Why SAG-AFTRA Is Taking Action Against Trump

Donald Trump
ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

An expulsion would be a message to the industry: "Consider not engaging him."

SAG-AFTRA hasn’t expelled a member since its merger nearly a decade ago, and before that neither union had done it since 2002. While most disciplinary hearings contemplating other severe penalties involve violations of Global Rule 1 — the restriction against working on non-union projects — it’s a threat to members’ safety that has prompted the organization to take such a step now. On Jan. 19, the union disclosed that its National Board voted “overwhelmingly” that a member — Donald Trump — should face expulsion in a disciplinary hearing for alleged violations of the organization’s constitution.

The charges were initiated by national executive director David White at the request of president Gabrielle Carteris. They cite not only Trump’s alleged role in inciting the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, for which he’s been impeached, but also his war on the media. As White noted, “This individual’s words and actions over the past four years have presented actual harm to our broadcast journalist members.”

Leading entertainment labor lawyer Ivy Kagan Bierman says it’s the second part that’s significant. “SAG-AFTRA cannot do something that is partisan politics,” she says. “I think this charge is intentionally very specific to something that is clearly within the union’s control — which is someone making statements or taking action that the union regards as dangerous to its members.”

SAG-AFTRA’s constitution states that a member can be reprimanded, censured, fined, suspended or expelled for violating its rules or regulations or “engaging in actions antagonistic to the interests or integrity of the Union, any of its affiliated Locals or its membership.” It must give Trump 14 days notice prior to holding a hearing before the disciplinary committee, which will determine by a simple majority if he’s guilty and then decide what, if any, penalty should be imposed. If the committee recommends expulsion, it goes back to the National Board and requires a two-thirds majority of those voting on the issue. (Appeals are also handled by the board.)

Even though an expulsion wouldn’t cause Trump to forfeit his pension, Kagan Bierman notes there could be financial consequences. “They could fine him an amount that was consistent with what is in his pension,” she says. “I think expulsion would send a loud, clear message to SAG-AFTRA companies to consider not engaging him.”

It’s unchartered territory, and veteran Hollywood lawyer Schuyler Moore isn’t so sure SAG-AFTRA can take action, even if it should. “I’m not aware of them having ever expelled someone for bad behavior,” he said, noting that no one’s been ousted amid the #MeToo movement. “I’m not entirely sure they can.”

It remains to be seen whether Trump will fight the charges or participate in the process. SAG-AFTRA can’t force members to show up for their disciplinary hearing, but it’s rare for someone to skip it. It's a peer-to-peer, relatively informal proceeding but the union does its best to ensure its version of due process. The member is allowed to have a representative, who can be an attorney but doesn't have to be, and both sides can call witnesses and present evidence. Even if the member doesn't show up for the hearing, the charging party still has to present its case and the member retains their right to appeal the verdict.

Entertainment labor attorney Michael Maizner says holding this particular hearing is largely a symbolic move because practically expulsion wouldn’t affect Trump much, especially since he now lives in Florida — a right to work state that can’t require union membership for employment. Still, he thinks it’s worth it. “The detractors of the process would say this is an unfortunate distraction,” says Maizner. “Yes, there’s better things to be doing but at the same time you can’t just let this go. It’s important that the union won’t stand for members doing things like this.”

A version of this story appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.