New York SAG Election Becoming a Tinderbox (Analysis)

Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin endorse USAN, while OSU issues a bill of particulars and personal attacks fly in all directions. With both factions pro-merger, members wonder why they’re fighting.

United Screen Actors Nationwide, the group that has controlled the New York SAG boardroom for a number of years, announced endorsements Wednesday from Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin.

The move came a half-day after One.Strong.Union, the breakaway SAG group challenging USAN in the guild’s New York elections, issued a detailed statement accusing USAN of incompetence, indifference, conflict of interest and exclusionary practices.

In response, USAN provided THR with a statement from SAG board member Nancy Giles, a USAN member, which said in part “Campaigning is a lot easier if you are willing to simply lie outright about your opponents.”

Some SAG members assert that the two groups are simply pre-positioning themselves for power in a single, post-merger union. On that subject, OSU candidate and incumbent New York board member Justin Barrett told THR, “When it comes to positions in the new union? That's the sort of thing USAN folks worry about.”

In other words, it’s getting personal.

Very personal, in fact: Barrett was previously a “USAN folk” himself. Indeed, OSU’s slate is comprised of five formerly-USAN incumbents (and five newcomers), headed by Sam Robards, who is running for New York board president against USAN incumbent Mike Hodge.

Another of the group’s key organizers is board member Sue-Anne Morrow, also formerly aligned with USAN. It’s essentially an internecine split within what was previously a tightly unified group.

Both factions describe themselves as favoring merger between SAG and AFTRA, but the OSU statement raises objections to USAN’s approach to that issue and such other matters as new media, videogame work, the pension and health plans, and inclusiveness.

Meanwhile, as USAN’s announcement Wednesday reflects, endorsements have become a key part in the race. With about 30,000 SAG members in New York and a typical voting rate of about 20% - 25%, every vote counts.

In his endorsement statement, Hanks said, “I support the people who have guided SAG during these last months of huge changes in our art and industry. USAN has been vital in leadership positions and has worked ceaselessly to bring SAG and AFTRA together.”

Baldwin stated, “I strongly endorse the direction the union is going in now and I encourage all NY SAG members to continue to support USAN.”

USAN also pointed to support from such other noted actors as Melissa Leo and S. Epatha Merkerson, as well as Lewis Black, who is running on USAN’s slate, and SAG’s national, Hollywood-based leaders including president Ken Howard and secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino.

OSU has previously showcased its support from Holter Graham, president of AFTRA’s New York Local (who made the endorsement in his individual capacity) and a host of others listed on its website. Its latest statement marks the first time the group has explained its objections and objectives in detail.

The statement lays out a range of issues:

• Merger. OSU describes USAN’s position as “any merger will do,” while saying that OSU will not “take merger for granted” nor allow it “to fail because of tunnel vision, a lack of due diligence, or personal agenda.”

Similarly, OSU’s Robards said in an email Monday, “I am 100% committed to merger for all members of both unions. But after hearing some of the language coming from New York SAG Board leaders, I had grave concerns about whether this merger would succeed. I believe our members deserve something better than the ‘any merger’ USAN might be willing to accept.”

USAN’s Giles responded angrily, “‘Any merger will do?’ Really? That must be why USAN leaders spent months hearing from members in listening tour meetings throughout the country, and why they are engaged – right now – in an exhaustive process to get every detail right.”

The merger plan is still being worked on by a joint SAG/AFTRA group, called G1. The plan is expected to be presented to the unions’ national boards in January.

• Videogames. The OSU statement charges that “the USAN Candidate who was the NY chair of the last Interactive Negotiations botched the negotiation of this contract, causing SAG to completely lose jurisdiction in this growing field.” The statement then describes videogames as a $70 billion business, and asks “what’s 1% of $70 billion?”

The significance of those numbers is unclear. In a statement to THR, OSU cited a New York Times report of a Gartner study for the $70 billion figure. However, the figure includes hardware as well as games themselves, and appears to be worldwide. (Reuters quotes DFC Intelligence as forecasting the 2011 worldwide market for videogame hardware and software at $65 billion.) Domestically, games alone generated about $16 billion in retail sales in 2010, according to NPD Group data.

Part of that sum is retained by the retailer. Game publishers receive a lesser, unknown portion, out of which they pay programmers, designers, writers, actors and others.

The source of the 1% figure is also unclear.

In any case, SAG’s data shows that its members’ revenue under the guild’s interactive agreement ranged from $5 million to $6 million mid-decade, then dropped to $3.1m to $3.5m, and slid most recently to $2.4m in 2010, a $1.1m decline from the year before.

That $2.4m figure is about one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of SAG members’ total reported earnings last year, which amounted to almost $2 billion. Even the industrial/educational contract is five times larger than the interactive deal.

SAG lost jurisdiction over interactive work in 2009 when members voted to reject a contract with the videogame industry. Only 115 members voted, since the voting was held via in-person meetings open only to members who had worked under the contract. SAGWatch reported at the time that the vote was unanimous in favor outside of Los Angeles, but the contract failed 42 to 73 overall, due to opposition in the guild’s Hollywood Division.

AFTRA, in contrast, ratified an agreement that year, as well as a renewal last month. But even before the SAG action in 2009, total union coverage (SAG plus AFTRA) was estimated to account for only 20% of videogame acting work.

An OSU spokesperson told THR, “The USAN-NY chair was unimpressive . . . he never took a strong position on the contract he was responsible for negotiating and openly and repeatedly dismissed the value of the contract. No jurisdiction, especially jurisdiction over an exploding area of the industry, should be squandered.”

• New Media. The OSU statement characterizes USAN’s position on new media as “it’s not that important” and says that a USAN leader (not named) “insisted that the only priority (in the 2010 studio contract negotiations) was increasing Pension & Health contributions from employers.”

OSU emphasizes the growing importance of new media and argues that, for instance, the “free streaming windows” for ad-supported streaming of television shows should be shortened. “In other words,” says the statement, “twenty-eight days of free usage for Lost is just too much.”

That’s apparently a reference to the new media residuals formula that provides for a non-residual bearing window of 17 days, or 24 days for episodes in a series’ first season (or one-shot programs such a TV movies). It’s unclear where OSU’s 28 day figure comes from.

In his email earlier this week, OSU’s Robards charged, “There was no effort to reduce streaming windows; no serious consideration given to alternate models for residuals payments, such as percentage-based residuals.” He added, “I do not believe these concerns have been taken seriously by USAN leadership.”

SAG and AFTRA did obtain a slight improvement in a different aspect of new media, managing to narrow the definition of experimental new projects, which are essentially outside the unions’ jurisdiction.

It’s not known whether SAG/AFTRA negotiators sought other new media improvements, though it seems likely that they did. How hard they pressed these issues, and whether they could have or should have held out for more, is something that members debate.

• Pension and Health Plan. The OSU statement says that USAN elected one of its leaders as a trustee of the guild’s Pension and Health Plans despite the fact that his spouse was already a trustee. “While both are qualified to serve,” the statement says, “a married couple serving simultaneously presents conflicted interest, inhibits debate, and unfairly limits New York representation.”

Although not named in the statement, the trustee is understood to be board member and former SAG national president Richard Masur, whose wife, Eileen Henry, is also a trustee.

According to OSU, the New York Division is allotted four seats on the P&H board, which makes it understandable that the group would claim that the appointment of an existing trustee’s spouse inhibits debate and limits representation.

What’s less clear is how the move “presents conflicted interest,” let alone what OSU headlines as an “UNPRECEDENTED CONFLICT OF INTEREST.”

In response to a THR question, OSU candidate and incumbent New York board member Andrew Dolan responded, “A conflict of interest lies is having two interests present at one time – no trustee should be wondering how their position on a difficult P&H issue might affect their relationship. And no member should wonder where their trustee's loyalties lie.”

• Inclusion. OSU asserts that board members who voted against the P&H trustee’s appointment “were subsequently marginalized by the USAN-led board, and kept from serving on committees for which they were qualified.” The group also opposes the New York Division’s use of a nominating committee to recommend candidates for election to board seats – a system which OSU labels “flawed (and) self-serving . . . promoting entrenchment, not accountability.”

The group promises that “unhealthy practices (will) not find their way into the new union.” It also criticizes USAN alleged support for a rule change that “(now allows) national board members to resign and choose as their permanent replacement anyone from their division's membership, bypassing the large pool of member-elected alternates.”

OSU charges that this rule “promotes institutionalized cronyism.”

USAN leader Hodge sees things differently. “What's happening here is that a group of board members are upset that some votes didn't go their way,” he said in an email to THR. “Each board member is free – I would say obligated – to vote his or her conscience and the best ideas win majority support,” he added.

Robards says otherwise. “When I joined the New York board there was a lot of talk about ‘voting your conscience,’” he said. “The reality was something quite different. USAN representatives seem to enter every discussion with a predetermined agenda and an entrenched and immovable perspective. There is no possibility of changing minds or seeking out better solutions.”

OSU’s Joe Narciso added, “if you read our candidate statements and other writings it's clear our concerns are a whole lot bigger than just a few votes.”

Hodge counters that the proof is in the pudding. “Our discussions in the New York Boardroom have produced terrific results,” he told THR, “and I stand behind them. More important, the members support the direction we've taken. I'm sorry Sam Robards disagrees.”

Twitter: @jhandel