Opposing sides butt heads at SAG meeting

Big names petition to cancel strike authorization vote

NEW YORK -- In the ballroom of a Manhattan hotel Monday night, the two halves of an increasingly ugly marriage continued to dance around the issues that divide them, with neither side willing to concede a single point, much less find common ground.

The contentious and at times bitter meeting capped a roller-coaster four days for SAG, in which opposition to the guild leadership's call for strike authorization has crystallized. Earlier Monday, a group of nearly 150 well-known actors -- including Oscar winners George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Sally Field, Helen Hunt, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman -- sent a petition urging the authorization vote to be called off.

Three of the principal architects of the SAG's long-stalled negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers -- national president Alan Rosenberg, national executive director Doug Allen and first vp Anne-Marie Johnson -- flew east to meet with the New York rank and file to sell them on the idea of giving strike authorization to the national board. With it, they have argued, the guild will have the leverage it needs to get the new TV and film contract they want.

But the majority in Gotham weren't buying it, according to two high-ranking guild officials who participated, and the meeting was punctuated by occasional bursts of anger, shouting and name-calling.

"I was very happy to be here tonight, to hear the concerns, the anger and lack of respect directed at Alan, Doug and the negotiating committee," said Johnson, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I was also happy to meet people who appreciated what we were doing, who asked for more information, who were still undecided and appreciated that we traveled to hear their concerns."

A New York guild member, however, saw it differently, characterizing the SAG leaders' PowerPoint presentation as "another dog-and-pony show." The New Yorker supported Johnson's description that there was occasional yelling and anger but also said, "there wasn't a monolith of opinion. Some people -- about 25% -- responded to what they were saying.

"But even the people who are against authorization said, 'Don't tell me I'm not a union guy, don't tell me I don't have the courage to strike,' " the New Yorker continued. "I just won't strike on this one. Just not now."

The war between New York and Hollywood has been raging for several years now, with the East Coasters intent on merging with the guild's sister union, AFTRA, and the West Coasters asserting that the guild's independence and uniqueness as the largest union in the entertainment industry takes primacy.

The fight over the TV/film contract is the latest proxy battle, and it appears to have reached the beginning of the end. SAG needs at least 75% of voting members to approve the measure; if it passed, the national board would have the authority to call a strike. Were it to be voted down, however, SAG's bargaining team would have little leverage with which to bring the AMPTP back to the table, and the guild would be under significant pressure to put the studios' final offer to the membership for a ratification vote.

Moderates -- which include members from New York, the regional branches and Hollywood-based faction Unite for Strength -- have a slim majority on the national board. That means that even if strike authority were granted, there's no certainty it would be exercised.

A concerted campaign to defeat strike authorization by most of the guild's pro-AFTRA forces -- board members in the New York and regional branches -- began Friday, with representatives in Gotham issuing a statement that called for the referendum to be withdrawn and the national negotiating committee to be dissolved. It continued during the weekend, with the Chicago board joining New Yorkers in opposing strike authorization, and was kicked up another notch Monday when the A-list actors and like-minded colleagues sent their petition.

Alec Baldwin also was a signatory to the letter and one of the high-profile Gothamites to attend Monday's meeting. Taking the floor, he thanked the negotiating committee for the job they have done so far, and then asked them to step down.

SAG's negotiations with Hollywood producers have been stalled for months. Monday's letter from those opposing the vote seemed carefully worded to try to make it clear that the actors did not oppose guild leaders and the issues they believe in. However, it's doubtful Rosenberg would see it that way.

"We feel very strongly that SAG members should not vote to authorize a strike at this time," the letter reads. "We don't think that an authorization can be looked at as merely a bargaining tool. It must be looked at as what it is: an agreement to strike if negotiations fail.

"We support our union, and we support the issues we're fighting for, but we do not believe in all good conscience that now is the time to be putting people out of work.

"None of our friends in the other unions are truly happy with the deals they made in their negotiations. Three years from now all the union contracts will be up again at roughly the same time. At that point if we plan and work together with our sister unions, we will have incredible leverage."

Rosenberg was irate about the public nature of the opposition to the vote, and the New York board's calls for the national negotiating committee to be dissolved.

"This action encourages and emboldens the AMPTP and seriously harms SAG members throughout the country," he said last week, before calling for an emergency national board meeting this Friday. On Monday, he rescinded the call for that meeting.

Last week, at a national executive committee meeting conducted via video conference, the New York and regional members walked out after Rosenberg twice interrupted a New York member who was trying to speak, according to two people who were present.

Rosenberg referred to the incident in a memo Monday to national board members canceling the emergency.

"Shortly after the meeting began and prior to addressing the agendized business, the New York members of the NEC all left the meeting, depriving us of a quorum and preventing us from completing guild business," he wrote. "Given this conduct and the sensitivity and complexity of the issues at hand, I do not believe a video conference board meeting will be effective or productive."

Despite the nearly 150 well-known actors on the petition list, there were some notable absences. Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, who joined Hanks and Field in sending a letter to Rosenberg last winter calling for the guild to have early negotiations, did not sign; nor did most of the high-profile board members from Unite for Strength, such as Adam Arkin and Amy Brenneman.