoCal middle class needs a voice in Sacramento.”

The district (map; interactive map) runs on the coastline starting in Palos Verdes through Pacific Palisades and includes Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and part of Hollywood.

The other candidates are a mix that includes present and current elected officials: Santa Monica school board member Ben Allen, former corporate and nonprofit lawyer Barbi Appelquist, former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke and Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth. They’re running to replace incumbent Ted Lieu, who is running for the Congressional seat vacated by longtime Rep. Henry Waxman. All are reportedly Democrats, as is Verrone. The filing deadline has passed, a Verrone campaign official told THR, but there could be additional candidates, since the official list has not yet been released.

Verrone is running on a jobs platform, which flows from his union experience. “As a state senator, preserving and creating quality jobs that strengthen the middle class will still matter most to me,” Verrone said in the fundraising letter. “Better schools, affordable colleges and high-wage industries will allow us to prosper, protect the environment, make our streets safer and serve our senior citizens.”

The needs of middle-class writers were Verrone’s concern when he took the union out on strike in 2007 for residuals in new media. That strike looms large in Verrone’s record – in his telling, as a positive. “As president of the Writers Guild of America, West, I fought for what matters, led a struggle to save thousands of good jobs, and won,” his letter says.

But the strike remains controversial even within the WGA, because union members allegedly lost more in film and TV wages than they will earn from new media for a long time, and because the studios used the strike (and the 2008-09 recession) as an opportunity to reset industry dealmaking and hiring practices for writers. Many writer-producer deals were canceled, and feature deals now often include fewer writing steps (and thus less money) than before, among other changes.

On the flip side, though, strike supporters contend that Verrone had little choice but to call a strike, confronting as he did a studio bargaining proposal that offered only a study of new media residuals even as the field was poised to explode. Perhaps worse, the studio package would have turned even existing residuals into a form of net profits, which would have been a devastating loss for Hollywood talent.

Residuals, despite a name that sounds akin to leftovers, are actually the lifeblood of many writers, actors, directors and even some musicians. WGA figures for 2012 show residuals making up over one-third of writers’ income. SAG released similar figures several years ago (the latest available), and the IATSE pension and health fund is also heavily dependent on residuals. They amount in total to roughly $2 billion per year (not including residuals for commercials, which are paid by the ad industry, not Hollywood).

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Ironically, it was the DGA, not WGA, that made a deal with the studios in January 2008, even while the writers remained out on strike. The next month, the WGA reached an agreement with the studios that largely mirrored the DGA’s. Even so, strike supporters assert that the DGA’s deal was at least enhanced by the pressure resulting from the WGA walkout.

Verrone lost a bid for a new term as president in 2011 but won a seat on the board in 2013, probably a reflection of the membership’s mixed feelings about the strike.

Outside of the WGA, there may be less support for the strike. SAG-AFTRA members are conflicted about the quality of the deal that was reached (SAG delayed reaching a similar deal for almost a year). Meanwhile, IATSE members (as opposed to their P&H fund) don’t get residuals, and neither do the general public, of course. Those groups felt only the downside of the strike – an impact measured at over $2 billion in lost economic activity and 37,700 lost jobs, according to a Milken Institute study.

At the end of the day, there may be no easy answers. A union leader’s job is to protect the members, and his sharpest weapon is a strike. Perhaps both management and labor are to blame for the strike; or perhaps there would never have been a deal without one. Partisans will differ, and with public support for unions at an ebb, Verrone is embarking on a rough road.

Still, he’s not the only Hollywood union leader tempted recently by public office. In August, SAG-AFTRA’s then executive vp Ned Vaughn resigned to run as a Republican for a South Bay state assembly seat. He abandoned that campaign in October. In the more distant past, of course, SAG president Ronald Reagan ran and won the California governorship, and later the U.S. presidency – and turned into an implacable union foe.

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Email: jhandel99@gmail.com

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