SAG-AFTRA Chief David White On Union’s Coronavirus Crisis Response And The Hardships Ahead – A Sobering Deadline Q&A

David A. White SAG-AFTRA Q&A
David A. White Kristina Bumphrey/Shutterstock

EXCLUSIVE: As national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, David White likely figured the top priority this year was landing a new deal with studios. That seems a long time ago. White was at ground-zero not only when the coronavirus pandemic shut Hollywood down but well before that. He saw the potential when the virus first began taking its toll in China where union members were working or heading, for jobs on film productions. In an exclusive interview, White describes how the guild has responded to the industry’s COVID-19 shutdown, and how it’s affected him personally while still dealing with the death of his wife, social activist Susan Watanabe, who died 19 months ago from brain cancer.

A Rhodes Scholar who serves as a member of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, White believes the industry will survive, but could be shut down for many months to come. “The industry, in its adaptation to survive, may in fact look very different when we come out of this, depending on the time that we have, and some of that will be permanent,” he said

DEADLINE: I’m imagining the professional and personal stress on you as the National Executive Director of SAG-AFTRA, in the coronavirus shutdown as your members were working all over the world. How would you describe it? Are you sleeping nights?

DAVID WHITE: I am sleeping most nights, but this has been as challenging as you might expect. In general, my job, particularly during a time like this, is to be the “keeper of the focus.” We have a lot of experts around the country within our staff and community about the needs of the industry and our union during a time like this. My job is to make sure everyone is responding to the right set of questions, and to keep our strategic focus on the broad range of efforts we need to work on to ensure we are protecting the membership, our staff and the institution itself. And we all share the responsibility of helping the entire industry manage through this crisis as well.

DEADLINE: How are you doing all of that?

WHITE: In a multitude of ways. We started looking at this pretty early on. We saw what might be coming, back in February, based on reports we received from international sister unions and watching the events unfold in China and elsewhere. As a result, we made some early moves that seemed to some members and staff to be too aggressive and too soon. We shut down meetings, and then offices. We started war-gaming scenarios that we might face and realized it was coming more quickly than on initial appearance – almost like looking through your car’s sideview mirror. If you started really looking into it all and then connected the dots – no pandemic office in our own national security agency – so no protection, no national strategy – people flying out of infected populations like in China and into other countries, the virus getting out and popping up in other countries, the way things were developing in Europe – it wasn’t hard to see the potential for a significant fallout on our own industry, membership and operations.

DEADLINE: How did you act on those signals?

WHITE: We started by working on three levels. First, as a union, we had actors and recording artists working in locations around the world who needed protection and advice. Their agents were calling us and members themselves were calling us to help figure out their options for safety, the implications of a quick departure for their contracts, and a host of other issues. Questions like: “I’m not going on that infected set! What happens if I don’t show up tomorrow morning?” And, “Do I get to go home? Are they going to pay for my transportation?” And “How much will I be paid during the time off?” For broadcasters, who are placed out there on the front line in these danger zones, there were questions about safety equipment and hazard pay and the possibility of layoffs. There were dozens of questions that needed fast answers and those questions started early. We are a union, and keeping professionals safe and protected is at the very core of our mission – that’s the first level.


Second, we are a convener – we bring large groups of people together all around the country each day. There are committees, board meetings, classes, panel discussions and so many other events throughout each week. The first case in Washington State was known on January 15. Back then, the idea that we needed to shut down all activities around the country was barely a thought to anyone, and it took us a minute to pull this trigger as well. As new cases began to pop up in New York and other locations, we made decisions location by location. When we made our decision to shut everything down nationwide, we were viewed by some as moving prematurely and too aggressively – for about five days or so, and then everyone else made the same move. That’s not to cast shade on anyone else – everyone was focused on their own priorities and making their best decisions with the information they had in hand. These were 16-18 hour days for everyone, who were also trying to protect our own families and loved ones in various areas around the country and the world. It was just such a blur during this period.

Third, we are an employer with 15 offices around the country. We had to think about our staff and operations, how to protect them while configuring our work to support our members during this emerging crisis. Our staff is dedicated to the mission of this organization, and they are professional advocates. They need information, transparency, clear guidance and proper tools – and then they need you to get out of the way so they can do their job of protecting our members. We immediately gathered work groups around the country to ensure each team is working from the same playbook: operations, contracts, legal, government affairs and several others. We also had to make sure that our member-leaders were informed and engaged, and working with our governance team on issues related to our national board and other governing bodies.

You know, it’s worth noting that there’s been a great deal of terrific coordination going on between the guilds and unions, studios and networks, and the industry support organizations – all to make sure we are working together as much as possible. On the whole, it has been inspiring to participate in all of this.

DEADLINE: And on the personal level?

WHITE: On a personal level, it’s a much shorter answer. You asked if I was sleeping well and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve had one night when I didn’t – one dark night, not that long ago. My wife passed a little over a year ago and I’m a single father now. If something happens to me…well this is the fear that all parents have and, frankly, I’m lucky because of the support that I receive from my sister, family and broader community. I had that one night when I let it sink in, which got it out of my system and then I was over it. I know how fortunate I am that my daughter and family are safe for now, and things on the home front are good.

DEADLINE: What do you see, going forward, for SAG-AFTRA and the industry?

WHITE: Yes, we all want the crystal ball, don’t we? We have a couple of data points now that remove certain question marks: We see from the example in China that a unitary, authoritarian response where they had all the supplies they needed – we see from that example that we can expect at least two months of being shut down, minimum. And since we don’t have a unitary, authoritarian government and don’t have sufficient supplies, we should expect to be shut down for longer than that. Three months? Four months? Who knows? We have to keep monitoring reliable data about the spread of the outbreak across our country. It’s worth noting that, as soon as Chinese officials opened up their airport a little bit, 34 new cases immediately showed up at their doorstep. So this thing doesn’t stop somewhere until it stops everywhere. I suspect we are in this fight for a longer period than two months.

Two or four or more months of very limited production is going to be very tough on an industry filled with small businesses and freelance employees. There aren’t a lot of small businesses that can survive that long without steady sales, so the government’s response will be critical to our industry. The studios will come back to production at some point because they’ll have access to low-interest loans and equity, but all the other small businesses will not make it without a lot of support from the government. And not just restaurants and dry cleaners and the like, but independent producers and smaller agencies and everyone else – I have real concern for their ability to survive this. And then there are our members and the other working professionals in the industry: we are all very concerned.

The unions will survive, though we will have to take dramatic measures like everyone else if this thing lasts for a long time. But we will survive. Our focus will have to be how to make sure we are positioned to be a powerful advocate and protector for our members once things turn on again, how to manage this triage phase of things while protecting our core functions in the process.

DEADLINE: Now that the industry is turned off, how quickly can it turn back on?

WHITE: Oh, they will come back. Companies are profit-seeking creatures and they will be eager to find creative ways to turn it back on. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an uptick in things that require voice-over like video games, animated product, commercials – things you can do without leaving your house. They will innovate – you can already read about companies in other industries doing exactly that. The industry will suffer in the short term but will survive and adapt, as it always does. Some things may look quite differently as a result of the pandemic, depending on the amount of time it takes to play out. But the world will always need to be entertained and informed. The world needs stories and our industry is where they turn to get them. We will return! We just need to protect our most vulnerable, and our base institutions, until we do.

DEADLINE: Commercials are a big part of the memberships’ earning. Is there any commercial work going on? Are people doing voice-over or is it all shut down?

WHITE: Interestingly, there is an uptick in renegotiated commercials to cover for the gap in new production. But yes, there is voice-over work going on, things like audiobooks and podcasts. These are bright spots for performers and there will likely be other opportunities as things settle in. Our broadcast news professionals are, at this very moment, covering this story from the front lines around the world. Our job as a union is to make sure our members are protected when engaged in such work and that any new work is covered by our contracts. As I say, stories need to be told and producers will find a way, even in a crisis. I don’t have a question mark about the survivability and eventual ability for our industry to thrive. And we all focused on the immediate and medium-term condition of the people we represent and for those small businesses who help support the work.

DEADLINE: What about the National Board’s recent authorization to delegate authority to the Executive Committee during the crisis?

WHITE: When things are in such a state of crisis and decisions are moving so quickly, being able to respond swiftly and nimbly is crucial. Our board constitutionally delegated the Executive Committee authority to act in its place. This resolution extends that and allows us to meet virtually and on shorter notice so that our elected leaders can have a thoughtful dialogue with a lot of input coming from members located all around the country. The delegation by our 80-person body to a 38-person body is a very smart move. It allows us to make decisions as an organization in real time. And, as many are quick to remind me, a 38-person board is still considered to be large.

DEADLINE: I’ve heard that some people think there should have been a sunset on that authority…

WHITE: There is a natural sunset. I think some people didn’t understand the motion that was actually approved. The sunset is the National Board. The National Board can change this delegation at any time and, believe me, there will be a tremendous push to get back to the full 80-person board as soon as humanly possible. We have such a strong democratic tradition in our union, where everybody’s voice counts so this will last only as long as it needs to last.

DEADLINE: Anything else you want to tell your membership?

WHITE: I think it’s important for our members to know that I, along with their elected leaders and staff wake up every day trying to ensure this union has their back. Every single day, that’s what drives me and all of us. I am privileged to work with a terrific group of member-leaders and a professional staff who are all working hard every day on a single focus – to help others. And I hope that can be recognized and amplified by folks around the country, because people need encouragement in a moment like this. None of us is in this fight alone, we are all in it together. That is the power of a union.

DEADLINE: Final question I’d be remiss not asking. The WGA postponed the start of its talks with the AMPTP for a new film and TV contract and might extend their current pact past its May 1 expiration date. SAG-AFTRA’s contract expires June 30. Are you looking at a similar delay to the start of talks and an extension as well?

WHITE: Sorry, Dave. I’d love to give you some juicy insight into this but my response is simple, “Absolutely no comment!”

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