Although the recent SAG-AFTRA election might suggest that the guild’s two bickering factions will be sharing power over the next two years, the balance of power actually remains unchanged. The real power at the guild is held by David White, the union’s national executive director. The national board of directors has the power to fire him, but beyond that, he pretty much calls the shots. And as long as the guild’s elected leaders are split roughly evenly into two camps, as they now are, his job appears to be secure. But the resurgence of the Membership First faction, which he’s tangled with in the past, could give him some sleepless nights.
As the guild’s constitution notes, the national executive director serves as the chief contract negotiator, is responsible for the administration and operations of the organization, and oversees the union’s staff and is responsible for the execution and implementation of National Board directives – in other words, all the big stuff.
SAG-AFTRA’s president presides over the convention — which never does anything of much importance — and over board meetings, and selects the chairs of committees, which never do much either. But primarily, as the union’s constitution notes, he or she “shall be the chief spokesman for the union,” although Ken Howard rarely speaks to reporters, preferring instead to communicate with the media through press releases.
The role of president as figurehead is nothing new. Even back when Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he wasn’t really running the union, any more than he was running General Electric when he was its spokesman. Then, as now, the real power rests with the national executive director, or — as it was called back in Reagan’s day, when Jack Dales held the post — national executive secretary.
The job reportedly got a name change in 1988 when Ken Orsatti, one of SAG’s truly great leaders, was flying back East and the woman sitting next to him asked what he did for a living. “I’m the national executive secretary of the Screen Actors Guild,” he replied. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said. “Whose secretary are you?”
Until recently, the guild’s chief executive was a post that came with great job security; the men who held it held it for decades. SAG’s first national executive secretary was Kenneth Thomson, who helped found the guild in 1933 and held the post for 10 years. He was succeeded by Dales, who held the job for nearly 30 years until he retired in 1972. Next in the job was Chet Migden, who stepped down in 1981 and was replaced by Orsatti, who retired 20 years later.
Since then, it’s been one short-lived national executive director after another, largely due to factional infighting on the national board. Hired for the job in 2001, John Cooke was so dismayed by all the squabbling that he quit before he even started. Bob Pisano then took the job but, after four years of internal feuding, fell out of favor with the Hollywood board, which then was controlled by Membership First – the faction that made a big comeback in the recently concluded election. Membership First’s Jane Austin beat Ken Howard’s Unite tor Strength running mates in two key races – National Secretary-Treasurer, and President of the Los Angeles local – and Membership First candidates were four of the top five vote-getters in LA for the national board, and the top seven vote-getters for the local board.
Pisano was replaced in 2005 by Greg Hessinger, who had been AFTRA’s national executive director, but he got booted just six months later after Membership First further solidified its strength in a sweeping election win that included a victory by its presidential candidate, Alan Rosenberg. Hessinger was replaced by interim national executive director Peter Frank, the guild’s CFO. But before a new executive director could be appointed, David White – yes, that David White – resigned as the guild’s chief counsel a month before his contract was to expire. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have been extended anyway – he’d run afoul of Membership First, backing the wrong horse in the internal power struggle.
White had been brought to the guild by Pisano. They’d worked together at the O’Melveny & Meyers law firm, and as SAG’s chief counsel, White angered Membership First when he defended Pisano against a suit by two of its members who claimed that it was a conflict of interest for Pisano to serve as the union’s chief executive while at the same time serving as a member of the board of directors of Netflix.
Membership First was also angered when White filed a 2004 suit on behalf of the guild against the head of a company who’d sent bulk emails, designed to look like official guild documents, in an effort to defeat the proposed merger of SAG and AFTRA back in 2003, which Membership First opposed.In 2006, with Membership First at the height of its power, Doug Allen, the longtime No. 2 official at the NFL Players Association, was brought in as the guild’s new chief executive. In January 2009, however, Unite for Strength staged a coup, and over the strenuous objections of Membership First, managed to garner enough votes on the board to fire him. White was then given the job, and Unite for Strength then went onto sweep the 2009 elections, and it’s been one-party rule ever since – until now.
Now that Membership First has gained strength on the board and is stronger than it’s been since it lost control of the guild in 2009, the two sides will have to work together for the betterment of the members. If not, White might find himself once again navigating the troubled waters of internecine board politics.