Accusations flying ahead of SAG elections

Unprecedented 84 candidates vying for 11 seats

If this past week is any indication of what's to come with the SAG national board elections, get ready for a lot of back-and-forth rhetoric and AFTRA-bashing/defending by the two factions fighting for control.

SAG mailed out ballots to members Tuesday. An unprecedented 84 candidates are vying for 11 seats on the national board, along with 22 alternates. Votes are due Sept. 18.

While there are some independents, the majority of candidates are split between two factions of the union: MembershipFirst, which controls the majority of the board, and Unite for Strength, which formed in the wake of the union's anti-AFTRA campaign and current stalled contract negotiations.

And already the accusations are flying, most recently with a four-page mailer from MembershipFirst that some members received Friday, which warned that if members vote for the UFS slate, it will end SAG as they know it.

The mailer not only speaks out against UFS but also AFTRA, which ended its 27-year joint bargaining agreement with SAG and negotiated its own primetime/TV contract that has since been ratified.

According to MembershipFirst, UFS wants to merge AFTRA and SAG and create an entirely new actors union. The group warns that if that happens, members will be subjected to AFTRA's contract parameters, which it claims include giving up residuals for new media.

In the meantime, UFS earlier in the week issued a press release clarifying the position of its slate of candidates on what's known as "affected or qualified member voting."

The idea is that only members earning a certain amount of money under a certain contract get to vote on whether to ratify a contract or in elections and strike authorizations.

In response to what it said were claims made by MembershipFirst that UFS wants to strip some members of their voting rights, the group said, "This suggestion is absolutely false."

UFS indicated that before AFTRA suspended the joint bargaining agreement with SAG, many of its candidates supported a position that would create limited ratification voting among members with the least experience working under the contract.

"Contrary to what MembershipFirst is telling members, the proposal would not have limited the ability of any member to participate in elections to select guild leaders or in strike authorization votes," the group said. "Moreover, we have repeatedly stated that affected member voting is not part of the Unite for Strength platform or a goal of the slate."

The group says its focus is to get SAG and AFTRA back together to give actors more power at the bargaining table.

MembershipFirst fired back Thursday, via a message from one of its well-known supporters, Martin Sheen.

In a letter to members, Sheen warned that if UFS takes control of the board, the faction will start the "qualified/affected" voting scheme immediately.

"Since February 2008, they have dedicated their energies in collecting signatures for their 'Qualified Voting Petition,' " Sheen wrote. "They've proudly and publicly touted their list of supporters, including the name of very high-profile actor/producers. They and their supporters have signed a petition that would end democracy in the Screen Actors Guild and create a 'class system' between the 'haves' and 'have nots.' "

Throwing his support behind MembershipFirst, Sheen added that there is no evidence that struggling actors vote differently than those who get work.

But Unite for Strength leader Ned Vaughn said MembershipFirst is creating a double standard. Vaughn e-mailed several news outlets and blogs with two e-mails sent to him by MembershipFirst supporters -- board member JoBeth Williams and candidate Clancy Brown -- which indicate that both seemed supportive of the qualified voting initiative. Brown, however, asked to be removed from an e-mail list prior to throwing his hat into the race.

Unite for Strength is running on a platform that SAG and AFTRA need to return to the bargaining table together in future contracts, in order to maintain power in negotiations.

MembershipFirst's position with AFTRA is one of contention, especially after AFTRA suspended its joint bargaining agreement prior to the start of TV/theatrical negotiations.

When AFTRA reached a tentative deal, MembershipFirst supported SAG's campaign to influence members who belong to both unions to vote down the new AFTRA contract, which was not successful. And MembershipFirst supporters have posted on various message boards that AFTRA should dismantle and that all actors should be represented by SAG.

The public bickering only mirrors the internal back and forth between MembershipFirst and Unite for Strength.

MembershipFirst leader Anne-Marie Johnson, who is not up for re-election, e-mailed UFS candidate Ned Vaughn on Aug. 11 to propose a structured debate between the two factions Aug. 24.

But Vaughn countered with a suggestion he said comes from the election guidebook calling for a "meet and greet" with all the candidates, including those not associated with either faction.

But Johnson rejected the suggestion, saying a debate that could be streamed online and able to reach members outside of the Los Angeles area would be best.

"Based on your refusal to a debate, MembershipFirst and the membership at large can only come to the conclusion that Unite for Strength has no intention on presenting and defending its stance on the myriad of issues facing our union, outside of blogging/postings on unstructured bulletin boards and the 'information' provided on your Web site," Johnson wrote.

Vaughn countered that the debate proposal "assumes that the only candidates members deserve to hear from in this election are those affiliated with our two slates."

Although no debate will take place, MembershipFirst was scheduled to host a forum Sunday for members to meet its candidates. On Saturday, the group was planning to hold a fundraiser at board member and supporter Nancy Sinatra's home.

UFS is raising funds as they go in the campaign, using its Web site for donations and outreach to membership.

The group also plans to have a candidate forum.

In the meantime, the current fragmented SAG national board met for an emergency meeting Thursday. Guild president Alan Rosenberg and national executive director Doug Allen and attended the meeting in New York, coming face to face with one portion of the membership that is not supportive of their negotiating strategy.

Last week, members of the New York board issued a statement indicating that if the two leaders did not make any progress in the contract talks by today, they would demand that a federal mediator be brought in to the talks.

Rosenberg and Allen got cold receptions at the New York meeting, according to one attendee.

"They demanded the New York board rescind their resolution. That didn't happen," the board member said. "They also were whining about how they're being picked on and not trusted and abused. That fell on deaf ears everywhere."

The national board voted down the mediator request. It did, however, vote to reject the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers' final offer made June 30, though members of the New York board and regional boards abstained from voting. The board also voted to send a postcard in a nine-page bulletin about the negotiations, polling members about what they think about the AMPTP deal.

The AMPTP said of the meeting, "SAG's negotiators have failed to explain why SAG members deserve substantially better terms than those achieved by the DGA, WGA and AFTRA in four separate agreements with the AMPTP.

"On the contrary," it added, "even in the face of a worsening economy, SAG's negotiators expect unrealistic economic gains over the $250 million already on the table, as well as wholesale changes to the new-media framework that would render the framework unworkable for our entire industry."
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