Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SAG Email Imbroglio

Yesterday, the Screen Actor’s Guild’s new Interim National Executive Director, David White, sent an email to members, setting a tone of unity and moving forward. It was a very hopeful sign of the new era in place at SAG headquarters. The message was calm, eloquent and forward-looking—in other words, something entirely new from SAG HQ.

Hours later, SAG President Alan Rosenberg sent out his own email to members, and we were reminded yet again how tough the road to a ratified deal will be for SAG, let alone the road to unity. That email reads like a dispatch from an alternate reality, starting as it does with the disingenuous complaint that fired NED Doug Allen was terminated by a written document called an assent rather than in “a face-to-face Board meeting, where the significant minority would have had an opportunity to voice its opinion.” There was a Board meeting, of course, just two weeks ago. Rosenberg presided over it and used 28 hours of procedural abuses to suppress the Board majority whose resulting actions he now complains of.

Rosenberg playing the wounded democrat is peculiar enough, but two paragraphs later he dons clerical garb, and the missive becomes an elegy to Allen, who apparently was so noble that a madding crowd had no choice but to dispatch him: “Doug Allen was fired because he was simply too good, too strong, and too much a unionist.” It’s hard to know whether to criticize language like this or be embarrassed by it. Rosenberg then tells us, Allen “gave us . . . courage” and “we were profoundly moved by his love for and dedication to actors.”

Beatification complete, the email turns to a darker purpose: firing the first shot of the September 2009 campaigns for SAG board and, critically, President. The most stunning—and presumptuous—part of the email is this:

Make no mistake . . . if there is any gain made [in contract negotiations], or if we are ultimately able to resist one of the massive roll backs . . . it will not be due to the skill of this new “negotiating team”. Anything that is won from this point forward will still be the result of the enormously hard work put in by Doug Allen and the [pre-existing] majority of the negotiating team.

In case we were wondering about the Membership First election strategy, there it is: heads I win, tails you lose. In other words: the good aspects of the ultimate deal are to be credited to Rosenberg’s Membership First faction (and to the former NED), and the inevitable compromises are to be hung round the neck of the moderates and set ablaze.

A corollary is that MF will probably oppose ratification of any deal the negotiators arrive at. Indeed, the threshold question is whether Rosenberg and/or SAG 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson, both of whom are members of the new negotiating task force, will try to spike a deal. In any case, a paragraph or two later, the email ends with the obligatory “In unity,” but the phrase seems reflexive at best.

Copies of both emails are below.

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A Message from Interim National Executive Director David White

Dear Screen Actors Guild member,

As I enter my first full day today as your new Interim National Executive Director, I have reflected on a Los Angeles Examiner story from 1937 that once hung on the wall of my Screen Actors Guild office when I served as General Counsel.

The article chronicled the moment when the studios had finally recognized the Guild as the labor representative for actors in the motion picture industry. A grainy photograph captured members celebrating the news together, the joy in their faces richly evident. That moment, and the incredible work that it took Guild members to reach that moment, have served as the foundation for 75 years of history that has followed.

In my previous tenure at the Guild, I worked alongside several elected National Boards, two presidents (current President Rosenberg and former President Melissa Gilbert) and three National Executive Directors. My intention now, as Interim National Executive Director, will be to work with your current National Board to navigate through a period that is brimming with both challenges and opportunities – from completing our TV/Theatrical negotiations; to preparing for and securing a new Commercials contract as well as several other smaller but critically important labor agreements; to repairing relations with our sister unions; and addressing a polarized political system that is perceived by too many of our members as being close to broken. As we confront these efforts together, my overarching goal is this: to help restore your confidence that this is a union where strong and wise decisions are made despite political differences.

The greatest challenge facing this union is to find a way for democratic leadership to flourish – for disagreement and debate to build into unity and power. The Guild’s diversity of opinion should, and must, serve as a source of strength and solidarity. I believe in the Guild’s capacity for this. And that is why today I offer two messages to each and every member: First, I will be at the office each day to work with your talented staff and your National Board to achieve objectives that advance your interests as actors; and, second, it is time to turn the page on the most destructive aspects of the Guild’s internal politics.

In this swiftly changing environment, we will not be successful if we do not work together. This effort will take an entire union – all members, from background actors, to stunt performers, to voice over actors; those working in film television, commercials, industrials and video games; dancers and singers; middle-class actors, to high-profile ones, to struggling artists working each day to break through for their first chance. We must work together. Because if not, the well-known words that a previous leader offered to a once-divided collection of citizens will matter to us now: united we stand; divided we fall.

During this extraordinary period for both our union and country, I am again reminded of the achievement of the Guild’s founders as recounted in that 1937 Los Angeles Examiner story. Their achievement came as a result of a supreme effort by a group of committed performers willing to set aside their differences in pursuit of that shared purpose. The result: they built an organization whose membership card today remains the ultimate benchmark for professional performers. The triumph of the Guild’s founders cannot be overstated – nor can the sacrifice, wisdom and political maturity that was required to achieve it.

I enter this interim role with the grand history of the Screen Actors Guild rooted firmly in my mind. I did not seek this position, but I am honored to act as its temporary custodian. You have my pledge that I will direct all my energies to steadying this historic organization and ensuring its success. I thank the Guild’s National Board for the confidence and trust they have placed in me on your behalf. And I look forward to working together, in solidarity.

David White

Interim National Executive Director

Screen Actors Guild

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Date: Tue, 27 Jan 2009 16:36:33 -0800

To: SAG Members

Subject: A Message from National President Alan Rosenberg

My Fellow Screen Actors Guild Members,

Yesterday, on January 26th, a slim majority of our National Board voted to fire our National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator, Doug Allen. This was not accomplished in a face-to-face Board meeting, where the significant minority would have had an opportunity to voice its opinion and where Mr. Allen would have had a chance to face his accusers and address their concerns. Instead, this drastic action was accomplished by “written assent”, the most undemocratic provision allowed by our Constitution.

As your twice-elected National President, I feel that it is my responsibility to give you my perspective on yesterday’s events, although my ability to do so is somewhat limited. The same majority, 52.52%, that fired Mr. Allen also voted to change our Board policy that designated the National President to be one of the official spokespeople for the Guild. As of yesterday, the only two people who are permitted to officially speak for Screen Actors Guild are our newly appointed interim NED, David White, and John McGuire, our Senior Advisor from New York. The members now have no official voice. I appreciate the fact that Mr. White thinks it is preposterous to silence a duly elected national officer, and so has permitted me this forum, provided I inform you that what I am about to write represents my opinion. However, although I am not writing on behalf of the Guild, I believe I do speak for the nearly 48% percent of the Board who are deeply concerned about what was done yesterday and about how these changes were accomplished.

Many of us believe that Doug Allen was fired because he was simply too good, too strong, and too much a unionist. His greatest sin was in challenging the idea that we be bound by the concept of “pattern bargaining”, under which actors have been disadvantaged for decades. Doug gave us the courage to accept the fact that we had a legal right to pursue an agreement that addressed the specific needs of actors; that it is unreasonable to think that the DGA or WGA, without asking any questions pertaining to actors’ participation in “new media”, could strike a deal that would adequately address the concerns of our 120,000 members and the diverse nature and needs of a membership that includes middle class actors, background actors, stunt performers, singers, dancers and our biggest stars. I, and the majority of our negotiating committee, were amazed by Doug’s skill as a negotiator and team leader, and by his diigence and breadth of knowledge. We were profoundly moved by his love for and dedication to actors.

I have no doubt that, if our Board had demonstrated any solidarity whatsoever, Doug and our committee would have arrived at an acceptable deal some time ago. Instead, members of that Board engaged in a systematic effort to sabotage these negotiations by passing motions that prescribed courses of action, and then repudiating those motions, thereby throwing our leadership into a state of chaos and our membership into a state of confusion. This was done consistently and, I believe, intentionally, so that our progressive leadership would be made to appear inept, which would pave the way towards a return to the go-along-to-get-along days of yore.

Now there is a new lead negotiator in the person of John T. McGuire. Our Negotiating Committee has been replaced by a new, more moderate Task Force. You can expect that not long after this new team enters the Bargaining Room, they will be offered some “plum”, some concession from the AMPTP that was said, heretofore, to be unattainable. This will be given by our employers, not as an act of good will, but as a demonstration of the fact that “reasonableness” will be rewarded, while “militancy” will be punished. Make no mistake, if this should occur, if there is any gain made, or if we are ultimately able to resist one of the massive roll backs that has been demanded, it will not be due to the skill of this new “negotiating team”. Anything that is won from this point forward will still be the result of the enormously hard work put in by Doug Allen and the majority of the negotiating team that has been in place since our W and W caucuses began a year ago this February. I am enormously proud of that team, led by Doug , of which I was a member.

We were able to change the discussion about these existing deals from the obfuscatory claims that they were somehow “groundbreaking” to a sobering dialogue, illuminating just how damaging these new media deals might be to the prospects of a middle class actor’s ability to make a living.

You should know that the ability to get things accomplished by “written assent” was also available to the progressive leadership that held the majority in the Boardroom prior to the most recent election. That Draconian option was never employed, however. Despite what has been said about that majority, they always made democracy their highest priority. They understood that a slim majority of 52% or 53 % gave no one the right to ride roughshod over a significant minority; they understood what the use of such a tactic would do to democracy in our union; they never desired to open that Pandora’s Box. Unfortunately, now it has been opened and precedent has been set. I, and the previous Board majority, have always been willing to compromise on any issue. Compromise is the way things get accomplished in a contentious democracy such as ours. To date, I have not been approached by a single Board member from New York, the RBD, or from the ironically named slate “Unite for Strength”, to try and find common ground on any issue. If these elected officials desire to move forward in any significant way in the name of the members, this behavior must change.

In unity,

Alan Rosenberg

1 comment:

  1. Membership First has opposed virtually every deal that SAG has reached in the last decade, been outvoted most of the time (the exceptions being the ATA franchise renewal and the SAG-AFTRA consolidation), yet has shamelessly taken credit for the "benefits" to SAG members of every deal they opposed.

    At least having the two e-mails in hand will give SAG members a starkly clear choice -- do they want to spend their time in an atmosphere of hope and purpose, as expressed by David White, or an atmosphere of anger and recrimination, as expressed by Alan Rosenberg?

    VG

    ReplyDelete