Unite for Strength, SAG-AFTRA’s ruling party, has decided not to challenge the Los Angeles local’s recent election, even though it claims that the Membership First opposition party — which clobbered them in the L.A. races — “irrefutably violated” federal election law by allegedly accepting “illegal” campaign contributions from an employer. Membership First flatly denies the allegation.
“Filing an election challenge would have absolutely overturned the local election based on the evidence; leading to a brand new election in the Los Angeles local,” Unite for Strength says on its website. “However, we determined that as painful as the results were, re-running the election would not be in the best interest of our almost 80,000 Los Angeles members.” The L.A. local is SAG-AFTRA’s largest local, accounting for half of the union’s entire membership nationwide.
In late-August, Gabrielle Carteris won re-election as national president of SAG-AFTRA on the Unite for Strength ticket, defeating Matthew Modine, who was running at the head of Membership First’s slate. But Modine’s running mates trounced Carteris’ team in the L.A. local races, winning the local’s top three posts – president and two vice presidential slots – and 13 of 17 national board seats that were up for grabs. In the national board races, Membership First candidates were the top nine vote-getters. And while Carteris managed to win a seat on the national board, she finished 14th in the balloting.
A similar scenario played out at the union’s New Orleans local, where Carteris supporters also got shellacked. But that local’s election committee has ordered a re-run of all but one of the officer and board races on the grounds that Modine and his supporters there had accepted “unlawful contributions” from employers at a campaign event held on June 29. A protest filed with the New Orleans election committee by several losing candidates from the ruling Union Strong NOLA slate – which backed Carteris’ re-election – alleged that a local distillery had provided the venue for that event, as well as the food and beverages that were served there. The winning slate, which won every race except for the local’s presidency – which is not being re-run – vehemently denied that the event was an unlawful employer contribution.
Unite for Strength claimed that it could have filed and won a similar protest in Los Angeles on the grounds that Modine had allegedly accepted in-kind contributions from the New York Film Academy, which produced three short videos that his campaign repurposed and put on its website. “We support the findings of the NOLA election committee in overturning the NOLA election based on illegal employer contributions to the Membership First backed candidates in New Orleans,” Unite for Strength said in its statement. “We strongly considered filing a similar protest in Los Angeles.”
“These employer-produced campaign videos gained over 15,000 views on YouTube alone and offered an illegal and unfair advantage to Mr. Modine and Membership First,” Unite for Strength claims. Modine, however, has maintained that the videos, in which he appeared, were public service announcements, not campaign contributions.
“While we know that these violations impacted the results of the Los Angeles local elections, we also understand that our first priority is to our members,” Unite for Strength said. It noted, however, that “The hundreds of thousands of dollars and complete displacement of SAG-AFTRA staff’s time right before a major negotiation is too great a price to bear. We continue to balance the need for fair elections with the crucial interest of getting on with the business of our union; protecting members and negotiating strong contracts.
“We ask that our fellow SAG-AFTRA members, especially those in Los Angeles, take a serious and critical look at Membership First’s illegal actions that contributed to the results in our local and evaluate, for themselves, whether this is behavior we are willing to condone. SAG-AFTRA is in the business of legally protecting members and it is crucial that any person or group that seeks election at least follows the law themselves. Our members deserve nothing less.”
The New Orleans election committee had found that federal law “expressly bars any employer contributions to promote the candidacy of anyone running for union office.” SAG-AFTRA has a similar policy, which states that “Federal law prohibits any employer, including employers who are agents, managers, casting directors or producers, from contributing anything of value to candidates for any SAG-AFTRA elected office.”
According to the Department of Labor, Section 401(g) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act “provides that no money of an employer is to be contributed or applied to promote the candidacy of any person in an election subject to the provisions of title IV. This includes indirect as well as direct expenditures.” This ruling, which was cited by the New Orleans election committee, also states that “the prohibition against the use of employer money to support the candidacy of a person in any election subject to the provisions of Title IV is not restricted to employers who employ members of the labor organization in which the election is being conducted, or who have any business or contractual relationship with the labor organization.”
In SAG-AFTRA elections, members are allowed to contribute as much as they like to their candidates’ campaigns. Carteris and Modine both solicited donations, but only Modine disclosed how many members had contributed to his campaign – and how much they gave to it. According to his Go Fund Me page, he received $45,000 from 223 donors – most of whom are identified, although some of the contributions were made anonymously.
Carteris and Unite for Strength made no such financial disclosures, and the union does not require them to do so. As noted in a recent ruling by the New York election committee’s dismissal of an election protest there in which a protestor claimed that he should have been afforded access to an incumbent’s campaign contributions and expenditures, “There is no basis in the Election Policy or applicable federal law for that type of financial access.”
Without such disclosure, however, there is no way of knowing if any employers contributed to the campaigns, although both sides said they do not accept such contributions. On its donation page, Unite for Strength said: “By pressing the donate button, you are attesting this donation is from a personal account, and not made by or on behalf of any employer, production company, or agency interests.”
Membership First’s contribution rules have a similar requirement, instructing donors to attest that “This contribution is made from my own funds, and funds are not being provided to me by another person or entity for the purpose of making this contribution,” and that “I am making this contribution with my own personal credit card and not with a corporate or business credit card or a card issued to another person.”
As previously reported, SAG-AFTRA’s national election committee has dismissed more than a dozen protests of Carteris’ re-election, including allegations that she received an in-kind contribution from an employer. “We conclude that there was no violation of the SAG-AFTRA Constitution, the Election Policy, or federal election law,” the national committee found. “Accordingly, we dismiss all post-election protests.”
With the exhaustion of their internal union remedies, the protestors of her election now are taking their complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor. The union’s biennial convention, meanwhile, gets underway today in Los Angeles.