EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA has found itself in a precarious legal position in Hollywood’s ever-expanding sex abuse scandal. For while many of the victims are members of the union, so too are many of the alleged perpetrators, and the union is taking a cautious approach to make sure it’s not on the hook for legal damages.
SAG-AFTRA acknowledges that it has a role to play in protecting members from harassment and assault in the workplace, but as national executive director David White made clear in a recent email to the union’s Los Angeles local board member Cupid Hayes that has been obtained by Deadline, it also has to protect itself from “liability in any way.”
“This is one of those extremely ‘big,’ emotionally sensitive, legally complex issues that has serious legal implications for SAG-AFTRA, as well as for several of our members, who may look to us for protection as this process unfolds,” he told Hayes on Friday in the email. “Everyone is scrutinizing each word that we communicate about the union’s position.”
White wrote that he and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s COO and general counsel, along with outside counsel and others, “are very involved to ensure we don’t have any misstep that brings on liability in any way.”
Hayes wrote to White last week with questions about tomorrow’s panel discussion on sexual harassment in the workplace, which will be led by SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and attorney Gloria Allred, who represents several of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. His response, Hayes said, is indicative of a union that appears more concerned about protecting itself than its members.
“Unions have the right to protect themselves,” she told Deadline, “but for far too long, this union has allowed itself to be victimized by the status quo. The interests of the membership, at many times, are at odds with what is best for the protection of this entity that is SAG-AFTRA. And nothing makes that more obvious than this email from David White. It’s past time that the national board do what’s right for the membership. A union cannot take action if it’s full of fear. A union is supposed to be fearless. That’s why we have them; to protect us when we are too afraid to protect ourselves.”
The union, White said in his email to Hayes, has been flooded with questions from reporters from all over the world who want to know what SAG-AFTRA’s position is and what it’s doing about the growing scandal.
“Because there is international, national and industrywide press that has aggressively pursued SAG-AFTRA to learn what we are doing,” he wrote, “we are managing this in a uniform way throughout the union, at least for now. That is to ensure that we are delivering a uniform message to our members, to industry partners who we are working with (DGA, WGA, Association of Talent Agents etc.), and to the world about the role our union has to play.”
The panel discussion is being held, White wrote, because the union “opted to seize an opportunity to showcase the fact that SAG-AFTRA is, in fact, taking steps to protect our members during this turbulent time. Providing a forum for education and empowerment is well within existing policy and therefore a good first step.”
The union recently put out a statement deploring disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein’s “abhorrent and unacceptable” behavior towards women, and has urged its members to call its hotline (1-844-Safer Set) to report harassment and inappropriate or aggressive behavior on the set.
It also got producers to establish a “mandatory online harassment prevention training program for stunt coordinators” during its recent negotiations for a new film and TV contract.
SAG-AFTRA’s website states that it is “committed to ensuring that its members have the opportunity to work in environments that are free of unlawful discrimination, harassment and any other form of inappropriate workplace behavior.”
But in 2015, the union also threatened to sue filmmaker Amy Berg and attempted to suppress factual and accurate information contained in An Open Secret, her controversial documentary about the sexual abuse of child performers – including a demand that she remove “all references” to SAG-AFTRA in the film – a demand she refused.
In 2012, SAG-AFTRA lent its support to the Child Performer Protection Act. Signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown later that year, the law is designed to protect child actors from registered sex offenders and requires managers, acting coaches, publicists and photographers who regularly work with child performers to be fingerprinted and their names to be entered into a searchable database.