Union Faction, President Trade Barbs Over SAG-AFTRA Exec's Possible Departure

David White

SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White’s candidacy to lead the NBA Players Association has come under fire by MembershipFirst, which fought his hiring in 2009; meanwhile, the union president praised White.

The possible departure of SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White in the midst of the union’s preparation for contract negotiations has led to a war of words set off by a faction of the union that has long opposed White.

“David White was one of the main architects of the systematic destruction of one of the most respected unions in the world: The Screen Actors Guild,” said the Saturday statement from MembershipFirst, which opposed both White’s hiring in 2009 and the 2012 merger between SAG and AFTRA. “He used the Guild as a stepping stone to further his profile both financially and professionally, without regard of how his decisions harmed those who paid his lofty salary.”

White is a candidate – and reported frontrunner – to lead the NBA Players Association, the union for pro basketball players.

Hours after the MembershipFirst statement, union president Ken Howard fired back. “Just as it was with their opposition to merger, Membership First remains out of touch with members,” Howard said. “Executives of David White’s caliber are rare and informed SAG-AFTRA members are thrilled to have David leading the preparations for our upcoming contract talks.”

Those triennial contract negotiations are expected to begin within a few months. The WGA is negotiating now (its talks are in recess until March 4), and the DGA ratified its deal last month. White would normally be the chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, but whether he’ll play that role this time around presumably depends on whether he is offered and accepts the NBAPA job, and if so, when the new job begins.

The NBAPA reportedly met Saturday in New Orleans with White and the other apparent finalist, Skadden, Arps litigator Michele Roberts. No decision was made at the meeting. A previous report described White as the frontrunner.

“The NBPA will now implement a program that will allow players around the country to consider final candidates, discuss their merits internally, and convey their views to player representatives,” said NBAPA President Chris Paul of the LA Clippers on Saturday, according to a Bloomberg report.

MembershipFirst has opposed White since at least 2009, when the pro-merger faction Unite for Strength and its allies ousted SAG’s then national executive director Doug Allen (who was aligned with MembershipFirst), hired White and restarted contract talks that had stalled for months under MembershipFirst’s leadership. White and Unite for Strength subsequently led SAG through merger with AFTRA, which passed by a SAG membership vote of 82 percent in favor, and took place notwithstanding an anti-merger lawsuit brought by MembershipFirst.

The MembershipFirst statement Monday alluded to the group’s 2009 opposition to White: “Whether he actively petitioned for or was asked to consider the position of the NBPA’s Executive Director, to do so in the midst of SAG-AFTRA’s upcoming TV/theatrical contract negotiations, highlights why we voted against his hiring as SAG’s National Executive Director/Negotiator in 2009. His consideration of another job, specifically at this crucial time, only illustrates his ego-driven disregard for the union and its members.”

In a Friday email to the SAG-AFTRA board, White implicitly acknowledged the potentially awkward timing, saying “I recognize that this news and possible transition will prove challenging for all of us,” but adding, “Our preparation for upcoming negotiations will continue as fully and completely as before.”

Top SAG-AFTRA leadership with broad negotiating experience include senior advisor John McGuire, chief contracts officer Ray Rodriguez and chief operating officer and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. One of them might step into the role of chief negotiator if White departs.

A SAG-AFTRA spokeswoman previously declined to comment, and White had not responded to a voicemail.

The New York based NBAPA has been without an executive director since Billy Hunter was fired last February by a unanimous vote of player representatives.

White is a graduate of Stanford Law School and a Rhodes Scholar, and was a labor and employment attorney at O’Melveny & Myers before joining the staff at SAG, where he served as general counsel from 2002 to 2006. He is also a graduate of Grinnell College, where he was a football quarterback.

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