SAG-AFTRA Elections: Discontent Roils Challengers as Vote Heads to the Wire (Analysis)

A host of grievances is powering a challenge to one faction’s six-year leadership of the union. But is the past prologue?

With the deadline for voting in the SAG-AFTRA elections approaching — ballots for L.A., New York and national offices have to be received by mail Thursday morning — an outside observer would be forgiven for not understanding the fuss.

The SAG-AFTRA elections matter, because the result could ultimately be a union set on a confrontation course — but will that happen?

In truth, whether the election will be “unusually close,” as the Los Angeles Times recently asserted, is unknown, since no one’s done any polling and the newspaper offered no support for its claim. But what is clear is that the election is contentious. To understand why requires some backstory.

“Do loose clips sink ships? Apparently the actors think so,” this reporter wrote seven years ago, in a Los Angeles Business Journal explainer that explored the Screen Actors Guild’s seemingly scattershot objections to a contract proposal that the town’s other unions had signed off on. As SAG’s main contract slipped toward expiration in an echo of the Writers Guild strike that had ended only months earlier — and as the national economy collapsed into recession — the union threw itself into an acid bath of infighting, hurtling along on a “denigration express” of name-calling and fear-mongering, filibusters and lawsuits as contract after contract simply expired, landing in what could only have been the SAG contract graveyard.

As SAG staggered, AFTRA prospered. With overlapping jurisdiction in television, and 44,000 dual cardholders — members of both unions — the rival union became the go-to choice for television producers even though its contract rates were 3.5 percent higher than SAG’s, a result of AFTRA reaching agreement with the AMPTP studio alliance while SAG stalemated.

That chaos took place when the union was under the control of a faction called Membership First, but the membership itself eventually had second thoughts about MF, which had come to power in 2005. The faction narrowly lost its board majority in fall 2008 to a rival, Unite for Strength, which favored resumption of contract talks and merger with AFTRA, but despite the loss MF was effectively in control for many more months. UFS wrested control in 2009, installing David White in January as national executive director (the top paid staff position), fighting off a lawsuit from the guild’s own MF-aligned president, signing a new-media deal with the studios after a yearlong stalemate and achieving the election of Ken Howard as president in the fall.

By 2012, UFS had led SAG to merger with AFTRA, which the SAG membership approved by an overwhelming vote, 82 to 18 percent. The AFTRA approval rate was even higher, 86 to 14 percent, and even in Los Angeles, merger was approved by 78 to 22 percent, a rout for the L.A.-based Membership First. “Message f—kin’ delivered,” said one former AFTRA leader at the time.

But what might have appeared to be a done deal in 2012 has reemerged as unfinished business as SAG-AFTRA holds its 2015 elections. After weak performance in the last several rounds, MF is back in force, with a nearly complete slate of national board candidates in Los Angeles (18 MF aspirants for 19 seats; UFS is running a complete slate) and a full set of grievances.

The MF ticket is topped by Home Improvement’s Patricia Richardson, facing off against UFS’ Howard, who has been president since his first election in 2009 and who’s also known as "The White Shadow" after his starring role in a TV show of the same name. Noting those TV credits isn’t merely editorial adornment: the SAG-AFTRA election is in part a popularity contest, with fame, credits and good looks as the currency. Both MF and UFS tout their endorsements.

Real issues are in play though, and among the ones churning up controversy are the following:

* Merger. Some MF stalwarts mourn the “death” of SAG, and many ridicule UFS’ belief that merging the two unions strengthened them. Said MF leader David Jolliffe in his campaign statement, “We’ve been merged for over 3 years.… Where’s all this new extra power? It’s all been one huge disappointment.”

Some speculate that MF would even like to unwind merger, by expelling broadcasters and sound recording artists into their own union — an AFTRA-lite without non-news television jurisdiction — and keeping only performers in SAG-AFTRA, which would likely be renamed SAG once again. But for now that dream — that the once and future guild will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes, forged in fire to a supreme strength and luster — is an agenda item that goes unspoken (if it is one at all), because to regain control of the union MF needs to cultivate the support of discontented former AFTRA-ites in regions outside of Los Angeles and New York.

* Closed Offices. In that vein, MF has focused on what some of those hinterland SAG-AFTRA members are most angered at, which is the union’s decision in 2013 to close 10 of its 25 regional offices. The union defended the move as a necessary cost-saving measure.

* Residuals. Virtually every above-the-line strike in the 80-year history of the guilds has been about residuals, and the fear that residuals are evaporating remains a potent theme. “I've watched the erosion of residuals, the give aways by our negotiators, the buy outs, the new mediums that we haven't gotten our fair share of,” said Richardson in her statement.

But whether Richardson’s assertions are true is hard to judge. SAG-AFTRA says residuals have grown in aggregate to about $1 billion per year, but the union doesn’t release breakdowns or exact figures. The WGA West does, however, and given the similarities in certain residuals formulas across guilds and the fact that virtually all scripted movies and television programs are shot with union actors, the WGAW figures are illustrative: From 2008 to 2014, theatrical residuals in the WGA were essentially unchanged, while television residuals grew by more than 60 percent, according to the guild’s 2015 and 2014 annual reports. The SAG-AFTRA growth rates are likely to be similar.

Notably, in the WGA, network primetime residuals were down about 5 percent, but new media residuals grew by over 1,000 percent, and actually exceeded network primetime residuals for the first time in 2014.

UFS also adds that it has sped up residuals processing time and achieved residuals for high-budget new media programs. Those high budget SVOD residuals are probably more attributable to the DGA, however, since its negotiations happened first in the 2014 cycle and set the pattern for the other unions.

* Pension and Health. Another flash point for MF remains the union-affiliated pension and health plans, which continue to exist as two separate organizations, one formerly affiliated with SAG, the other with AFTRA, and both controlled by boards of trustees that are equally divided between management and labor. The split SAG/AFTRA structure makes it harder for members to qualify for health insurance or pensions, since their earnings — which must meet certain thresholds to qualify for the SAG- or AFTRA-affiliated benefits — are still generally counted in two separate silos, corresponding to the two legacy unions.

There has been movement: As of 2014, earnings can sometimes be aggregated under the rubric of “reciprocity” or “combined earnings eligibility” for purposes of health insurance qualification, and last month, union national executive director David White said that there had been “significant progress” toward merging the health plans. MF partisans scoff at that statement and assert that it’s simply election-time propaganda.

There’s no doubt that combining the health plans has been a slow process. Whether the fault lies with the management trustees or the labor side is impossible to tell, and some of the delay was probably due to the need to concurrently deal with the introduction of Obamacare. But as slow as the health plan merger has been, the task of combining or otherwise restructuring the pension plans is expected to be even more difficult, given their greater fiscal complexity. Members are understandably frustrated.

* Contracts. MF contends that UFS has negotiated bad deals, while UFS counters that it hasn’t. But who’s to say? A negotiation is not a shopping spree; you don’t get everything you want, and everyone inevitably goes home muttering what-if’s. With labor generally weaker than it was 40 years ago, and with television viewership patterns fracturing (and hence disrupting residuals), judging a Hollywood labor contract as “good” or “bad” is something of a fool’s errand.

In addition, because so much of the key areas of the contract are driven by the practice of pattern bargaining, and because the DGA usually goes first and sets the pattern for such areas as wage increases and residuals, it’s hard for any SAG-AFTRA leadership to achieve something different, as MF discovered when it derailed negotiations in 2008 without a viable backup plan. In any case, though, the guilds work together behind the scenes, and each sends observers to the others’ negotiations, so credit (or blame) in fairness should probably be shared.

As evidence that the 2014 studio deal was a bad one for the union, MF cites a studio labor vp’s email to her boss, asserting that “Sony fared very well in these negotiations,” but that Wikileaked missive is rather thin gruel: would anyone have expected the vp to say in an email, “I did a poor job and got Sony a bad deal?" It’s ironic, too, that MF castigates its opponents for being too soft on Management, then cites a Management email as evidence of this.

Also noteworthy: MF omits mention of an email in which an AMPTP publicist said, “The good news is that our offer is consistent with the other two [DGA and WGA] deals, both of which were overwhelmingly ratified because they contained significant gains (increases in wages, benefit contributions, Internet streaming residuals and more). We have also worked hard to help SAG-AFTRA achieve its top priority of merging the separate television contracts.”

* TV Rates. Merging those contracts came with a price, MF complains: new TV shows will be paid at the lower SAG rates, rather than the slightly higher AFTRA rates. But what goes unmentioned is that the reason SAG rates are lower is that SAG stalemated its contract negotiations for months while under MF control back in 2008. And was there any chance that the AMPTP would reward the union for the stalemated 2008 talks by increasing contract rates? Not really.

* Background Actors. When SAG absorbed the jurisdiction of the Screen Extras Guild in 1992, the union created an interest group that numbers in the tens of thousands (exactly how many is unknown, as SAG-AFTRA doesn’t release figures). Appealing to those members has always been part of MF’s strategy, and the dynamic is naturally one of discontent. That’s because most extras, or more formally “background actors,” are herded like cattle, paid like paupers and denied the artistic and career success that principal performers come somewhat closer to attaining. Unsatisfied and by their lights underpaid, background actors are SAG-AFTRA’s angry working class. But in a world where crowds of extras are often replaced by computer-generated imagery, it seems unlikely that anyone’s promises to background performers will stop the erosion of their work.

* Boardroom Dynamics. MF also argues that the SAG-AFTRA boardroom engages in groupthink and party-line politics — which were some of the same criticisms leveled at MF, of course. It’s hard to know without actually attending board and committee meetings — but it is true that SAG-AFTRA has not generally been any more fiscally transparent under UFS than it was under MF.

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Email: jh@jhandel.com

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