SAG-AFTRA Blasts Accusatory Letter as Hollywood Labor Turmoil Accelerates

Jason LaVeris/Getty Images, Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Ed Asner, Gabrielle Carteris

With a potential WGA strike looming, SAG-AFTRA is suddenly drawn towards a whirlpool by an election-season letter on the eve of the actors union's own studio negotiations.

A day after a group of nine actors, including former SAG president Ed Asner, sent SAG-AFTRA a long letter alleging “breach of fiduciary duties” and threatening litigation, the union Saturday slammed the missive as “a fantasy [of] discredited claims [by] serial litigants.”

The letter, several of whose signatories were plaintiffs in one or more of five previous unsuccessful lawsuits over the last 15 years against their own union, could complicate SAG-AFTRA’s pending TV/theatrical negotiations with the major studios and is sure to be a topic of discussion at the organization’s national board meeting Saturday and Sunday.

“This group of people should be deeply ashamed,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “After years of failed attempts to derail the success of this union through deceitful litigation, they are putting our members at risk on the eve of our most important contract negotiations. Their repeated pursuit of frivolous politics merits utter contempt.”

Among the 10-page letter’s most dramatic passages is a pointed demand that “the executive leadership of SAG-AFTRA stop treating the Union’s Treasury as well as [various funds] as personal bank accounts which can be accessed with impunity.”

The document offers no details or evidence to support that claim. It adds that “funds … have been deliberately stockpiled to satisfy the personal pecuniary interests of [SAG-AFTRA’s] hired leadership,” but again supplies no details or evidence.

Other proffered issues include complaints about residuals and foreign royalties trust funds, alleged conflict of interest and such matters as reimbursement of automobile mileage expenses for union travel, frequent flyer mile usage, cellphone plans, ownership of union buildings, the conduct of an independent music royalties organization (SoundExchange), the union’s recent deal with startup Exactuals for residuals direct deposit, reimbursement of bar association dues for the union’s general counsel, attendance at conferences by union executives, the hiring of a top expert on royalties and the fact that union executive director David White is no longer on active status as a member of the California bar (which is only required for practicing lawyers). Details are generally sparse.

“This is 10 pages of fantasy that attempts to position customary business activity as questionable,” said union COO and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland in a statement to THR. “ It is a shame that we have to use members’ dues monies to defend against these discredited claims, but there should be no doubt we will vigorously defend the union and our membership against the assertions of these serial litigants.”

The correspondence — which demands a response within 45 days or a lawsuit “will in fact be filed” — is on the letterhead of the self-styled United Screen Artists Committee and follows a history of SAG and SAG-AFTRA members unsuccessfully suing their own union, with portions of the letter attempting to relitigate issues from a failed 2013 lawsuit about foreign royalties that was filed by Asner and some of the letter’s other signatories under the same USAC moniker. It comes at a sensitive moment, with SAG-AFTRA poised to begin contract negotiations with the AMPTP studio alliance against the backdrop of a possible writers strike, and as the union enters its biennial campaign season, with the president, officers and board members up for election.

Referencing the fact that the letter was supplied Friday to Variety — apparently even before the union’s receipt of the document — Carteris told THR that “the timing of this action and its leak to a trade publication leave no doubt of their intent.”

“It’s time to stop the politics,” Carteris added, but that seems unlikely. SAG-AFTRA’s election process officially kicks off in June, but positioning has already begun, and the union’s politics are extremely factional, as were SAG’s before it. Carteris is a leader of the Unite for Strength faction, which has controlled SAG and subsequently SAG-AFTRA since 2009. Most of the letter’s authors, as well as most of the litigants in prior lawsuits, are or were part of the Membership First faction, which controlled SAG from 2005 before being ousted by UFS in a move to restart stalled 2008 contract talks and move towards merger with AFTRA.

That power shift triggered a 2009 lawsuit against SAG by the union’s own president at the time, Alan Rosenberg. (Asner’s time as president dates to an earlier era, 1981-85.) The lawsuit collapsed, contract talks resumed and three years later the two performers’ unions became one in a merger that Asner and several of the current letter’s other signatories attempted to block in an unavailing 2012 suit.

Some, perhaps many, Membership First partisans continue to oppose and seemingly even hope to undo the merger, and pro- and anti-merger arguments dominated the merged union’s 2013 and 2015 elections. This summer is likely to feature more of the same, despite the half-decade that’s elapsed since that joinder. Carteris is expected to run for reelection, and Membership First has not yet announced a candidate. Former Membership First member Pete Antico — who was also among the plaintiffs in the 2012 anti-merger lawsuit — jumped into the race with an early announcement last month, which could complicate Membership First’s likely attempt to challenge Carteris in the contest. (Antico is not a signatory to the current letter.)

Meanwhile, the union’s TV/theatrical contracts with the major studios expire June 30, and contract talks are expected to begin in about a month. The WGA may be on strike at that point: its contract expires May 1 and, with several hundred million dollars apparently separating the WGA and AMPTP positions, the guild has said it will walk as soon as its contract expires if a new deal hasn’t been reached by that time. Talks resume Tuesday, less than a week before expiration.

In addition to Asner, the signatories of the letter to SAG-AFTRA are Alan Ruck; Clancy Brown; Eric Hughes, aka Jon Whiteley; Steven Barr; Terrence Beasor; Tom Bower; Alex McArthur; and Dennis Hayden. Their counsel is identified as Helena Sunny Wise, who was also the plaintiffs’ counsel in the 2013 foreign royalties lawsuit against SAG-AFTRA.