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Unlike the writers and directors guilds, the performers union’s politics are notably factionalized. Newly re-elected union president Gabrielle Carteris, who tops the dominant Unite for Strength slate, received 50.6 percent of the vote, while MembershipFirst’s Esai Morales received 28.1 percent, former MF member Pete Antico garnered 14.2 percent and two other independent candidates received 6.7 percent in aggregate.
Although Carteris was the incumbent, this was her first electoral test in front of the membership, as she had been unanimously elected by the union’s board last year to fill out the term of the late Ken Howard.
Meanwhile, MF’s Jane Austin was re-elected as national secretary-treasurer and her slate performed strongly in the Los Angeles elections as well. Those results, and Carteris’ hairsbreadth majority win in the president’s race, reflect divisions over strategy, personality and even the 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA that are likely to continue to roil the union in the days ahead. MF, which opposed the merger, controlled the union from about 2005 through early 2009, when UFS wrested control, replaced the national executive director and restarted stalled contract talks. Those changes still sear MF members.
Fresh off an election campaign that in part relitigated that tumultuous past, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Carteris to process the rough campaign and look to the road ahead. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
How do you feel about the election results?
It was very meaningful to me that I was able to get that support. It’s an honor to serve the members.
But it was a divisive process.
Our union is made up of diverse groups of members. It’s healthy for us to have diverse points of view. In the end, we all want to help the union. [However], the misinformation that was put out during the campaign was unfortunate and did a disservice to the strategic planning of this union, a disservice to the contract negotiations and, most importantly, a disservice to the membership.
How do you address the divisions?
We are better than that. Success comes in doing the hard work — not breaking each other down, but building each other up. I don’t expect any less from myself.
How does that translate concretely?
Inclusion and transparency have been mainstays of my leadership. It’s about education and reaching out. I am going to continue meeting with members across the country and continue being inclusive. I will continue meeting with members one on one. My door is always open. We are stronger together.
Will you include MF members on key committees?
Committee appointments will be based on recommendations. I have always been inclusive despite party lines. I admire so many members of the different factions. I am always hopeful. Like any relationship, [the relationship between factions] ebbs and flows.
Many MF members are still unhappy about the 2012 merger.
One of the tangible benefits of the merger is that we are not vying with each other for work. We can now focus on organizing work in one place. There is no SAG, no AFTRA, only SAG-AFTRA.
And those who pine for “the good old days” pre-merger?
Merger is done. There’s never a benefit to “coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
Are factions here to stay?
We have a union of diverse people who don’t vote in only one direction. That’s democracy.
MF members still miss the national executive director ousted in 2009, Doug Allen, and are harshly critical of his replacement, current national executive director David White. What’s your take?
David White is outstanding. He’s not a performer and yet he’s able to reflect the needs of the members, able to reflect the industry. His dedication is beyond anyone’s I’ve ever experienced. He reaches beyond and helps to lift up and elevate our union to a place it’s never been before. He has incredible business acumen and the ability to strip away complexity and see the real issues. It’s an incredible gift.
He’s also focused on technological improvements in the union’s own operations.
Residuals processing is much faster [as a result]. David is an innovator.
Earlier this year, the union concluded its TV/theatrical deal with the studios and producers. What was different about those negotiations?
One thing we did differently was outreach to our high-profile members to get them involved. Several hundred of them engaged in the negotiations. We invited them to pre-meetings and formal negotiating sessions, and they really came out. These are the people who the audiences and studios recognize. We have never had this degree of involvement from that community. It was riveting and really changed the feeling in the [negotiating] room.
Key aspects of the TV/theatrical contract, such as residuals enhancements, are effectively determined via “pattern bargaining,” meaning that the union that negotiates first — usually the DGA — sets the pattern for the other two. Yet there’s division between the various unions.
Relationships with sister guilds are growing stronger and stronger. It’s important that all of us are working together — all the unions and the employers. It behooves us to come together. We have a great research team and are working with other unions and their teams to stay ahead of the eight ball.
Let’s look ahead. What’s next?
We need to focus on the future, strengthen the benefit plans, keep the contracts strong and get on with the work. The power is in us. I want this organization to succeed and grow and remain for another hundred years.
What are some key priorities?
Three key goals for my next term: continue building strong contracts, organize work and keep listening to and working with the membership. That is the way to build a strong future.
What are some specific contracts you’re focusing on?
One is the upcoming commercials contract. Another is Telemundo, which is a big thing for us. Spanish-language content is the fastest growing part of our industry. And we will continue on the path to organize that work. [The union recently won a representation election in Miami, and] we’re in negotiations, with a meeting coming up. I want every project in front of the camera or behind the microphone to be covered.
And then there’s interactive media. The union is on strike against many of the major video game companies.
The interactive strike is the longest strike we have been in. We are willing to go back to the table, but we have promulgated a contract that has garnered more than 50 projects. I hope we can come to a fair contract for our members.
Those contracts are only meaningful if they’re enforced. The union has been criticized on that score.
We are better now than we have ever been. Are we perfect? No. Are we aspirational? Yes. We always keep trying to do better.
Organizing is critical, including educating the members about their contracts. Education is freedom and we are fighting the good fight.
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