The deadline for balloting in the SAG-AFTRA national election is Thursday, and all indications point to a big win for President Ken Howard and his Unite for Strength running mates. Incumbents and candidates endorsed by Howard have been sweeping local races by large margins across the country, where voter turnout has been low – clear signs that an apathetic membership sees no great need for change, much less the sweeping changes called for by challenger Patricia Richardson and her slate of Membership First running mates.
If four out of five eligible members don’t care enough to vote, as has been the pattern in local elections, the race will be decided by the 20% who do care, and all it takes is for 51% of them – or 11% of all eligible voters – to decide the winner. That was the case two years ago, when Howard got 57% of the votes in a four-way contest for president in which only 11% of all eligible members voted for him.
Richardson has faced several insurmountable challenges in her bid for the presidency, not the least of which has been financing. The union charges candidates to send campaign material to its members, and Richardson paid the guild to send emails to each member who cast a ballot two years ago and postcards to those who voted in Los Angeles. Even so, that left more than 100,000 members who never received campaign literature from her.
Howard’s better-funded campaign has reached far more voters, and opponents view his recent travels around the country touting the union’s drive to organize nonunion commercial producers as little more than a campaign swing paid for by the union. Opponents also are outraged by the timing of the summer issue of the SAG-AFTRA magazine, which arrived in every paid-up members’ mailboxes a few weeks ago — in which Howard is given a full page to tout everything he and the current leaders have done for members while urging them to “make sure your voice is represented by voting in the current election.”
In that same issue, David White, the union’s National Executive Director, talked about the union’s successes, saying, “I want to personally thank and congratulate all SAG-AFTRA elected leaders” – a clear endorsement of the incumbent leadership.
This use of the magazine, opponents claim, is a violation of Title IV (g) of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which states that “no monies received by any labor organization by way of dues … shall be contributed or applied to promote the candidacy of any person in an election.”
Richardson’s biggest problem, however, was that while campaigning on a platform to unite the union’s members and put an end to internal squabbling, she could not at the same time blast the current leaders for failing to deliver on the many promises they made more than three years ago about the benefits of merging SAG and AFTRA.
The main reason SAG agreed to merge with AFTRA was because AFTRA had sunk to the lowest form of unionism – the kind that steals the jobs of another union by raiding its jurisdiction and undercutting its contracts. It was less a merger than a shotgun wedding. If SAG hadn’t merged, it faced the very real collapse of its TV contract and the erosion of its pension and health plans as producers stampeded to sign up with AFTRA, which they viewed as a paper tiger that would never go on strike for better wages and working conditions.
In the lead-up to the election, White issued a statement saying that “significant progress” has been made toward merging the SAG and AFTRA health plans. If true, the merger of the health plans would be the fulfillment of one of those promises.
A longtime trustee of the AFTRA health plan, however, warned that White’s optimistic statement might have been made “in the context of an election” and warned that “unless what people want is a plan that offers dramatically worse coverage than that offered by either the AFTRA or the SAG plan now, and at a cost much higher than the SAG plan, getting it done quickly just isn’t an option. Indeed, it’s proving much more difficult than any of us would have imagined when we started the task.”
The much tougher job of merging of the unions’ pension plans – which are governed by federal law – is nowhere in sight. And the union still has two separate TV contracts, with some actors covered by SAG’s and others covered by AFTRA’s.
And the union still has two separate franchise agreements with talent agents – one SAG’s and the other AFTRA’s. This schism came about in 2002 when SAG and the Association of Talent Agents, which represents the major agencies, had a falling out over terms for a new franchise agreement. The main sticking point was that the big talent agencies wanted the right to invest in, or be invested in by, ad agencies, advertisers and independent producers. SAG viewed such financial interests as an irreconcilable conflict of interest, putting the actor in the position of being represented by an agency that could also be his or her employer. When SAG members rejected a proposed deal, the two sides went their separate ways and have yet to reconcile. That same year, the same dispute over financial interest also drove a wedge between SAG and AFTRA, with AFTRA siding with the ATA by allowing its franchised agents to have limited financial interests in production companies. That was 13 years ago, and it has yet to be fixed.
The merger, which was approved in 2012, still has a long way to go to be completed. Ironically, the current leaders chose “SAG-AFTRA One Union” as the logo for a union that can’t even decide on one name. And unless Richardson can pull off a major upset, the same leaders will be in place Friday to continue their policies and politics.