SAG ousting chief negotiator Doug Allen

Move decreases likelihood of a strike

SAG national executive director Doug Allen, a lightning rod for criticism during the ongoing contract talks with the studios, is on the way out as chief negotiator.

The development is an indicator that moderate elements of the board now have the votes to derail the proposed strike-authorization vote. With the leverage that a yes vote would provide gone, SAG leadership would have few options but to send the studios' final offer to its membership for approval.

During Monday's national board meeting in Los Angeles, sources said, it became clear that moderate board members from the Hollywood-based faction Unite for Strength and the New York and regional branch divisions had the votes necessary to strip Allen of his title of chief negotiator, which is mandated by his contract. A resolution calling for his ouster was working its way through the parliamentary process at the board meeting late Monday.

Insiders said Monday that guild moderates were confident they had the votes to pass an omnibus resolution that would not only strip Allen of his negotiating power but dissolve the negotiating committee and kill the strike-authorization referendum as well.

The guild has been locked in a stalemate with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers for more than six months over a new TV and film contract. Among several objections to the proposed deal, Allen, national president Alan Rosenberg and a majority of the negotiating committee oppose the terms for work in new media, terms that the other Hollywood unions have accepted.

The guild has been riven by an internecine battle for several years, with hard-line partisans in the Membership First faction favoring a more aggressive negotiating stance not only with management but with SAG's sister union, AFTRA. Meanwhile, board members from New York and the regions favored a more moderate tone in negotiations and favor a merge with AFTRA.

Membership First, which dominates the Hollywood Division, held a majority on the national board until September, when Unite for Strength captured 18 of 55 Hollywood seats, including five on the national board. That gave moderates a slim majority.

However, Rosenberg, who once said the best thing he has ever done as SAG president was to hire Allen, was mounting a vigorous defense of his ally and staging a filibuster of sorts to delay passage of the removal resolution.

Once a resolution makes it to the floor, every board member has the right to speak for three minutes; a source inside the meeting said that Membership First partisans, many of whom support Allen, were all taking their turns to speak for the full allotted time.

The position of national executive director is supposed to be above the political fray of union politics, but if anything has been proven in Hollywood over the past decade, it is that nothing is above politics at SAG.

Even the union's annual awards show fell victim to the internal struggles over the weekend, when an e-mail was circulated urging members to not vote for such high-profile nominees as Alec Baldwin, Steve Carrell, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Spacey, who oppose strike authorization. Former SAG national president Richard Masur circulated an e-mail of his own, comparing the move to the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy era.

Awards shows are one thing; the highest-ranking staff position of Hollywood's largest union is another, and it has been politicized for much of the decade. If Allen is ousted, he will be the third to be forced out in less than four years. Since 2001, when Ken Orsatti retired, the guild has hired four national executive directors, including John Cooke, who agreed to take it then exited without ever being formally installed. The contentiousness has almost certainly made it more difficult for the guild to hire a top-flight bargainer.

Allen, the former No. 2 official at the NFL Players Assn., had the full support of the board, including moderates in New York, when he was hired in October 2006. At that point, Rosenberg and Paul Christie, then president of the New York board and SAG's 2nd vp, had worked hard to heal the differences between the coasts. However, Rosenberg's conciliatory approach caused him trouble with his own party, Membership First. As a result, Anne-Marie Johnson, Rosenberg's closest confidante in SAG, was ousted as 1st vp and replaced by Kent McCord, a longtime union hard-liner who opposes a merge with AFTRA. In fall 2007, Rosenberg faced a stiff re-election challenge from Seymour Cassel, a national board member and also a Membership First partisan, but squeaked by to retain his post.

Such wild swings in the political climate and Membership First's dominance in Hollywood perhaps caused Allen to adopt a hard-line posture from the beginning. In the summer of '07, even before the presidential election, Allen wrote a 13-page letter in the guild's magazine, Screen Actor, that sharply criticized the basic-cable contracts being offered by AFTRA. He echoed a familiar contention from Membership First: that AFTRA was poaching SAG's turf and undercutting its contracts by offering more favorable terms to producers on residual payments, the lifeblood of workaday actors. For its part, AFTRA argued that by offering these deals it was able to keep production in the U.S.

Allen also tried to institute bloc voting, a complicated procedure that would effectively consolidate all of the power on any SAG contract negotiating committee with whichever party held the majority in Hollywood. This was designed to neutralize the longtime alliance between moderates and AFTRA, with whom the guild usually negotiates most of its major contract under their joint-bargaining agreement, known as Phase One. For example, when contracts are negotiated jointly, there is a 26-member committee, 13 from each union. During TV and film negotiations in 2005, there was a crucial vote on whether to pursue more favorable terms for DVD residuals. The vote was defeated 17-9, with all SAG members from Hollywood voting for it and SAG moderates and AFTRA voting against it.

The conflicts with AFTRA continued for the rest of 2007 and into 2008. Before the WGA strike was settled, there was a proposed referendum to change the SAG constitution to allow for bloc voting and, possibly, to suspend Phase One, but it was defeated at a national board meeting. However, AFTRA eventually suspended Phase One over allegations that the guild had tried to poach the federation's turf for the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful." SAG has denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, the two unions negotiated the TV film contract separately for the first time since 1980. AFTRA agreed to a deal with producers in late May, and the guild tried to block it by lobbying its members to vote against it. The two unions have about 44,000 members in common. SAG's "vote no" campaign failed when AFTRA's rank and file ratified the contract in early July.

The two unions have since agreed to return to Phase One for the commercials contract, which expires March 31. Chances are that Allen will not be around to negotiate that deal.

Andrew Salomon, news editor of Back Stage reported from New York; Jay A. Fernandez reported from Los Angeles.