West Coast SAG members hear leaders' pitch

Rosenberg, Allen find slightly more supportive crowd in L.A.

After a week of feverish internal conflict, the Screen Actors Guild held its most recent town hall meeting for members Wednesday night at the Hollywood Renaissance hotel. Approximately 570 West Coast members filed in to hear guild leaders Alan Rosenberg and Doug Allen reiterate their pitch for passing a strike authorization.

A similar meeting on Monday night in New York, the locus of the more moderate faction of the guild and about 25% of the membership, followed 36 hours of escalating rhetoric. The gathering devolved into a combative argument over the merits and timing of the vote as well as several calls for the negotiating committee to be replaced and its leaders to resign.

The Hollywood wing of the guild, which reps about 60% of the membership, has generally been much more supportive of guild president Rosenberg and chief negotiator Allen and the authorization vote. Hundreds turned out for an educational town hall meeting held in L.A. last week.

Meanwhile, the guild's most visible members have turned the spotlight on themselves the last few days with several pointed public statements attempting to persuade voters of the merits of either a yes or a no vote.

On Sunday, a few dozen high-profile actors, including Martin Sheen, Mel Gibson and Ed Harris, signed on to the leadership's pro-authorization "solidarity" campaign. The following morning, 140-plus actors, including A-listers George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, delivered a petition to guild officers requesting that the authorization vote be rescinded. Since then, both sides have racked up hundreds of signatures in support of their positions.

Last night's gathering included the Powerpoint presentation about contract issues that Rosenberg and Allen rolled out at the previous confabs, followed by questions from those in attendance. According to one person who was at the Renaissance, many members asked for clarifications on specific details of the current offer and expressed discomfort with the timing of a potential strike given the worsening economy.

On the whole, attendees tilted toward support for the vote and the leadership. But the tone, even among those in opposition to the vote, appeared more civil than that in New York two nights before. Rob Schneider and former guild president Ed Asner, however, did take time at the mike to lambast those high-profile actors who publicly petitioned the leadership on Monday to back away from the authorization vote.

As for the chances that the vote would actually be rescinded: "Little to none," said Anne-Marie Johnson, first vp and chair of SAG's Hollywood division, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter after the meeting.

Strike authorization ballots are scheduled to go out to the 110,000 or so dues-paid members on Jan. 2. The deadline for voting is Jan. 23, when the ballots will be tallied. A 75% or greater "yes" response is required to authorize the guild's national board to call a strike, should they deem it necessary.

The embattled SAG leaders hope to pass the authorization to put added pressure on the companies represented by the AMPTP to give additional ground in the contract negotiations that have essentially been stalled since July. Despite the intervention of a federal mediator in November, a resolution could not be reached and the AMPTP has maintained that it will not change its final offer as of June 30, the day the existing contract expired.

Rosenberg has insisted that despite the input of the high-profile members, he ultimately needs to hear the voices of the rank and file in the form of the strike authorization vote in January. Many resistant to a yes vote cite the miserable economy and the implication that a vote for authorization is essentially a vote for an actual strike, which could be called in time to torpedo the Oscars and which would wreak havoc with industry workers' lives.

Given the increasingly public internal debate, passing of the authorization is now deeply in question. Should the authorization vote fail, SAG's leaders would have few options left other than accepting the offer currently on the table, which the leadership has all but admitted.

According to Johnson, the guild will likely start the new year with further educational meetings and video town halls for regional branches of the guild as the ballots remain in play.

"There were no hidden agendas, which I really appreciated," said Johnson of Wednesday's meeting. "New York was all about hidden agendas. Hollywood, it was, 'C'mon, I have a question, please give me an answer.' No personality assassinations. No insults. They stuck to the issues. And that's what it's all about. Who cares if you don't like me?"