This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When David White became national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild in 2009, his mandate was to end years of dysfunction within the union and restart stalled contract talks. During the six years since, White, 46, a married Rhodes scholar and Stanford Law School grad, has led the guild through several strife-free negotiating cycles and, most notably, presided over SAG’s 2012 merger with sister union AFTRA. Working with 80 elected board members, he heads a staff of 500 at an organization whose 160,000 members work in film, TV, new media, broadcasting and sound recording. Several of them will be honored Jan. 25 at the SAG Awards, which air on TNT and TBS.
The SAG Awards’ deal with Turner expires in 2016. Are you talking to other networks?
I would not talk about it if we were, for contractual reasons. TNT has been an unbelievable partner for us: They are extremely responsive to us, and they give space for us to do the program we need for our members and audience. We’ve been really pleased with that partnership.
Why does the show not have a host? The Golden Globes didn’t have one in the past but switched it up.
The format works for us without a host — it allows a lot of performers to shine in front of an audience of their peers. And our show keeps to the two-hour timeline (snaps fingers), like clockwork.
For the most recent TV-theatrical agreements, the Directors Guild went first — as almost always during recent years — and that set the pattern for pay. To what extent does SAG-AFTRA control its destiny now?
Who goes first in a bargaining cycle varies. Even when a pattern for some issues is set, there is a tremendous range of negotiating activity that occurs outside of that pattern. Some of the patterns the DGA set I believe were quite helpful for us, as we were able to use our leverage in other areas, so it’s not always a negative thing. Sometimes it puts constraints on what you can achieve during negotiations, but sometimes it can be helpful.
About 40 percent of actors’ earnings are residuals — about $1 billion a year. But enforcement is spotty: Not until a member complains about not receiving a check does an investigation begin.
I don’t agree with that at all. We have people out there looking at shows and patterns all the time, looking for discrepancies. A great deal of the claims we bring are based on our own analysis. And we are constantly looking at and thinking about ways to automate [the claims process].
It’s no secret the DGA once had a very negative opinion of SAG in terms of its factionalism and approach to negotiations. Has that evolved?
Sure. The minute I arrived in the door, my counterpart at the DGA was extremely welcoming and very helpful to me — to help me see the playing field and understand industry dynamics from his perspective — and it was extraordinarily helpful.
Study after study reveals a glaring lack of racial diversity within the industry. What should be done?
It’s a scourge on the industry that in 2015, in the majority of meetings I attend, I am often the only African-American in the room. It’s an industry of good people trying to do good things, but the habits formed are very hard to break.
I remember when we met in person as things were spiraling out of control in 2009 with SAG under previous leadership and I said, “Help me out, I’m doing the calculations and all I see is David White getting appointed national executive director.”
(Laughs.) I have no recollection of that conversation!
Well, let’s rewind. Your first job at SAG was as general counsel, starting in 2002. How did that come about?
I served as outside counsel when I was an associate at O’Melveny [& Myers]. After about eight months, I got a phone call from the general counsel asking me if I wanted to take his place. And I said yes.
That’s a great way to get a job offer.
It’s a hell of a way to get a job offer. People were happy that I arrived with a skill set to help the organization navigate through complex operations and an intensely political environment.
Those aren’t typical law firm associate skills.
Yes, but prior to going to law school I had run and grown a community-based nonprofit organization that dealt with gang prevention and youth development and was in the center of pretty heated community politics. That diversity of political activity was my best preparation for coming into this environment.
Winning the Rhodes must have been enormously moving for your parents and grandparents.
Absolutely. For my mother, who never completed college, it was one of the high points of her parenting career. My stepfather, when he heard the news, brought his elbow down in celebration so hard that he broke the chair he was in.
What do you foresee as your biggest challenges during the next few years?
Customer service — engaging members across contracts and communities. Also, revamping and updating the way we prepare for negotiations.
Another piece of unfinished business is combining the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans, which remain separate.
The [health] plans need to merge to fully address the problem of split earnings, but it’s a complicated exercise. The trustees are focused on that, so we’re hoping to see that done sooner rather than later.
What about on the pension side?
The pension side is trickier because of all of the federal regulations tied to each of the plans. That will be a pretty intense process.
Will management try to use the pension process to shift to a less advantageous, defined contribution plan?
I certainly hope that management would not play games with the retirement plans of our members during this process and not use the merger process as an opportunity to significantly alter the ability of our membership to have a safe and well-funded retirement. To date, management has been quite amenable to working with us to merge the health plans, so I will keep the open expectation that we will face the same disposition by our management trustees when it comes time to merge the pension plans.
How committed are you to the job? In 2014, you were a candidate to lead the NBA’s players association.
I’m deeply committed — I love this job. When I really looked at what it would mean to leave the job, the community we have cultivated here in Los Angeles and the lifestyle my family and I have, that moment crystallized for me how much we enjoy this life and how much I get from my job and my role here at SAG-AFTRA. Ultimately I’m quite pleased at the way things turned out, and that I’m going to be here for at least the next four years.
So you’re planning on staying out the full term of your contract?
I intend to stay out the full term of my contract, and hopefully beyond.