Stakes high in SAG elections

Years of experience challenged by promise of change

Who will control SAG and what it will mean for labor contract negotiations is the big question this week as results are tallied in two pivotal elections.

On Thursday, guild members will learn whether MembershipFirst, which currently controls the Hollywood and national boards, will continue to hold sway -- or whether a new faction called Unite for Strength will unseat the majority on both boards.

MembershipFirst touts its combined decades of experience; the challenger Unite for Strength promises change.

Up for grabs are 33 seats: 11 on the national board and 22 at the Hollywood table.

Which faction prevails will crucially influence the stalled talks with the Hollywood studios as well as an eventual rapprochement with estranged sister union AFTRA.

Both sides have sent out e-mail blasts laying out their positions, met with actor groups to drum up support -- and taken jabs at the other side.

MembershipFirst was formed in 2003 with the stated goal that SAG should put its members first when setting policy and negotiating contracts. Elliott Gould, Piper Laurie, Joanna Cassidy and SAG president Alan Rosenberg are among its leading lights. Among its 33 candidates looking to join the board for the first time are Keith Carradine, Joe Bologna and Joely Fisher.

Over the last year, MembershipFirst has taken a lot of heat for various positions, including its unsuccessful campaign for dual cardholders to vote down AFTRA's own contract with the AMPTP. MembershipFirst's bashing of AFTRA was one of the reasons SAG's new contract with the studios has not yet come together.

The AMPTP made its final offer on June 30, the day the contract with SAG expired. The guild rejected that offer, and actors are currently working on an expired contract. Since then, SAG has insisted that negotiations are still going on, just not formally at the AMPTP's headquarters.

"Since June 30, we have had informal discussions with the employers, their AMPTP representatives and a core group of leaders from both organizations," SAG told members in a mailer. "You will no doubt read spin suggesting that there is dead silence between our sides, but that is inaccurate." Studio execs and the AMPTP deny any such talks are going on.

"With this SAG election looming, it would not make sense for that to be happening because of the uncertainty of what's to come next," said one studio exec.

But MembershipFirst's Anne-Marie Johnson, who sits on the national board and is a member of the negotiating committee, insists private talks are taking place.

"I have absolutely no idea why there are denials from our employers that any talks are going on," said Johnson, who is not up for election but who acts as a spokesperson for MembershipFirst. "It's purely to discredit Doug Allen and SAG and make ourselves out as liars. That type of vilifying isn't working too well."

If it retains the majority on the boards, MembershipFirst said it would continue down the same path in the talks and not change the make-up of the negotiating committee, Johnson said. "We'll continue doing what we're doing: getting reports from Doug and Alan regarding their off-site meetings with key players and the AMPTP."

Johnson said the board will also evaluate the results of a membership poll about the AMPTP offer.

"If we get a resounding response from the members to please keep negotiating, at least we know we're not too far off from going back to the membership to say, 'Now, what do you want us to do?' " Johnson said. "As long as these off-campus talks continue, we consider the negotiations ongoing," she added.

Ned Vaughn, a candidate with Unite for Strength, disagreed.

Members of his faction do not believe talks with the studios are going on and that progress will continue to be stalled as long as MembershipFirst is in control.

He and the other candidates, including Amy Brenneman, Kate Walsh and Ken Howard, are optimistic that UFS can win the election.

Still, Vaughn struck a cautionary note: "If we were to win every seat available, it's not like Unite for Strength will own the room. But it will certainly tip the balance on the board."

UFS could end up as part of a new majority, if national board members from SAG's New York board and regional boards join with the Vaughn faction. These groups share similar views on the contract talks and the leadership of Allen and Rosenberg.

Johnson, however, contends the issue for UFS is not so much inking a deal with the studios but creating a new union that includes members of SAG and AFTRA.

"Their intent is to make sure under no circumstances would there ever be another work stoppage again," Johnson said. "That's really what's going on with the inner workings of Unite for Strength. They are about not striking, period. Go along to get along."

Vaughn doesn't deny UFS supports a partnership with AFTRA. But he said the election is about uniting SAG, not just uniting SAG with AFTRA.

"We feel it's important to bridge the internal divisions with SAG as well, including those who are part of MembershipFirst," Vaughn said.

There has been speculation that if UFS wins big, its first order of business would be to get rid of Allen, but Vaughn said that's not the case.

"If the majority changes significantly, a new majority would need to have a conversation with Allen to make sure he's comfortable in proceeding in a new direction the new majority wants to take," he said. "And that's a conversation we look forward to having."