David White is stepping down as SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief contract negotiator. He’ll be staying on at the union until later this spring. In a special meeting held today, the SAG-AFTRA National Board authorized President Gabrielle Carteris and outside counsel to enter into discussions with Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s longtime general counsel and chief operating officer, to succeed White. Crabtree-Ireland has served as general counsel of SAG-AFTRA since 2006 and as COO since 2014, and is the union’s lead negotiator with the major record labels and with Telemundo Television Studios. Crabtree-Ireland was instrumental in SAG-AFTRA’s Covid safety response and return to work initiatives.
Carteris, with the unanimous support of the union’s other nine national officers, presented a recommendation that was approved by the board authorizing her and outside counsel “to conduct a due diligence review and discuss a proposed employment agreement for the position of National Executive Director and chief negotiator with Duncan Crabtree-Ireland to be brought back to the National Board for its consideration at its next meeting.”
White told Deadline that deciding to leave after 12 years on the job “was hard, but this is a natural inflection point. I wanted to make sure we got through the darkest period of the pandemic. Once past that, I knew that it was time.”
White served as general counsel to the Screen Actors Guild from 2002-06, rejoining the guild as its national executive director in 2009 and guiding it to its merger with AFTRA in 2012 after two unsuccessful merger efforts and years of instability and union infighting. For the past nine years, he was SAG-AFTRA’s first and only national executive director.
Over the past year, during the most trying time in Hollywood’s history, he worked closely with leaders of the industry’s other unions and guilds to reach agreements with the studios to safely restart film and television production shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I have loved my time at SAG-AFTRA,” he said in a statement. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the union and its membership and to work alongside such an outstanding executive team and staff. I am grateful for the support of President [Gabrielle] Carteris, the national officers, the national board of directors, and local leaders across the country. SAG-AFTRA employees are bright, dedicated, and focused every day on delivering extraordinary member service and time-saving innovations that make working with the union more efficient and effective.” His decision to leave was announced Friday at a virtual meeting of the SAG-AFTRA national board of directors.
“David has been at the center of SAG-AFTRA’s success over the past decade,” Carteris said. “His tenure has been marked by stability and tremendous accomplishment. He has been an invaluable advocate for our membership and deserves immense credit for all that he, and we, have achieved during his time with us. I know that David had opportunities to leave SAG-AFTRA over this past year, and the union and I are forever grateful that he made the decision to stay and see us through the most challenging days of the pandemic. On a personal note, I have worked closely with David and have seen his brilliance and dedication up close. I will miss having him as a trusted partner.”
Among his many achievements, White oversaw the integration of the SAG and AFTRA collective bargaining agreements, led the negotiating team for the modernization of the Commercials Contracts, and improvements to the Motion Picture, Television, and New Media contracts including significant gains in streaming residuals. The union also developed agreements for new media sectors including the Influencers agreement and the Micro-Budget agreement, and made substantial progress in covering the professionals who work in these emerging areas.
White also restructured the union’s operations and introduced a number of innovations to its technology capabilities, including the establishment of direct deposit for members’ residuals payments; the development of expanded digital communications including a member mobile app, sexual harassment reporting app, online joining function, and online claims tracking; the development and adoption of a customer service call center; and the design and development of an online portal for independent producers that will launch later this year to streamline the signatory process and get projects signed faster and more efficiently.
In a statement, the union said that his “fiscally conservative operating philosophy resulted in tight cost controls and debt management, growing revenues, and stable operations. Under his stewardship, the union significantly built its crucial general fund which had been nearly depleted before his assuming operational leadership at Screen Actors Guild and then SAG-AFTRA. The restored general fund helped the union create a powerful cash reserve that sustained operations through the devastation of the global pandemic and months-long production shutdown.”
Along with Carteris, he also led the union’s four-year effort to combat sexual harassment in the industry and was a key author of the 2018 Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment and Guideline Number 1 that prohibits unaccompanied auditions in private hotel rooms and residences. This also included the 2019 release of Standards and Protocols for Intimacy Coordinators; the 2020 updates to the Motion Picture, Television and New Media contract provisions on intimate scenes; the 2021 launch of the SAG-AFTRA Safe Place sexual harassment reporting app; minimum standards for Intimacy Coordinator certification and training; and an industry-standard intimacy coordinator registry.
In a pre-exit interview with Deadline, White discussed the rewards and challenges of leading SAG-AFTRA during the pandemic; the industrywide efforts to get film and TV production safely restarted; and on a personal note, grieving the death of his wife, Susan Watanabe, almost three years ago.
“The death of my wife was a dark period in my life, and it happened during my time at SAG-AFTRA,” he said. “But I was surrounded at all times by a personal community and a professional family that provided tremendous support for both me and my daughter. So while that was tough – one of the most difficult things that I will ever face – it was also a time when my community was at its strongest, and my optimism about the future was restored.”
Asked what’s been the most rewarding part of the job, he said: “The people – absolutely. It’s been an amazing experience working with creative professionals who have to strive every day to make a living in this industry. This is a tough environment, whether you’re talking about actors, recording artists or broadcast news journalists. In order for stories to be told, songs to be sung, and news to be written forthrightly and with honesty, these professionals need protection and to be supported because they are employed by some of the largest companies in the history of humankind. My ability to support them and advance the mission of this union has been meaningful and impactful, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Asked what’s been the most challenging aspect of the job, he said: “Same answer: dealing with the creative class! The challenges facing each one of our members and those facing the guilds and unions in this industry during the time of rapid transformation have pushed all of us to work at the extremes of our talent every day to keep pace. The needs are real; the opportunities are vast, and we have to work collaboratively to support one another as we ensure that people are protected and supported.”
Running a union with a long history of democratic turbulence presents its own unique set of challenges. “Union democracy is a full contact sport,” he said. “You have to have the gene in your system to enjoy playing that sport. Fortunately, I do. It’s a big challenge, but one that I’ve enjoyed. What most people don’t realize is how sprawling the operations are of SAG-AFTRA, which also presents a challenge for any chief executive. We have 27 governing boards, 15 offices across the country, 160,000 members across the world and hundreds of staff supporting them spread around the nation — all for members who work in four industries that are critical to the broader economy. It’s a big job and a fun challenge that has certainly kept me on my toes.”
Leading the union through the pandemic required leadership, and “leadership is all about being able to take charge during hard times and working with others to protect your core functions and get to the other side with strength and resilience,” he said. “No one goes through a period like this on their own, and I think the pandemic showcased the very best of the industry, and particularly, the collaboration between the guilds and unions. We all pulled together to make sure that all of our talent, and all of our employees, were protected when they were on any production set or working at a broadcast news station.”
Asked about working with Carteris, who has been president of SAG-AFTRA since 2016, he said that “Gabrielle has been, and is, an extremely effective leader of this union. I have loved working with her and being a partner with her, and I have watched her use every available resource and take every available step to advocate for our members, often at great personal sacrifice. She’s truly an incredible individual and I will always be grateful for her partnership and friendship.”
Summing up he said: “We really accomplished a lot in the past 12 years. I’m very grateful for that and glad to be able to leave on my terms. This transition will be stable – we’ve got a great leadership team in place.” The future of the union, he said, “is to keep growing and to strengthen its positions in the industries in which our members work. It’s a bright future for this organization. We have presence everywhere: we’re in D.C., in Sacramento and Albany; we are in the entertainment industry; the advertising industry; broadcast news; the music industry. We’re in emerging markets. Our financial situation is strong; our operational situation is stable; we’re bringing people back to work post-Covid. We have made several technological innovations that, over time, will allow the union to be ever more efficient, and easier for members and producers to work with us. This is a great time for the union to build on what has been accomplished and to take it to the next level.”
As for his own future, he said: “I have a couple of opportunities in front of me, but I am not at liberty to talk about them. I will take some time to decide my next move.”
His advice to his successor, he said, is to “Be clear on your personal values, stay focused on the core functions of this union, and have a lot of fun. It’s going to be an enjoyable ride.”