EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA presidential candidate Patricia Richardson is calling for sweeping changes in the way the union does its business and deals with its diverse membership, vowing to heal the infighting and to take the fight to the producers for better wages and working conditions. Perhaps just as important, she’s calling for greater transparency inside a union that some wags have come to call the Secret Actors Guild.

Patricia RichardsonRunning atop her Membership First slate of candidates against incumbent Ken Howard, Richardson said it’s time to put the bickering of the past where it belongs – in the past – and to unite the members around a common goal: to “rebuild a union that better reflects the needs of its members.”

“We need strong leadership that isn’t afraid to speak truth to power and be tenacious in negotiations,” the former Home Improvement star said in an email going out to the entire union membership that lays out her agenda for change. “We want to derive our strength from the support of every member of our now-merged union every time we go to the bargaining table. Please allow us to represent all of you collectively and heal the divisions of the past.”

Vowing to unite the guild’s many factions, Richardson said: “I really respect the work and passion I see in all the political parties, and it grieves me to observe tension and conflict in our organization. There is a lot of history that I am relieved to have missed – so much anger and fear, and people holding on to that history.

She also said, “We hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” To do that, Richardson laid out six “concrete and achievable” goals she vowed to tackle if elected president:

* Stronger contracts, not just for performers in the SAG legacy contingent of our Union, but, also, for dissatisfied broadcasters and other legacy AFTRA performers.
* Fair residuals that reflect your hard work and right to a living wage.
* A fiscally responsible merger of the Pension and Health plans.
* Enforcement of contracts and a dedicated leadership to hold those who violate them accountable.
* More equality in representation for background actors.
* More regard and support for the local offices.

She noted, for example, that background players do not have a guaranteed seat in the boardroom and that they “actually lost ground in more than one contract in the last negotiations. Naturally, they are angry and don’t want to be ignored.” Richardson said that principal and supporting actors who work under many of the union’s different contracts “feel outnumbered and worry that their voices will be drowned out by the bigger numbers of lesser earning groups.” And broadcasters, she said, “are understandably upset when their crews have better deals than they do.” And “everyone is upset about the non-union work going on and the people in our union who work off card (non-union).”

Merging the union’s pension and health plans is also high on her agenda. “Your health plans and pensions are part and parcel of belonging to a union in the first place,” she wrote. “Although there’s the possibility of a merged health plan, there is no plan in the foreseeable future to merge the pension plans. This means that your earnings and years of work are still being split between SAG and AFTRA. That leaves many of our members falling between the cracks, with insufficient years of work in either plan to be vested.”

In these and other areas — including financial reports, budget decisions and spending on “frivolous things” — she said, “We need more transparency.”

Here is Richardson’s letter in its entirety:

To the Members of SAG-AFTRA,
Thank you in advance for reading this letter and participating in the important process of electing the leadership of this organization. Hopefully, by now, you’re aware that I am running for National President of the Union alongside Jane Austin. We are very proud to be running under the Membership First slate.
We stand for exactly what our name suggests: putting you, the Membership, first.
We have several concrete and achievable ways of doing just that. Simply put, we can rebuild a union that better reflects the needs of its members by prioritizing the following:
  • Stronger contracts, not just for performers in the SAG legacy contingent of our Union, but, also, for dissatisfied broadcasters and other legacy AFTRA performers
  • Fair residuals that reflect your hard work and right to a living wage
  • A fiscally responsible merger of the Pension and Health plans
  • Enforcement of contracts and a dedicated leadership to hold those who violate them accountable
  • More equality in representation for background actors
  • More regard and support for the local offices
I’ve been a proud member of both SAG and AFTRA for forty years. Most recently, I was honored to serve my first term on the National and Local LA Boards during the foundational years of our newly merged union. I live part time on the east coast and part of the time in Los Angeles, so, I was fortunate to get to know people who attend meetings in both places. I really respect the work and passion I see in all the political parties, and it grieves me to observe tension and conflict in our organization. There is a lot of history that I am relieved to have missed, so much anger and fear, and people holding on to that history. “I was right.” “They are liars.”  What difference does it make now? We are all in the same pot getting screwed by the same few corporations. This factionalism is infecting different geographical groups and different constituencies within the union, pitting people against each other, weakening our strength. For example:
  • Background does not have a guaranteed seat in the boardroom and actually lost ground in more than one contract in the last negotiations. Naturally, they are angry and don’t want to be ignored.
  • Principal and supporting actors who work on many contracts feel outnumbered and worry that their voices will be drowned out by the bigger numbers of lesser earning groups.
  • Broadcasters are understandably upset when their crews have better deals than they do.
  • Everyone is upset about the non-union work going on and the people in our Union who work off card.

We at Membership First want to represent all of you, hear your concerns, and champion your needs. Our aim is to alleviate these problems and to resolve potential conflict between opposing parties by trying to provide everyone with the ample security, plans, and privileges that they seek. I know many others in that boardroom have the same good intentions. I have no plans to make wholesale changes to committee chairs and members just because of party differences. We need the expertise of everyone we have.

However, we do feel the current leadership has been unable to deliver true gains.

Our business is in the midst of rapid and significant change, and, despite what many of us are told, SAG- AFTRA is not keeping up. Current leadership is failing to represent effectively our members in negotiations with basic cable, pay cable, and new media companies. In the past, many in our Union were slighted in home video/DVD profits and told “because it’s a new evolving medium, we’ll have to wait until it matures.” In the end, the studios made billions, while SAG-AFTRA members were left with pennies.  We hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

You will hear that current leadership clinched network rates with new media. I’m sorry to say that this is not wholly accurate. For brevity’s sake, I encourage you to visit our website www.membershipfirst2015.com in order to deliberate for yourself whether these formulas and the payments you will receive as a result are livable or not. They don’t tell you there are no network residuals on the big budget shows, no residuals at all on the first year, and increasingly unlivable residuals after that.

Your health plans and pensions are part and parcel of belonging to a union in the first place. Although there’s the possibility of a merged health plan, there is no plan in the foreseeable future to merge the pension plans. This means that your earnings and years of work are still being split between SAG and AFTRA. That leaves many of our members falling between the cracks, with insufficient years of work in either plan to be vested.

In this and other areas, we need more transparency:

Are you aware that members on the National Board are given copies of the Union’s financial reports mere minutes before the meeting begins? Leadership quickly summarizes what is inside the packet of information and hastily collects the copies before the board meeting can continue. Information should be provided freely and openly, with plenty of time in advance. I would be surprised to hear if any other board operates like this.

Remember, every penny that runs this union comes from you, the Membership. The Board is composed of elected and representative members, and, thus, has a responsibility to you in seeing that this organization runs efficiently and transparently. This is hardly possible when Board members are not given the time and complete information to properly assess budgets and spending.

When we do make difficult but necessary budget decisions, we need to make sure we make the right ones. When our current leadership, with the consent of our current president, closed 10 local offices around the country, my running mate, Jane Austin, took the mic in the boardroom and fought to keep them open. These ill-conceived closures were to the detriment to our membership. Jane and I hope the Board will reconsider this decision.

Our leaders touted these closures as a wise money-saving tactic, while they rented a third, enormous, 55,000 square foot, lavish office building in New York for the newly merged union building. According to someone on their own team, this was completely unnecessary, as the old SAG building was big enough for them to use. Not only did they forget to budget for furnishing this building, but, also, never sublet the old SAG and AFTRA buildings; so, the two spaces sat empty and unrented for over two years until we recently spent over a million to buy ourselves out of one of those leases. We still pay rent on the other empty building. We have 100 employees in the new office. That’s 550 square feet of office space per employee. They purchased all new furniture, as they refused to move anything over from the two, older buildings. A reliable source has estimated the cost of renting and decorating our three buildings in New York to be several million dollars.  Most recently, leadership had to be persuaded against spending another outrageous sum of money on redecorating the first floor offices of our Los Angeles headquarters. In contrast, we believe we should be building equity in buildings we own, as all the other unions do, not wasting money on buildings that we rent.

We don’t want to spend your money on frivolous things; we will always work to spend money on union services that enrich and improve our members’ careers and lives.

You’re probably aware that our current leadership also closed four, separate departments (singers, dancers, background, and stunt performers), providing only a skeleton staff in a single office to handle the needs and communications of these remarkably diverse groups. These members, especially, perform jobs that are physically demanding and requiring of strict enforcement for any set violations. How can one office with a few people possibly be “on it”?

We need strong leadership that isn’t afraid to speak truth to power and be tenacious in negotiations. We want to derive our strength from the support of every member of our now-merged union every time we go to the bargaining table. Please allow us to represent all of you collectively and heal the divisions of the past.

>If you read this far, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

All of us in Membership First care so deeply about our union. We know there have been mistakes made and bad feelings brought on by all sides.

I want to end “sides,” stop fighting each other, and start fighting for what we really need to do to survive and thrive, in our chosen professions.

Is it possible to band together and work on that problem? We believe so. Let’s not waste energy in being fearful, divisive, or angry, and, instead, build a strong bipartisan board which works doggedly to do what needs to be done, with democracy and transparency restored.

That is my hope.

In solidarity,

Pat