SAG-AFTRA L.A. Board Disapproves TV/Theatrical Deal in Non-Binding Sign of Fractious Union

Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images; Paul Archuleta/Getty Images
SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and opposition leader David Jolliffe

The 29 to 13 vote by the local board was "essentially along party lines" between the Unite for Strength and Membership First factions.

The board of SAG-AFTRA’s largest local on Tuesday voted 69 percent to 31 percent against the new TV/theatrical deal approved by the national board, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, in a videoconference meeting that resulted in a symbolic show of force signaling tumultuous times ahead for entertainment’s largest union.

The 29 to 13 non-binding vote by the Los Angeles board was “essentially along party lines” one board member said, speaking on condition on anonymity. The local board is controlled by the Membership First faction, while the national board is controlled by a coalition led by a group called Unite for Strength.

A member of the UFS faction, also speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the atmosphere and conduct of the meeting, chaired by MF leader David Jolliffe, was "toxic" and "disorganized" with some on the call sending nasty chat messages and one holding an upraised middle finger on camera.

“The contract is negotiation malpractice,” said another LA board member, Shaan Sharma, who identifies as an independent but has run in the last two election cycles on the MF slate after having run on the UFS slate in 2015. Citing a litany of criticisms, he added, “We at least want another crack at the bat,” indicating that he hoped members would vote down the contract.

But UFS has a different view.

“In a cynical move to advance their political ambitions rather than put the membership first as they claim they want to do, Membership First is actively trying to torpedo the richest deal in TV/Theatrical history during a global pandemic and collapsing economy,” said UFS and its New York based affiliate USAN in a statement. “They're holding $318 million in contract gains hostage to their own political ambitions. Who would do that?”

Answering that question, the statement continued: “The same people with a graveyard of contracts, who failed to negotiate a deal on this very contract in 2008. Because of David Jolliffe and his MF crew, SAG members worked for a year without a contract and lost hundreds of millions of dollars in ’08. Whenever Membership First has anything to do with a contract, SAG-AFTRA members lose.”

Jolliffe, who has led his faction for at least 20 years, did not respond to a request for comment.

MF seems unlikely to prevail in its quest to defeat the new pact, as SAG-AFTRA is putting its full weight behind the deal, which in a video it called “record-breaking” in its features and dollar value. The union declined to comment for this article, but has issued a FAQ in addition to a ballot packet with a detailed summary and pro and con statements. Dueling websites for and against are now up as well. (THR’s summary is here.)

Whatever the outcome, the yea and nay percentages will likely presage the level of contention in next year’s elections for union president and board. The 2019 iteration featured an essentially three-way race for president that UFS’s Gabrielle Carteris won with a plurality, prevailing in a bitter contest marked with charges that MF candidate Matthew Modine violated federal labor election law.

Whether Carteris will run again is unknown. She’s served in the unpaid position since 2016, ascending from the executive vice president slot. The current evp is USAN’s Rebecca Damon, while Camryn Manheim, the secretary-treasurer, is a potential UFS pick should Carteris hang up her spurs.

The third major candidate in the 2019 race was former MF activist Jane Austin, who remains an independent, according to a source, and who was the member who introduced the resolution Tuesday regarding the TV/theatrical contract. Styled in the affirmative, the motion was voted down decisively. Ironically, the deal received about the same level of support on the national board, 67.61 percent, as opposition in the LA boardroom.

That’s possible in part because the national board uses weighted voting that favors LA members, whereas the LA Local board does not. But it also reflects deep divisions between the LA Local, where MF has been regaining support, and the rest of the country, which is mostly UFS/USAN territory albeit not without some MF inroads.

And there’s plenty of bitter history behind the factional dispute. The UFS board member who described the meeting as “toxic” used language that echoed the descriptions of an infamous 2009 SAG national board meeting conducted by MF. That closed-door confab, which lasted a jaw-dropping 28 hours, came in the middle of a 2008-09 stalemate during which the MF-controlled union declined to reach agreement with the studios on a TV/theatrical deal but was unable to muster the 75 percent member support required for a strike.

Citing “massive gains in streaming residuals and sexual harassment protections,” UFS sees a potential No vote on the new agreement as treading the same path that it says led to woe twelve years ago.

“Membership First knows full well that a No vote will put all of these gains at risk and push us towards a disastrous strike,” said the UFS/USAN statement. “This isn’t about getting a better deal; it's about wreaking havoc on our union.” Not that UFS would never strike either: a source close to the union previously told THR that “were it not for the pandemic, SAG-AFTRA would have gone on strike” this contract cycle. But in the union’s judgment, the pandemic and recession changed the playing field dramatically.

History has a long reach. The decade-ago deadlock ended in early 2009, when UFS wrested control from MF, restarted stalled studio talks and appointed David White to the top staff job. UFS and its partners have controlled SAG and SAG-AFTRA ever since, and White remains the union’s national executive director, though it’s generally believed that MF would fire him – or he would leave – if the faction regained power. (MF stalwarts have denied this and White was not available for comment.) According to a source close to the union, that could lead to an exodus of top staff.

Voting on the new contract began July 2 and closes July 22. UFS recently held a video town hall on the deal, while a panel comprised mostly of dissenters takes place on Thursday at 6 p.m. PT. Although the factions don’t agree on much, partisans on all sides would probably concur with the UFS/USAN statement’s closing remark: “The future of SAG-AFTRA is at stake.”