SAG-AFTRA L.A. Members Vote To Scrap Biennial Convention, But Union’s Constitution Might Have The Last Word

SAG-AFTRA headquarters

EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA members attending the Los Angeles local’s membership meeting have voted overwhelmingly to scrap the union’s biennial convention. A motion, approved by 68% of the roughly 250 members who voted, called the convention “a waste of time and a waste of members’ dues.”

This year’s convention will be virtual, so the cost will be relatively minimal, but sources say that the 2019 event cost about $1 million to put on and to fly in several hundred out-of-town delegates and put them up for three days at the Beverly Hilton.

The convention, which is a holdover from AFTRA’s governance structure when it merged with SAG in 2012, gives elected delegates from locals across the country the chance to network, hear speeches from their leaders, vote on resolutions and elect SAG-AFTRA’s executive vice president and seven national vice presidents. The motion to scrap the convention states that those officers “should be elected by the entire membership, not by a small group.” The union’s other two national officers – president and secretary-treasurer – are elected by the entire membership.

Approved on Saturday, the motion is only advisory to the local’s board, which could then make a recommendation to the national board. But actually getting rid of the convention would require amending the SAG-AFTRA Constitution. Article XVIII of the Constitution provides several methods by which it can be amended: at convention, by the national board, or by a referendum of the full membership. But it expressly states that several provisions of the Constitution are not subject to amendment, including the name of the union; its affiliation with the AFL-CIO; the establishment of the national board, and Sections A & D of Article VII, which provide for the “Establishment of Convention” and “Convention quorum/voting.”

SAG-AFTRA's Gabrielle Carteris
Carteris SAG-AFTRA

And while the convention probably won’t – or can’t – be gotten rid of, the vote to scrap it is indicative of the longstanding political schism within SAG-AFTRA. The union’s national leadership and its national board are dominated by supporters of president Gabrielle Carteris and her Unite for Strength faction – which also supported the merger of SAG and AFTRA – while the L.A. leadership and local board are dominated by her opponents from the Membership First faction, which opposed the merger.

Supporters of the convention say it’s a democratic way of involving as many members as possible in the affairs of the union. Critics, however, say it has become less about membership engagement than a battlefield for partisan bickering that’s designed to preclude power-sharing by keeping the ruling party in office. At the 2019 convention, Carteris’ supporters swept the elections of all eight vice presidencies, completely shutting out her opponents. That same year, in an acrimonious battle that left bad feelings on both sides of the divide, Carteris was elected president nationally, but only finished 20th in her race for a seat on the board of the L.A. local, which represents almost exactly half of the union’s 160,000 members.

That election also saw her opponents win a majority of the L.A. local’s board seats and all of its top officer spots. Patricia Richardson, who was elected president, and Frances Fisher and David Jolliffe, who were elected first and second vice presidents, respectively, hosted Saturday’s L.A. membership meeting.

Not surprisingly, their supporters and critics viewed the meeting quite differently. “This was an incredibly professional and deeply informative meeting of our local,” said a well-known actor who attended. “Thank you president Richardson and vice presidents Fisher and Joliffe for your excellent leadership.”

“The meeting seemed to serve as little more than political theater,” said a critic. “While they barred local board members from speaking, they repeatedly opined from the dais themselves.”

“Board members were not allowed to speak because this was a meeting of the members,” said an organizer. “They get to talk at board meetings all they want.”

Several other advisory motions were also passed overwhelmingly, including:
• Where possible, the national board shall grant more autonomy and flexibility to locals specifically with regards to running meetings, town halls and committee work. Yes 86%; No 14%.
• That the union implement a member-facing means on its website to track the status of all passed motions from all local meetings so all members can know the status of active motions. Yes: 89%; No 11%.
• Create a taskforce to address remote issues related to the audition self-taping process. Yes 95%; No 5%.

The union’s political divide came into public view again last summer during the ratification of its new film and TV contract. In June, the national board voted to approve the deal, 67.6% to 32.4%, and sent it to the membership with a recommendation to ratify it. In July, however, the L.A. local’s board voted just the opposite: 69% to 31% to oppose ratification. In the end, members ratified it overwhelmingly, by a vote of 74.2% to 25.8%.

Union health benefits have been another dividing line between the factions, and there was a motion for that too on Saturday, although it was much closer than the others. “In all future negotiations,” the motion stated, “health care will be the most important thing we fight for.” It narrowly passed 51% to 49%.

The massive loss of jobs during the pandemic, and the resulting loss of contributions to SAG-AFTRA’s already ailing Health Plan, forced its trustees to raise premiums and eligibility thresholds, effective January 1, 2021. Without the changes, trustees said the Plan, facing staggering deficits due to the skyrocketing cost of health care, would have run out of reserves by 2024. Many who attended the membership meeting felt that the national board had not been told how dire the situation was in time to address it at last year’s contract negotiations. And in December, dissidents led by former SAG president Ed Asner filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the Plan and its trustees, claiming that the changes disproportionately affected older members – a charge the trustees vehemently deny. That dispute is ongoing.

All these issues are expected to play out again this summer when SAG-AFTRA holds what is expected to be another contentious election of national and local officers and board members.

Other topics of discussion at the meeting included: safety on sets; issues with agents reportedly encouraging members to take non-union work; changes to the Health Plan; COBRA for those who lost their health benefits; support for performers with disabilities; the union’s new “influencer” agreement; residuals claims, and the benefits for union members contained in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. An actress who attended the Zoom meeting likened it favorably to a “digital union hall.”

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