Secrets of the SAG-AFTRA Convention (Exclusive)

11:03 AM PST 09/30/2013 by Jonathan Handel
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Gabrielle Carteris, newly elected SAG-AFTRA executive vp

UPDATED: THR goes behind closed doors for a look at the hardball politics of the union’s first national convention.

Forget about the speakers and the panels. What really happened at the SAG-AFTRA convention, which concluded Sunday?

Here’s what sources revealed to The Hollywood Reporter: politicking, horse trading and backroom deals.

The big-ticket item was the election of executive vice president, the union’s second-highest office. Beverly Hills, 90210 actor and veteran AFTRA activist Gabrielle Carteris from Los Angeles beat New York’s Mike Hodge, a veteran SAG activist, by a three-to-one ratio (66.5 percent to 23.2 percent). Even some of her opponents concede that she gave a more impassioned campaign speech at the convention than Hodge did.

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Carteris also was helped by a last-minute rule change – of uncertain origin – that allowed delegates to cede their speaking time to her. Her supporters were ready and able to use the rule change, while Hodge’s apparently were not.

But according to numerous sources, Carteris’ other advantage was a deal she allegedly made with a formerly bitter rival, the Membership First (MF) party. That group had opposed the merger of SAG and AFTRA – in contrast to the now-fractured Unite for Strength (UFS), which was built on a platform with one plank: merger. It’s as if the Hatfields and some of the McCoys sat down together to outfox other McCoys.

The deal, according to numerous knowledgeable sources (although denied by one knowledgeable source), was that MF members would vote for Carteris in return for Carteris appointing longtime MF activist David Jolliffe to a national board seat. MF did run its own candidate for executive vp, Jane Austin, but sources said that that was for appearance’s sake only and that most MF votes went to Carteris. Another source denied that, asserting that MF’s total votes closely matched Austin’s 10.3 percent share of the vote. It’s hard to verify either way, because SAG-AFTRA uses a weighted voting system that makes it difficult to determine how many delegates voted for each candidate.

A different source said the deal was not that MF delegates would vote for Carteris, but rather that they wouldn’t vote for Hodge. In any case, MF is now in at least a de facto coalition with Carteris and her supporters.

UPDATE: After this article appeared, MF activists and Carteris flatly denied that any deal had been made.

Jolliffe, who has repeatedly run for national board, often but not always unsuccessfully, is a polarizing figure. On the one hand, he’s a key leader of MF, which tried to deleverage AFTRA and take SAG out on strike in 2008-09 and succeeded only in harming the union so gravely that a merger with AFTRA became almost inevitable (it passed by a huge margin). But on the other hand, even some of his UFS opponents – and a studio official speaking on background with THR – agree that he’s extremely well-informed about the various SAG-AFTRA contracts and has played a constructive role during contract negotiations. He won a local board seat in the most recent election, last month.

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Also part of the asserted deal was an agreement that MF support Robert Newman for the union’s designated vp slot for actors. He had run unsuccessfully against Hodge for the designated New York vp slot and is a member of the New York Coalition 4 Unity (NYC4U), a group led by former AFTRA president Roberta Reardon. Hodge, in contrast, leads the Unite SAG-AFTRA Nationwide (USAN) party, a New York group despite its name.

The two other categorical vp slots, for broadcasters and for sound recording artists, were also filled by legacy AFTRA members, and two of the four geographic vp slots were designated for, and went to, the AFTRA-oriented midsize and small locals. Only the Los Angeles and New York vp slots went to former SAG activists.

Carteris and Jolliffe did not respond to requests for comment, and it was not possible to reach Newman.

The split in UFS that triggered these machinations began with discontent within UFS, aimed at UFS co-leader and SAG-AFTRA secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino, whom some UFS members viewed as running the group with a heavy hand. The spark that lit the tinder was a decision by the other co-leader, the union’s then executive vice president Ned Vaughn, to resign and run for California state assembly.

Aquino then urged union president Ken Howard, a UFS leader, to endorse Reardon for the executive vp position. From the outside, that may appear to be a no-brainer, since Howard and Reardon had worked together as co-presidents of SAG-AFTRA for the first 16 months after the March 2012 merger.

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But Howard, according to sources, had grown increasingly wary of Reardon, in part because of audit reports disclosing a dramatic lack of financial controls within AFTRA, which Reardon had led prior to the merger. Those reports revealed that AFTRA was plagued with financial issues, including thousands of non-paying members on the books, accounting errors and omissions, and “boxes and boxes” of expired studio residuals checks. (No fraud or illegal acts were alleged.)

So Howard refused to endorse Reardon, who then said she planned to run anyway. Indeed, it may be that one reason AFTRA had insisted during merger negotiations on creating an executive vp slot was so that Reardon would have a soft landing after the co-president positions transitioned to the single president format that now exists. However, Reardon’s plans evaporated in the wake of a THR article that detailed the contents of the confidential audit reports. Instead, Carteris ran with Reardon’s endorsement.

Now the union’s once-dominant UFS party has effectively split into two groups, each aligned with different partners. One coalition consists of Howard, New York’s USAN (led by Hodge), portions of UFS, and various other board members. Emerging as its leaders are Los Angeles local president Clyde Kusatsu, William Charlton (a national board member appointed by Howard) and Assaf Cohen (a national board member appointed by Kusatsu), as well as Hodge.

The other group is composed of Aquino, Carteris, MF (led by Jolliffe and Anne-Marie Johnson), Reardon’s NYC4U (heavily composed of former AFTRA members), portions of UFS, and various other board members. It’s an ironic coalition, since MF was virulently anti-AFTRA for years prior to the merger and warned darkly that the merger would result in the takeover of SAG by what one MF partisan called “a scumbag union.” Now, by throwing in its lot with an AFTRA-centric coalition, MF may have brought about exactly the outcome it once feared – but has also restored itself to a place of power after having been out in the cold for four years.

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The Aquino-NYC4U-AFTRA-MF coalition also has the support of many of the locals outside Los Angeles and New York, another key component of Carteris’ victory. They saw Carteris as more sensitive to the locals’ desire for local autonomy, a model that AFTRA followed (and that led to many of the financial issues identified in the audits). Their discontent was stoked by the union’s decision earlier this year to close 10 of its 25 local offices.

The involvement of the regional locals underscores the incongruity of MF’s involvement, since MF has often insisted that the only truly professional actors were those who live in Los Angeles or perhaps New York. AFTRA, they jeered, was merely a “hobbyists’ union,” populated with people who primarily worked day jobs outside the industry. Of course, that was really the pot calling the kettle black, since SAG too was filled with members who scarcely worked as actors, even if most of them lived in Los Angeles or New York.

In contrast to the union’s new elected leadership, the top paid staff are primarily SAG veterans. Whether that will lead to tensions with the officers and board remains to be seen. In any case, the union president, Howard, now finds himself with most key national officers who are leaders of the opposite party.

It’s a situation that isolates Howard, especially since Carteris might choose to use the executive vp position as a launching pad to campaign over the next two years for the union presidency. If elected, she might well support Reardon for executive vp, helping the latter achieve the position she lost out on this time.

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Meanwhile, how all this will affect the TV/theatrical contract negotiations this spring remains to be seen. Those negotiations are bound to be difficult for a range of reasons, and the presence once again of the hardline Membership First as part of the union leadership might give the studios a bit of a shiver. After all, even when the game is inside baseball, the ball sometimes flies out of the stadium.

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E-mail: jhandel99 at gmail dot com

Twitter: @jhandel

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