Fierce infighting at SAG -- again

This evening, hundreds of stars will line the Shrine Auditorium to toast their peers in the 15th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Behind the showbiz glitz and glamour, however, an ugly boardroom drama has paralyzed Hollywood’s largest union, founded in 1933 when veteran character actor Ralph Morgan and other actors rebelled against an exploitative studio system.

The notoriously fractious guild has a colorful history of infighting. SAG members still debate whether onetime guild president Ronald Reagan and his allies shortchanged members when the union accepted a compromise from the studios that would pay residuals only for movies made after Jan. 31, 1960.

But the latest brawling between moderate and hard-line factions on the board over the guild’s strategy and leadership has startled even veteran labor watchers and severely damaged SAG’s standing.

“You have to really go back to the post-World War II period to find something that’s even close to what we’re seeing now at SAG,” said Dan Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA, referring to the fierce ideological battles that divided Hollywood’s unions and contributed to the blacklisting of actors in the late 1940s and 1950s.


The conflict has spilled over into tonight’s SAG Awards. A widely circulated anonymous e-mail forwarded by board member and “Titanic” actress Frances Fisher called on SAG members to withhold their votes for eight actors who are up for SAG awards -- including Josh Brolin, Steve Carell and Sally Field -- for their opposition to a planned strike-authorization vote. That prompted former SAG President Richard Masur to compare the action to the blacklist of the 1950s.

“There have been many times in the history of this union that there has been infighting, dissension and internal friction, but there’s never been anything like this,” Masur, a board member, lamented in an interview.

While the 1950s conflict was rooted in the Cold War, the current fracas centers on the more parochial: how to end a stalemate with the studios, whose “final offer” has been rejected by the union’s leadership as threatening the very future of actors in the digital era. The actors have been working without a contract for seven months, unable to strike a new deal largely because of sharp disagreements over how actors should be paid when they appear in shows created for the Internet.

Making matters worse, the union can’t decide whether to keep its executive director and chief negotiator, Doug Allen, a former Buffalo Bills linebacker whose fate could be decided this week. That would continue the churn of top executives that has roiled SAG. The union has had three executive directors in just seven years -- not including the former Disney executive who bowed out 10 days after he accepted the job.

During a 28-hour SAG board meeting this month, a majority of directors sought to fire Allen. But they were blocked by his filibustering supporters, led by SAG President Alan Rosenberg. At one point in the meeting, as tension mounted, Rosenberg declared that he was prepared to lead a “civil war” if Allen was ousted. He later said Allen’s critics were “acting like children.”

Even with new leadership, however, Hollywood labor experts say the turmoil that has beset SAG will continue unless it undertakes fundamental reforms. Those include limiting the size of its sprawling 71-member board, tightening the rules on who can vote in contracts, and merging with the agile American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which is becoming the go-to union for producers of prime-time TV pilots, traditionally the domain of SAG.

“These conflicts are endemic to SAG,” said Brian Walton, a former chief contract negotiator for SAG. “Unless there is significant structural and behavioral change at SAG, the problems will repeat over and over again until at some point it won’t matter.”

The turmoil couldn’t come at a worse time for SAG, which confronts increasingly powerful media conglomerates and a membership whose acting jobs are shrinking as prime-time television increasingly shifts away from scripted programming toward reality shows, game shows, live sports and talk formats.

And like its studio adversaries, SAG is grappling with upending changes brought about by the Internet, which has raised deep uncertainty about how actors will be paid when shows are distributed online.

One of the biggest sticking points with the studios is their refusal to pay residuals -- the fees from reruns that are a lifeline of peripatetic actors -- on most programs that are specifically created for the Internet.

For now, SAG’s 120,000 members are divided into two camps. On one side are so-called moderates seeking to oust Allen, arguing that he has mishandled negotiations by seeking unrealistic demands -- including better terms than those negotiated by three other unions -- during a deep recession. On the other are hard-line supporters of Allen, who view him as a fearless union chief fighting to secure actors’ livelihoods in the digital era.

“It’s really sad,” said Ed Harris, star of “Appaloosa” and “A History of Violence” and a supporter of the leadership. “A union is only as a strong as its members, and if the membership is split in half, the union is powerless.”

In a widely circulated e-mail, Jason Alexander, a star of the “Seinfeld” TV series, said the union is in a “very precarious situation” and in no position to wage a strike. “We don’t need the outside world to destroy us, we can do it ourselves,” he wrote.

The schism has split SAG’s high-profile members in a way that few can recall. While some, including Martin Sheen and Sean Penn, have backed the leadership, others such as Tom Hanks and George Clooney have broken ranks and openly challenged the guild’s aggressive pursuit of a strike vote.

“They’ve got a mutiny of stars, and SAG leadership cannot stand up to a mutiny of the stars,” said David Prindle, author of “The Politics of Glamour,” a well regarded history of the union.

Last week, Rosenberg and 33 supporting members praised Allen as “the strongest and most dedicated national executive director/chief negotiator the Screen Actors Guild has seen in decades.” They also supported Allen’s proposal to drop a planned strike referendum, a stark reversal, and have members vote on the studios’ offer -- without a recommendation from the board.

The moderate majority dismissed the idea, saying that the board should only send out a contract it can recommend and that it had no faith in Allen’s leadership.

It’s doubtful, however, that a new leader will fare much better than his predecessors because of SAG’s systemic problems, union observers say.

Many blame the union’s instability on the fact that the vast majority of members don’t earn their livelihood from acting. Unlike other unions, including the Writers Guild of America, SAG does not have “qualified voting,” so any member who has paid his dues can vote on a contract, even if he hasn’t worked in decades.

That prompted more than 1,000 actors in February to sign a petition calling on the guild to restrict who would be eligible to vote on the main film and TV contract. The petition was dismissed by Rosenberg and other board members as “elitist.”

Above all, critics say, actors should be represented by one union, a goal that has been elusive over the years.

For most of the last two decades, the two actors’ unions had largely respected each other’s jurisdictional turf: AFTRA handled shows “recorded live,” reflecting its origins in radio, and most programs shot on videotape, while SAG had dibs on everything captured on film.

But those lines have blurred in recent years as more shows are shot with digital technology. Each guild claims jurisdiction over digital, setting the stage for conflict, especially in cable TV, where AFTRA has made significant inroads.

After a yearlong conflict, AFTRA suspended a long-standing bargaining partnership with SAG and negotiated its own prime-time TV contract. SAG spent about $150,000 in an unsuccessful campaign to defeat AFTRA’s contract. The controversial move, pitting sister unions against each other, ruptured SAG’s membership, many of whom also belonged to AFTRA.

The divorce also undercut SAG’s bargaining clout and has stoked deep concerns among many board members that unions must find a way to consolidate even though previous merger attempts have failed.

Walton sees little alternative. “Having two actors unions in today’s environment,” he said, “could be viewed as institutionalized insanity.”