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Dissenters gain SAG board seats

Times Staff Writer

Dissidents backed by Tom Hanks and Sally Field won six of the 11 open Hollywood division seats on the national board of the Screen Actors Guild, empowering moderates inside the union and potentially influencing the stalled negotiations with the studios.

In a fiercely contested election, “Private Practice” star Amy Brenneman and veteran film and TV actor Ken Howard were among the candidates elected from the Unite for Strength group, which mounted a challenge against the leadership of SAG President Alan Rosenberg and the incumbent faction that supported him, Membership First.

With support from moderates in New York and SAG’s regional branches, the dissidents will now have enough votes to muster a majority on the national board. Membership First has had a slim majority on the 71-member national board and dominates the guild’s negotiating committee.

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A newly reconfigured board could help jump-start talks with the studios that have stalled for months, although it’s unlikely the stalemate will end any time soon.

The union’s 120,000 members have been working without a contract since June 30, with the guild and studios sharply at odds over how actors should be paid for shows that are distributed via the Internet and other new media.

Unite for Strength candidates could push to unseat Doug Allen as the union’s chief negotiator -- or even fire him outright. Such a step, however, would probably deepen rifts within an already divided union, which has been buffeted by executive turnover. Allen is the third executive director in three years at the guild.

What’s more, replacing the guild’s chief negotiator while contract negotiations are in flux could further weaken SAG’s bargaining leverage. In addition, it’s unlikely that the studios will significantly modify their “final” offer.

The studios have repeatedly rejected SAG’s chief demand to extend jurisdiction over all shows specifically created for the Web, a goal widely shared by members.

Nothing will happen before the new board holds its first meeting Oct. 18.

The election highlighted the factions inside Hollywood’s largest union, with celebrities lining up on either side. Hanks and Field squared off against Membership First supporters Sean Penn and Martin Sheen.

The dissidents accused SAG leaders of mishandling negotiations with the studios and waging an ill-fated campaign against the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which they say weakened SAG’s bargaining position.

AFTRA recently reached agreement on a three-year prime-time TV contract with the studios that was modeled on accords negotiated by writers and directors, but criticized by SAG leaders as a bad deal for actors. The two actors unions have sparred over jurisdiction in television, and AFTRA has recently signed several new shows.

Membership First, which has made issues affecting so-called middle-class actors a priority, opposes merging the two unions, contending that AFTRA has too many nonactors as members and that its contracts are inferior.

The Membership First candidates who were elected include Joely Fisher, star of the sitcom “‘Til Death”; Keith Carradine, who played a special agent in the “Dexter” TV series; and Scott Bakula of “Star Trek: Enterprise.” However, David Jolliffe, a longtime leader in Membership First and co-chair of the guild’s negotiating committee, lost his position as an alternate board member.

The studios believe that SAG is increasingly isolated and are willing to play a waiting game. They’ve determined that SAG leaders do not have the clout to obtain a strike authorization vote from members, especially given the deteriorating economy. Their confidence is underscored by the fact that they are proceeding with a number of major feature films that otherwise would have been held up by strike fears.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com


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