Different well-known actors in the past 48 hours have written in support for United For Strength or Membership First. Here’s Mike Farrell (supporting U4S) and Martin Sheen (supporting MF). I flipped a coin to determine which opinion I posted first:

To my fellow actors:

If you’re one of the tens of thousands of S.A.G. members who don’t work enough or earn enough as an actor, you’re in danger of losing one of your fundamental rights as a union member. Unless you take the time, right now, to go get your S.A.G. ballot and re-elect MembershipFirst, you could lose your right to vote.

 A slate of actors has emerged calling themselves “Unite For Strength”, with an overwhelming majority of their candidates determined to implement “Qualified” or “Affected” voting on all future S.A.G. contracts. Regardless of what they are claiming TODAY, if this group gains control of S.A.G.’s national board, they will start the “qualified/affected” voting policy in motion. Since February 2008, they have dedicated their energies in collecting signatures for their “Qualified Voting Petition.” They’ve proudly and publicly touted their list of supporters, including the names of very high profile actor/producers.  They and their supporters have signed a petition that would end democracy in the Screen Actors Guild and create a ‘class system’ between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

The AMPTP, ( the group that represents our largest employers/producers) have publicly endorsed “Qualified Voting”. In their opinion, too many actors are voting on S.A.G. contracts.  Clearly the AMPTP has something to gain if fewer members are allowed to vote: The potential of all contracts, no matter how weak, being ratified by a greatly diminished voting pool.

Many of the actors who signed the “qualified/affected” voting petition are themselves producers with very successful production companies. That’s clearly a conflict of interest.

 It is safe to assume that strong and determined unionists like Crystal Lee Sutton, (the real ‘Norma Rae’) would never support “Qualified”/”Affected” voting.  She would know that any proposed plan to disqualify a member’s right to vote would weaken the power of a union and its members. With regard to the Screen Actors Guild, the “qualified/affected” voting proposal, proudly advocated by “Unite For Strength” and their supporters, would deny 75% of S.A.G.’s membership the right to vote on our most important contracts. Those who will be most impacted by ‘affected’ voting are the same S.A.G. members who are having the hardest time getting hired- namely performers of color, seniors, performers with disabilities and woman over the age of 35. I firmly believe that the real ‘Norma Rae’ would never support any policy as divisive, as elitist and as discriminatory as “qualified/affected” voting. I’m confident that she, nor any other strong union activists like her, would ever support the inherent divisiveness of positions “Unite For Strength” advocates.

The proposed “qualified/affected” voting plan goes against not only the very essence of “unionism”, but it is also based on a false premise.

There is absolutely NO evidence that struggling actors vote any differently than those who are LUCKY enough to work consistently, particularly when it comes to contracts.

MembershipFirst is, and has always been, against “qualified” or “affected” voting. That’s one of the reasons why they have my complete support. They have consistently fought for all actors, regardless of earning levels. From A-Lister to up and comers, MembershipFirst has and will continue to keep their eyes on the prize and work diligently for all of the members of the greatest talent union in the world.

Please join me in voting for the entire MembershipFirst slate as listed below.
In solidarity,
Martin Sheen


“What we’re deciding here will affect actors for a generation,” said Doug Allen to Time Magazine. This is the man who, with no knowledge of the industry, was hired by the small faction now in control of our union to be SAG’s National Executive Director. What he said was right, but probably not in the way he meant it.

Allen’s obedience to Membership First, the group now running things by dint of control of the Hollywood Board, may well “affect actors for a generation” by destroying the very union they are so misleading. It’s awful to watch this storied organization be highjacked and flown into a building.

I was thrilled to join the Screen Actors Guild almost 50 years ago, and felt the same way when joining AFTRA not long after. I’ve been proud of my union membership while building a career over the decades. How frustrating, then, to watch this disaster unfold.

There have been struggles within the union over the years, of course – labor disputes, political disagreements and some name-calling – all part of the dynamic. But I went happily along, working and assuming the good people in charge would sort out what problems arose. Oh, I lent assistance once in a while, but always managed to avoid serious involvement like serving on the board or running for office. I had a job.

Then, about ten years ago, a scurrilous campaign against a very bright and effective president of the Guild made me pay closer attention.

Too late.

Richard Masur was ousted by a group of angry members, mostly commercial actors, who felt they weren’t getting their due. ‘What actor does?’ I wondered. Masur out, they put in a figurehead president who said he knew nothing and proved it, letting them run things while he did crossword puzzles. And run them they did, right into the ground.

In short order this group became led by agent-haters and those out to destroy AFTRA. Angry, organized and militant, increasingly thought of as “the crazies,” they reneged on a deal to renew the Agents Franchise, alienated much of organized labor and bullied their way by 2000 into a horrendous commercial strike they didn’t know how to end. The resulting six-month disaster cost actors and others careers, homes, businesses and hundreds of millions of dollars while sending commercials abroad and permanently disfiguring the marketplace.

When the instigators grudgingly got out of the way and let the adults resolve the strike, they quickly stepped back in, took credit, bragged about a “win” and proceeded to wreak havoc inside the union.

In 2001, a group of actors concerned about the damage done to SAG ran for the Hollywood Board, the root of the problem. (New York and the Regional Branches are not “real actors,” according to one of these Hollywood-centric types.) Surprising nearly everyone, we won. I became First VP under the leadership of President Melissa Gilbert.

Failing to win enough seats to control the Hollywood Board, however, we dealt with the majority’s hostility for a year before finally electing enough independent thinkers to reduce them to a snarling minority and begin to undo the damage. Working with New York and the Branches, we first negotiated a new agreement with the agents, which then had to be sent out for approval by the membership. Running a treacherous, fear-mongering campaign of lies and distortion that would make Karl Rove proud, the crazies, now known as Memberhip First, confused enough members to defeat the agreement, leaving SAG’s membership without the Agents Franchise protections they had enjoyed for 37 years – a situation that continues today.

Next, we resumed an attempt to join actors in a single union by merging SAG and AFTRA, a goal both organizations had been working toward for decades. But, with their usual cancerous tactics, the MFs managed to undermine it. (Requiring a supermajority, the effort – supported by over 58% of SAG’s members – failed by only a few hundred votes.) The destruction of this effort, a calamity heralded as a triumph by the MFs, proved a foretaste of the future. Winning being everything to some people, the bit was in their teeth – and they ran with it.

Retaking the Hollywood Board majority about three years ago, this faction now reigns over the entire Guild, wallowing in power while pretending to serve the members. Driving out or firing nearly everyone with enough institutional memory to threaten their 19th Century approach, they’ve paid off contracts at huge expense, spent the union into debt, elected another trophy president, brought in Mr. Allen and proceeded to metastasize.

Beginning with threats to “promulgate” a new relationship with the agents – a ploy that brought a quick and embarrassing slap-down – they next tried to strong-arm AFTRA into taking a back seat in the 2008 contract negotiations, which they intended to begin only at the very last minute in order to “pressure” the AMPTP into complying early to avoid a strike – a tactic so juvenile as to be laughable given the industry’s consolidation and its ability to stockpile.

Unwilling to forgo its historic position as equal partner in negotiations, AFTRA surprised the MFs by calling their bluff. After trying every other poisoned arrow in their quiver, Allen and company folded like an empty tent and embraced a suspicious AFTRA again, pretending it was all a misunderstanding.

With the DGA and WGA (after a three-month strike) making their deals, and facing pressure in the form of a “just talk” memo from the very stars SAG counts on for implicit muscle at the bargaining table, the MFs were forced to rethink their position and pretend to start talks. But some just couldn’t resist, and one more schoolyard shove at AFTRA caused the sister union to break with SAG and deal with the AMPTP on its own. Reeling, SAG’s militants scrambled, quickly claiming a right to meet the producers first. AFTRA obliged.

Unable to deliver what they’d long promised with tough talk, SAG hit an impasse with the AMPTP after weeks of head-banging. This opened the door for AFTRA to step in and negotiate like professionals. Adding insult to self-inflicted injury, AFTRA made its deal, securing some gains SAG had not been able to achieve, and sent the contract out for approval by its membership.

Then, in an act of desperation, the MFs, over the heated objection of the despised minority from NY and the Branches, voted to further deplete the union’s coffers with a campaign (variously reported to cost $100,000 to $200,000) of lies, distortion, obfuscation and misrepresentation, telling dual-card holders to disapprove the contract. (This while obscuring pertinent facts: all members of AFTRA’s negotiating team were also members of SAG; the AFTRA deal was based on a template established by the DGA and WGA; AFTRA’s negotiators took advantage of research done by the DGA on the key issue of New Media that SAG had disdained.)

In no surprise to anyone but their true-believers, this fundamentally anti-union tactic failed, digging the MFs – and with them our once-esteemed union – into the ever-deepening hole in which we find ourselves today.

And so, the power-obsessed group currently in control of the Hollywood Board – which carries with it the majority vote in our national union – has so completely screwed things up with their behavior that they’ve destroyed the credibility of a once-powerful institution and put us all in a situation that may well “affect actors for a generation.”

This can change in the incipient Screen Actors Guild election. A group of independent, thoughtful, concerned actors has mounted a campaign for seats on the Hollywood Board. If they succeed it will shift the balance of power in our union – not away from Hollywood – but away from mean-spirited, destructive, profligate behavior and back toward becoming the respected Guild I was proud to join.

Ballots will be coming soon. If you vote in Hollywood I urge you to support the 31 candidates running as Unite for Strength – http://www.uniteforstrength.com – and vote, in addition, for two independent candidates, Morgan Fairchild and Susan Boyd Joyce.

Mike Farrell