SAG-AFTRA Leaders Gabrielle Carteris, David White Talk Diversity Issues, Reflect on Industry in Transition
In an unusual joint interview, the union’s top elected and appointed officials talk with THR about serving a diverse membership across a range of contracts and activities.
The five months since former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Gabrielle Carteris became SAG-AFTRA president have been a busy time for her, but the same could be said of the seven-plus years that David White has been national executive director of the union and its predecessor, SAG. With 160,000 members, numerous contracts that are seemingly always just-renewed or about to expire, an industry in transition and unending volleys of demands from members, producers, political factions and others, it could scarcely be otherwise.
Like the other key above-the-line guilds, the performers union is led at the top by an unpaid elected official, the president, and an appointed official, the national executive director. Both Carteris and White assumed their roles at times of sudden transition: Carteris on the death of longtime SAG-AFTRA and SAG president Ken Howard, and White upon the ouster of prior national executive director Doug Allen at a time when SAG was in turmoil. They sat down last week with The Hollywood Reporter for an unusual joint interview.
“I’m a person of service,” said Carteris by way of beginning. “That’s who I am. I’m glad to be able to support the members.”
“Ken was a great leader and a friend,” she added. Since his death, Carteris said, “I’ve been traveling across the country and engaging with members.”
She described her agenda in terms that would be familiar on the national campaign trail.
“I’m looking at equity for all members. I’ve been in D.C. several times since Ken passed,” said Carteris, including for a meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, to which she was recently appointed, “talking about equity for everyone: gender, ability, age, ethnicity, pay — inclusion.”
And not just in Washington: Carteris testified in Sacramento at the end of June on a bill that prohibits certain databases, notably IMDb, from disclosing actor’s ages, a factor that advocates say facilitates age discrimination. The bill, which originated in the Assembly, passed the Senate this week and is returning to the Assembly before likely heading to Gov. Jerry Brown. He hasn’t signaled whether he will sign it.
“There’s a receptiveness to these issues,” said Carteris. “We’re working across the board with labor and industry leaders. My interest is to support our entire diverse membership.”
Another segment facing differential treatment is Spanish speaking actors. SAG-AFTRA is attempting to unionize employers such as Telemundo, which is not a union signatory even though its Comcast siblings NBC and Universal are.
“It’s a double standard,” said Carteris. Organizing Telemundo “is hard but it’s right.”
“We are working through a long-term plan to protect Spanish-speaking performers,” said White. “I am optimistic that, in the end, Telemundo will do the right thing.”
“We are laser-focused,” added Carteris. “We never want to see anyone go in front of the camera or behind the mic without union protection.” Other recent initiatives have included efforts on behalf of videogame voice actors, a three-year renewal of the massive commercials deal and facilitating the merger of the legacy SAG and AFTRA health plans.
But even with union protections, today’s environment is challenging for all actors.
“There are a number of dramatic changes in the industry including new viewer consumption patterns, distribution models and oppressive production demands on performers,” said White. “What does all of this, as well as the increased expectation for product on demand, mean for our members’ work environment?”
Said Carteris simply, “The paradigm has changed.”
White added that industry changes were under review.
“We are really active in research,” said Carteris, alluding to the work of the union’s economics department and others. “Our engagement with members and understanding of the research informs us.”
Those touch points will be especially important as SAG-AFTRA prepares for negotiations. Its master TV/theatrical contract expires the middle of next year, as do the WGA and DGA contracts.
White and Carteris declined to speak about negotiations, except to offer a couple of notes regarding scheduling. Their union’s formalized information-gathering meetings with members — the so-called Wages & Working Conditions process — will run from October through early December.
In addition, White stated that it has not yet been determined in what order the three unions would negotiate with the AMPTP, the organization representing the studios.
Although White wouldn’t complete the dots, in the last decade, the DGA has usually gone first, and it is understood to prefer to negotiate in the fall, well in advance of mid-year contract expiration. With W&W scheduled to wrap up in early December — followed by a month of industry vacations — it seems likely that the DGA will once again go first.
Whenever the negotiations happen, Carteris as likely chair of the negotiating committee and White as chief negotiator will be busy. White’s most recent reported annual compensation was $630,090, while Carteris will have to juggle her uncompensated union commitments with her day job: She did 10 episodes of Code Black not long ago and is waiting to hear on TV and new media projects.
“She’s made it look easy,” says White, but “the amount of time she spends away from family and on listening tours is staggering.”
Said Carteris of White: “I think he’s amazing, a true inspiration. He has the ability to hear the concerns of the members and motivate employees.”
Their relationship, she added, “is a great synergy.”