#MeToo: Hollywood Guilds Grapple With How to Represent Accuser and Accused

Illustration by Skip Sterling

Actors, directors, producers and writers issue differing sexual harassment policies.

SAG-AFTRA’s new sexual harassment Code of Conduct, issued Feb. 10, is at least the fifth of its kind issued in recent weeks by entertainment unions and membership organizations. How do these policies differ?

It’s a timely question, since the industrywide Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace — more familiarly known as the Anita Hill commission — is apparently planning its own guidelines too, and several organizations have yet to weigh in, including IATSE, the Teamsters, AFM musicians union and the TV Academy.

In some ways, the various policies are similar. All decry sexual harassment, and most include definitions, legal references and resource lists of public and private agencies. The three unions that have issued policies — WGA West, DGA and SAG-AFTRA — all struggle in their proclamations to reconcile duties to accused members with obligations to members and others who might be victims. But while the three face the same conundrum, and vow to enforce a zero tolerance policy, they take different positions on the issue of members who allegedly harass.

Thus, the SAG-AFTRA code and the DGA’s recently-issued Procedures for Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints note that accused members facing employer discipline might be entitled to union representation. The WGA’s statement doesn’t address this.

And only the SAG-AFTRA code says that members can be disciplined for harassment. That implies an adjudicatory process — a concept that the Motion Picture Academy’s Standards of Conduct explicitly embraces. It also implies that the union might find itself occasionally wearing three hats as it serves as judge of a complaint by one member against another and concurrently represents both accuser and accused.

Those tri-cornered situations may require the union to firewall staff members from each other to ameliorate the conflict of interest. The whole thing could be extremely awkward, especially if the accused is a high-profile actor — the kind the union often relies on for leverage during collective bargaining.

No one knows how frequent such cases will be, because we’ve entered a new era of sensitivity and complaint procedures on the issue of sexual harassment. But one thing is clear: the Writers Guild won’t have to face these paradoxes.

That’s because the scribe’s union takes the opposite tack from SAG-AFTRA, declaring itself “a union, not judge or jury” in its Statement of Principles on Sexual Harassment and FAQ. And, “a writer achieves or retains membership despite any personal criminal history.” So even if an actual judge or jury finds someone liable — even criminally so — they remain a member in good standing. That hands-off approach might stem from memories of the 1950s blacklists, which hit writers especially hard.

Meanwhile, the DGA policy doesn’t say what happens to members who harass. Can they be disciplined or expelled? The question goes unanswered.

All three union policies focus on the employer’s legal responsibility for a harassment-free workplace, as do the PGA‘s Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines. (The PGA is not a union, despite its guild-like name, the Producers Guild of America.)

It’s an important point that often gets lost in the discussion: “why didn’t SAG-AFTRA protect its members from so-and-so?” some people ask, forgetting that preventing sexual harassment is the legal duty of the employer.

The obvious reaction to this is that a union should be prepared to pull its members from a production in the event of severe or pervasive harassment. However, unions don’t have unilateral power: they’re constrained by their collective bargaining agreements, which are negotiated with employers who naturally don’t want workers yanked off the job.

As a result, it’s not clear that the unions have the right to pull their members because of sexual harassment, and the union policy documents mostly tread lightly here. Only SAG-AFTRA’s suggests the union might withdraw its members “if they cannot work safely.” That phraseology seems to hang its hat on a safety provision of the SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement. But the application of such a provision to sexual harassment cases appears to be an untested area.

Meanwhile, only the WGA Statement acknowledges the need for equal opportunity and pay equity in the fight against harassment. The other organizations have been actively working on those issues too, but linking the issues explicitly highlights the broader scope.

There’s been much discussion of enablers lately — people who assist or at least fail to speak out as misconduct occurs. The PGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA aim to flip the equation, emphasizing the need for bystanders to proactively intervene and thwart harassment. “Stop. Support. Report.” says the actors’ union. It’s a fitting exhortation — and might be a stop light that jumpstarts a fairer workplace for all.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.