"We Have a Lot of Work Ahead": SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris on Next Steps After Election Win (Q&A)

Gabrielle Carteris - Getty - H 2019
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner

"I see us continuing to expand our contracts just as we’ve done with Netflix and with Telemundo," forecasts the union chief. "We are not just bound to the traditional employers that we’ve had in the past."

It was beyond bitter: charges and countercharges of election law violations, lying, bad faith and more. But when the dust cleared on the SAG-AFTRA elections, Gabrielle Carteris, union president for the last three and a half years, was elected for another two-year term, albeit with a 44.05 percent plurality over opponent Matthew Modine (34.76 percent) partially due to the presence of a third candidate, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin (16.43 percent). Candidates Queen Alljahye Searles and Abraham Justice together garnered under 5 percent.

That win for Carteris and her Unite for Strength slate, coupled with Camryn Manheim taking the secretary-treasurer position and victories for national board in New York and regionally, mean that UFS and its allies will continue to control the union, as they have since 2009.

But MembershipFirst is restive and resurgent. That slate, which ran Modine — and previously counted Austin as an adherent — held sway from 2005 to 2009, and wants back in the driver’s seat. MF won 13 of 16 national board seats from Los Angeles and also now dominates the Los Angeles local board. "All of [our success] is possible because we merged our legacy unions [in 2012]," said Carteris, alluding to an issue on which UFS and MF sharply differed. "Together, we are stronger."

That may be so, but maintaining solidarity as the fractious union sets out to negotiate its master TV/theatrical contract ahead of a mid-2020 expiration is bound to be challenging. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Carteris for her first post-election interview to assess the last few months and look toward the next two years and beyond. (What follows has been edited for space and clarity.)

How was the campaign process this year?

The thing I enjoy most about campaigning is getting to have so many conversations with members. The downside is it takes away from the work of the union. I think that the work of the members is the most important thing.

It was also disheartening to see my opponents’ vitriol during the campaign. Words have consequences and SAG-AFTRA members deserve leadership that is interested in the path forward, not a return to the divisiveness of the past. I am proud to provide that leadership.

I’m really happy with the outcome, with [secretary-treasurer Camryn Manheim] and myself working together. She is so brave, and she’s such a smart business mind and a working actor. She has the expertise and is really concerned with the members’ issues. She’s a perfect partner as we move forward. I’m also really happy to be able to move forward in collaboration with Camryn, and with the members and newly elected leaders around the country. This will be a really great two years — we have a lot of work ahead of us.

I am focused on the strategic building and strengthening of our union as I have been from the moment I became president. My focus from the beginning has been on transparency, strategic vision and that commitment to make sure we have strong contracts.

We’re coming up to the TV/theatrical contract negotiations. I am very excited about the member engagement around that process. Our negotiating team has already begun the detailed work and preparation so we will be ready for these negotiations.

I want to continue pushing hard for inclusion and diversity. This is an area of particular importance to me and to SAG-AFTRA. We have the ability to lead in this conversation and will continue to do so.

Technology also has very important implications for our union. We are planting the flag for our future. We will continue working with universities and institutions as we chart a course for ourselves and the industry. As leaders, I want our members to understand the implications of these trends so they can prepare themselves for the rapid changes that are occurring.

How do you bridge from the divisiveness of the campaign to the healing and solidarity that’ll be necessary to achieve these goals?

Look, in campaigns where your opponent does not have a track record of their own to run on, it is not uncommon to see them develop a campaign that attempts to tear down the record of the institution. As president, it is my job to set the record straight and to prepare a pathway to come together. Differences of opinion are healthy and they’re a part of what makes our democracy great. We grow by understanding each other’s differences. We will focus on continuing to build our union and creating a strong future where our members can thrive in their work.

Is there a way to calm the social media waters?

Unfortunately, many people use social media to say things they would never say if they were in a person-to-person conversation. I think we have seen that negative aspect in our own country. Union members are not immune to that.

There are great benefits to social media when we are able to use it to share what’s going on, but when others use it as cudgel, to troll people or as a weapon it is very unhealthy.

What are the biggest challenges facing the union in the next two years?

Rapid technological evolution in our industry is definitely a challenge, but one we are working to meet. We’ve taken several steps, including engaging our TV/Theatrical negotiating committee early so that they are ready for what’s to come. We did well in our commercial negotiations because of our strategic planning, research and expanded process.

If the DGA negotiates first, as they have in most of the recent cycles, they’re likely to set the pattern on certain key items such as basic wage increases and residuals. How important and how strong are the relations between the leadership of SAG-AFTRA and the DGA in order to have input into that process?

The schedule is not yet set and we’re not going to talk about our negotiating strategy just now. Both [national executive director David White] and I are in touch with the DGA and our other industry allies throughout this process.

When it comes to residuals formulas, in particular, those tend to be very pattern bound.

Again, I am not going to speak directly to our strategy for this negotiation, but I will say that we will be focused on negotiating the strongest possible provisions for our members.

What about diversity, inclusion and #MeToo issues?

We’ve implemented important changes that helped set a path for our industry. Many of these changes are groundbreaking and our work will continue. This is going to be an important next couple of years for all of us to work toward expanding diversity and inclusion and raising the standard for the entire industry.

What are some other key issues facing the union?

We are focused on bargaining strong contracts, organizing work opportunities, enhancing safety and inclusion. We anticipate this is where we will spend a lot energy and efforts. As we expand safety enforcement and protecting our members in emerging arenas, we will remain vigilant and transparent.

Has SAG-AFTRA struck the right balance between transparency and confidentiality or is there more work to be done there?

SAG-AFTRA first and foremost has the job of protecting its members in an industry and an environment that moves at an ever-quickening pace. Given that, we are always striving to make sure members have as much information as possible to make key decisions that impact their careers. Our employers carefully watch all of our communications. We have to be strategic about what we share publicly. As president, I’ve taken several steps to make sure that members have more information including launching a podcast so that the content is more accessible to everyone no matter how they learn.

The word “strategic” reminds me of the recent Netflix deal. Why is it important above and beyond the specific terms of the deal?

We have achieved a type of leverage that goes above and beyond this particular negotiation. Having this kind of deal in place in the lead-up to our industry-wide TV/Theatrical contract negotiations is invaluable. Also, important gains like performance capture and dubbing help expand avenues for members to make a living in this industry.

Where do you see the union and the industry in five to 10 years?

I see us continuing to expand our contracts just as we’ve done with Netflix and with Telemundo. We are not just bound to the traditional employers that we’ve had in the past. We are organizing new emerging employers and that is exciting. The union is embracing developing artists and their creative work. All of this is possible because we merged our legacy unions, which has prepared us for the future.

Do you see merger of the pension plans at some point?

Because we merged the unions, we are in a position to have our trustees look at combining the benefit plans. SAG-AFTRA Health is a successful example of the work of our trustees. I’m not a trustee, but I know they are looking at every possible scenario to enhance benefits to participants.

Is there anything else we should know?

I’m grateful for the support of the members and honored to serve. I promise to continue to work hard, listen and fight for the best interests of SAG-AFTRA and the membership. Together, we are stronger.