Friday, September 5, 2008

Can SAG Keep a Secret?

I don’t mind bar codes, at least when they’re on books, boxes, and bags of sugar. When I find them on ballots, though, I get more nervous. That turns out to be a legitimate concern in the case of SAG, which sent out a 12-page mailing a few days ago assailing the studios’ proposed deal, accompanied by a bar-coded postcard asking SAG members whether the Guild should keep fighting for a better contract or accept what the studios were offering. Now it seems the bar code may compromise Guild members’ confidentiality.

Let’s leave aside the fact that this survey is a push poll – a poll designed to influence opinion rather than simply record it. Leave aside, also, the fact that this mailer, paid for by union funds, comes in the middle of the Guild’s annual elections, and echoes the platform of the dominant faction, Membership First, which has 33 candidates on the Hollywood Division ballot: in other words, the mailer is close to being a piece of campaign literature paid for out of the union kitty.

Instead, look at the bar-coded postcard. As recounted in an anonymous SAGwatch posting (also discussed on Blog Stage and Vallywood (and here)), SAG National Director of Governance Michelle Bennett allegedly told a SAG member that “authorized staff members” at SAG could have access to a record of how each member voted (which is trackable because of the bar code).

If true, that’s not a confidential vote, despite language on the postcard that claims this to be the case. And the lack of confidentiality will no doubt leave some Guild members uneasy about voting – particularly in light of the highly partisan nature of the elections. Considering that Membership First controls the union, the dissenters – those who believe it’s time to get a deal done – may be hesitant to cast votes. That’s plain wrong: No member should have to fear his or her own union. The integrity of voting – even if only advisory voting – should be maintained.

I spoke with SAG about these anonymously-sourced allegations. The Guild told me the bar codes are necessary so that the independent company receiving and tabulating the postcards could verify that no member voted multiple times. Fair enough, I said, but would in fact a staff member such as the National Executive Director be able to get a list of who voted how … and if so, why should he be able to get such a list? SAG said they’d get back to me by the end of the day, but never did.

What to do? For one thing, the Guild and the independent tabulating company need to agree publicly, and in writing, that individual member voting information will not be made available to any SAG staff, even the National Executive Director, nor to any officer or Board member. They have no legitimate interest in it.

Second, the Guild needs to commit to publicly release all results from the survey – not just the overall percentages yea and nay, but also the absolute numbers (the turnout), with all figures broken down by Division (Hollywood, NY, or Regional) as well. SAG declined to commit to this transparency when I asked.

Finally, members who are concerned should contact SAG. Judging from the SAGwatch posting, the appropriate person may be Michelle Bennett, SAG’s National Director of Governance. Her number, according to the SAG website, is 323-549-6094. Perhaps if enough members call, SAG will assure true confidentiality, and transparency, for the survey vote. If you do talk to her or any other SAG staff, send me an email (jhandel (at) att (dot) net) or leave a comment here (anonymously if you wish), so that we all can know what position SAG is taking on this.


  1. Doug Allen's letter to board members today confirms what I posted at the Sagwatch site, following my conversation with Michelle Bennett -- namely, that SAG will receive complete details of who voted and how they voted, thanks to the bar coding.

    Allen simply crosses his heart and swears that the information will never be misused. Of course, he does indicate that the board could change his marching orders to the staff.

    It never occurred to me that SAG would be so ethically challenged as to trick people into sending these cards on a promise of confidentiality, then turn around and break that confidentiality in order to extract who voted and how.


  2. Well, it has become obvoius that SAG is simply going to blow this off and essentially tell the members to "like it or lump it."

    The SAG board needs to step in. Two specific measures:

    1. The board needs to order the destruction of any personally identifiable information in SAG's possession that was collected from this poll, and witness the destruction in such a way as to provide some assurance that it was actually done.

    2. The board needs to enact a clearly worded policy forbidding this kind of unannounced data collection in the future.