SAG-AFTRA Faces Divisive Election Fight Over Its Future

From left: SAG-AFTRA candidates for president are Abraham Justice, Queen Alljahye Searles, Gabrielle Carteris, Matthew Modine and Jane Austin.

A bitter battle between incumbent Gabrielle Carteris' Unite for Strength coalition and the Matthew Modine-led MembershipFirst slate roils the union.

On July 29, as SAG-AFTRA officials were mailing ballots for the fractious union’s elections, a lawyer letter arrived on behalf of anonymous clients demanding that incumbent president Gabrielle Carteris be stricken from the ballot for “serious election violations." Three days later, counsel for Carteris and for leaders of her Unite for Strength/ USAN slate issued a missive blasting Membership First presidential candidate Matthew Modine and members of his slate for “once again attempting to interfere in SAG-AFTRA’s democratic process and elections by threatening or supporting the threat of baseless litigation against SAG-AFTRA.”

Those legal salvos brought focus to what has become clear to industry observers: Decades-old tensions are once again threatening to tear the performers union apart at the seams. In private and online, each side says the other slate is a pack of liars and both sides analogize the other to Donald Trump and the toxic state of national politics. Incumbent Carteris and challenger Modine, along with independent candidates Jane Austin (currently secretary-treasurer), actor Abraham Justice and union member Queen Alljahye Searles, all are jostling to be president after votes are tabulated Aug. 28. But the divide between the UFS and MF may only be growing.

For its part, MF and its supporters have a history of over a decade of unsuccessful lawsuits that even included SAG president Alan Rosenberg suing his own union in 2009. “[MF’s] long history of junk lawsuits against the union and its leadership is well-known,” said Carteris, and the union has “spent over a million dollars of our members’ hard-earned dues dealing with their cynical stunts.”

But UFS’s response has sometimes been to circle the wagons. Case in point: the recent Netflix deal, which was negotiated by staff with little member involvement, then was recommended by two committees of members and submitted to the national board in summary format as a “fait accompli,” in one MF member’s words, with only an hour and a half for debate. MF complained about the impossibility of detailed analysis in such a procedure, while UFS argues that MF repeatedly tries to sabotage a victory for the members and elevates process complaints over substance.

Meanwhile, MF often seeks to reargue the 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA, which it bitterly opposed (but now, "for better or worse, it is a reality," says Modine's spokesman), while UFS asserts that financial problems at the SAG pension fund can be traced back to an MF stalemate in 2008-09 during which SAG was without a contract, driving work to AFTRA and employer monies to that union’s retirement fund and away from SAG’s. Carteris says that merger has worked — “Can you imagine the advantage Netflix would have gained if there were two actors’ unions competing against one another?” — but didn’t acknowledge that although the union, its contracts and its health plans have merged, the two pension funds have not and might never. Modine declined to say whether he thought merger had been successful.

The political is always personal, and it’s not just about the unpaid elected officials. MF is looking to fire national executive director David White (who was hired by UFS in 2009) and other top staff, attacking the executive's competence and the staff’s salaries and pensions. “Our staff is paid fairly,” counters Carteris.

The guild's response to the #MeToo movement has also been politicized. “As a woman who’s been working in this industry for decades,” says Carteris, “I’ve seen all too well the damage sexual harassment can cause to a person’s mental health, relationships and career.” However, the union has come under fire for light punishment meted out to actor Kip Pardue, a $6,000 fine for alleged sexual misconduct involving genital touching and masturbation. Both sides claim credit for what the union has done to date on #MeToo issues. For his part, Modine says, “How do you effect positive change? You speak up. You take a stand.” — but he has declined to explain why he publicly analogized the survivor of an alleged sexual assault, Chantal Cousineau, on Twitter in July to “an abused animal that … wants to bite and attack” but whom he would forgive. “It’s dehumanizing and inexcusable,” says Carteris of Modine's since-deleted tweet. 

UFS points to a string of victories — the overhauled commercials contract (which MF supported), merger of the health plans, the Netflix deal, a Telemundo contract and more as evidence that its leadership is successfully focused on the future. MF argues that these seeming victories are inadequate and the agreements poorly enforced. “We have lost hundreds of millions of dollars because our contracts have not kept pace with exhibition platforms as they have evolved,” reads its platform. “A change in leadership is imperative, in order to prevent history from repeating itself.” Responds Carteris, “the last time Membership First was in charge, they failed to negotiate numerous contracts.”

Modine has also focused on such issues as providing a board seat for background performers (extras) — a key MF constituency — and buying rather than continuing to rent the union headquarters. “Imagine if we were building equity?,” he asks, suggesting that the gains would be enormous. 

Aug. 7, 7:55 pm PST Clarified MF's attitude toward merger and corrected MF position on commercials contract.