Esai Morales is on a mission. He’s running for president of SAG-AFTRA, but more importantly, he says, he’s on a crusade to change the union’s culture. The union’s current leaders, he says, have put their own “petty partisan politics over the needs of the members, and that needs to change.”
And now he’s threatening to file an election complaint against his main opponent – SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris – if those “petty politics” continue.
Carteris’ Unite For Strength slate has denigrated Morales’ long service to the guild, calling him “No Show Morales” because his busy work schedule prevented him from attending many local board meetings. “Leaders show up,” they said in a recent tweet.
“I find it distasteful that they impugn my service, using questionable and selective numbers and refusing to talk about the issues, like voter apathy and pension disparity,” he told Deadline in a freewheeling telephone interview from Budapest, where he’s filming the Ron Howard-directed miniseries Mars.
And now his slate is fighting back, putting Carteris on notice that they will file an election fraud complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor if she wins a local board seat in the upcoming election and gives it up so she can be replaced by one of her supporters, as she did two years ago. Ballots from members are due back August 24.
“Unite For Strength is challenging Esai’s attendance record,” Membership First said in a statement. “Both Esai and Gabrielle ran in 2015 for the Los Angeles local board. Both won seats. Esai went to as many board meetings as his work schedule would allow. Gabrielle, on the other hand, simply resigned her seat so that one of her political operatives could then take her place. Thus, Gabrielle never attended one single L.A. board meeting.”
They’re both running again for seats on the L.A. local board, and “If Esai wins his, he promises to keep his seat, and again attend as often as he can,” the statement continued. “If Gabrielle wins, we are putting her on notice. If she again gives away her seat, we will immediately file with the DOL an action that Gabrielle intentionally ran, all the while knowing she was going to resign her seat again to allow for another un-elected Unite For Strength person to sit in the L.A. local boardroom. This must be called what it is: election fraud.”
The union’s rules allow such replacements, but Membership First says it may challenge the legality of the rule.
“Solidarity is something you live, it’s not just something you claim,” Morales told Deadline, charging that Carteris and her slate, which controls the union’s local and national boards of directors, have mistaken uniformity for unity. “How can they be talking about solidarity when they spare no chance to attack us and waste our support when we give it to them, as they did when we voted to support their efforts in the negotiations?”
“We want the union to function as it was designed, to include the democratic involvement of its members and officers,” he said. “Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we get no cooperation.”
The ongoing election coincided with the ratification of a new film and TV contract, which was recently approved overwhelmingly by the membership, although only 15% bothered to vote. During negotiations, Morales refrained from politicking so the union could present a united front to management, but was repaid, he said, with name-calling and misrepresentations of his guild service.
“Unite For Strength is desperate because they can’t fight us on the issues,” he said. “They don’t disprove our points, they just say it’s a lie.”
Morales opposed the new contract, arguing the negotiating team didn’t fight hard enough for bigger gains. And when it came time to poll the members, he and his supporters on the board asked to include a minority report to express their reservations. That, however, was shot down. “We tried to get a debate about having a minority report on the contract and Gabrielle ruled it out of order,” he said.
“We really want to come together,” he said. “We tried everything we could in the last two years to work with them. And even though they have the votes on the board, we offered unanimity going into the negotiations, but got nothing in return but obfuscation and mischaracterization.”
One of the biggest problems at the guild, he said, is the imbalance of power wielded by the staff, which is led by national executive director David White. This imbalance, he said, has made the guild less democratic and transparent. This can be seen most easily, he said, in the way staff pensions are calculated and the way the pensions of working actors are determined.
Pensions for the highest SAG earners are capped at $96,000 a year, even after working 40 years or more in the industry. But the highest earning staffers can retire on $210,000 a year after only 20 years of service – twice what superstars like Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep can get, even though they’re covered by the same pension plan as the staffers. A big part of the reason for this is that the accrual rate, on which pensions are calculated, is much higher for staff than for members. Morales wants that changed.
“We love the staff,” he said. “What we don’t want is a situation where people enrich themselves at the expense of the members.” Compounding the imbalance, he said, is the fact that four of the 18 union seats on the SAG Pension Plan are held by staffers, even though they’re vastly outnumbered by the union’s 160,000 members.
“We have only respect for our staff and the jobs they do,” Membership First said in a statement. “However, the secret disparity that exists between our pension and our staff’s pension is unacceptable.”
In 2004, when the staffers were moved into the SAG Pension Plan, the board was led to believe that staff benefits would be calculated the same as the members’. But when the plan lost nearly 25% of its assets as a result of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Plan’s trustees were forced to cut the pension accrual rate nearly in half – from 3.5% to 2%. “Except an exception was made to create an ‘Elite Group’ that would stay at 3.5%,” the statement says. “That “Elite Group” was our SAG staff. Since January 1, 2010, our SAG-AFTRA staff, who are paid with our dues money, still accrue at 3.5%, while we the members languish at 2%.”
Even better for staffers, when they reach 20 years of service and are 55 or older, they can take full retiree benefits, under what’s called “The Rule of 75,” which allows them to qualify for a pension in a completely different and better way than the members do.
Under this Rule of 75, the staff’s pension becomes 70% of the average of their last five years’ salary, regardless of their accrual rate. This also allows for something called “pension spiking,” which inflates their salary to include overtime and other wage compensation.
“The staff’s pension benefits far exceed those of ours, the members,” the statement says. “The staff’s annual pension cap is $210,000, verses our annual cap of $96,000 for SAG members — $108,000 for AFTRA members.”
Despite the merger of SAG and AFTRA in 2012, there are still two separate pension plans, and it’s almost impossible for performers to receive the maximum AFTRA pension. Today, the most that even the highest-paid performer can accrue under the AFTRA Plan is $2,000 a year, so if he or she works for 50 years, they’d only receive a pension of $100,000 a year.
And the Rule of 75 makes staffers eligible for full pension benefits at the age of 55, compared to SAG and AFTRA members, who can’t retire with full pensions until they reach the age of 65. SAG members take a 30% reduction of benefits at 55, while AFTRA members take a 60% reduction at age 55. And to receive a maximum pension, the SAG pensioner also has to vest 35 years, while staff can fully vest after only 20 years.
“This has nothing to do with attacking the staff,” Morales said. “We are attacking the innate unfairness. We can’t support that kind of inequity.”
All this may seem very deep in the weeds, but Morales says he and his Membership First platform aims to bring this kind of attention to detail and transparency to all things involving the members’ interests, including all future negotiations.