SAG-AFTRA Presidential Candidate Matthew Modine Says Union “Cannot Survive” Two More Years Of Current Leadership: Q&A

Matthew Modine Q&A
Matthew Modine Mega Agency

SAG-AFTRA presidential candidate Matthew Modine says the union “cannot survive” two more years of the sacrifices that the current leadership has asked members to make and compared a vote for his rival Fran Drescher – who’s making her first run for union office – to a vote for a former U.S. president “who said he’d be great because he wasn’t a Beltway insider.” Drescher is running at the top of the ruling party’s Unite for Strength slate, and Modine is running as the head of the opposition party’s MembershipFirst slate. Election ballots will be mailed to members August 3 and counted September 2.

In a Q&A with Deadline, Modine, who was defeated by Gabrielle Carteris two years ago, also accused the union’s current leadership of having waged a “misleading propaganda campaign” to get SAG-AFTRA’s last film and TV contract ratified and promised to bring more transparency to the union’s operations. He said that, if elected, the cornerstones of his administration would be “safer conditions in all of our working environments, aggressively enforcing our contracts, rehabilitating our health and pension plans, protecting our residuals, and a more vigorous pursuit of fair, living wages.” Providing health coverage to more of the union’s members is a major goal, he said.

He also said he’d create a committee “to look closely” at the Writers Guild of America’s recent victory in eliminating packaging fees “to make sure agents aren’t operating with a conflict of interest when they represent us.” SAG-AFTRA and the old Screen Actors Guild haven’t had a franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents since 2002.

Deadline submitted 10 questions to him on July 19. He responded on Thursday after returning from Germany, where he was on location filming Retribution with Liam Neeson.

DEADLINE: Why did you decide to run again after losing two years ago?

MATTHEW MODINE: “Losing” is an interesting turn of phrase. Suppose I was the great LeBron James, and your question was: “Why are you competing again after not winning last year’s playoffs.” (We could ask SAG-AFTRA member Mr. James his thoughts). What do you consider “losing”? I’ll tell you this, my not being elected was an ugly, painful, financial loss for tens thousands of my fellow members. Ask the almost 12,000 members who lost their health plan how they feel about the departing leadership that won two years ago. Do those members feel like they won? Ask the members if they’re pleased with their diminishing residuals. Ask background performers if they’re happy with the “historic gains” extolled by the “winning leadership” in their Vote YES! postcards, which were paid for on the backs of our members’ dues and initiation fees. I’d say every member of our union lost a good deal in the last election. I’m running because our union cannot survive two more years of these kinds of sacrifices.

DEADLINE: What makes you the best candidate?

MODINE: I was asked to serve on both the L.A. Local and the National Boards several years ago because of my outspoken enthusiasm to keep our union strong. Throughout this time, I’ve learned a great deal about the inner workings of SAG-AFTRA, and most importantly, the needs of our members.

Once again, fellow members from all parties have urged me to take on this leadership position which I will approach by urging greater unity, purpose, and fresh ideas. I’m thrilled that this encouragement includes advice and wisdom from former SAG-AFTRA presidential candidate, Jane Austin. Ms. Austin has enthusiastically given her support to me, Joely Fisher, and our entire MembershipFirst slate. I’m eager to employ the insight and prudence I’ve gained through my boardroom experience and the industry knowledge acquired over my forty-year career.

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I will use my experience as a founder and supporter of numerous health and welfare foundations, environmental organizations, veteran support groups, scientific and educational programs, to guide me in reinvigorating and restoring our union.

I began as a background performer. I’ve worked in commercials, done voice work, been a day-player, a supporting actor, and had leads in over a hundred film, television, and theatrical productions. I’ve traveled and worked in over twenty countries. Traveling and working overseas opens your mind and heart. It expands your viewpoint about life and the diversity of people we share the world with. I believe all these experiences have great value for the members of my union – because they come from all over the world. Members should know that I’m here to provide the protections and security that legacy union leaders provided me when I began my own journey in this industry.

DEADLINE: What is your vision for the future of SAG-AFTRA?

MODINE: First, we must repair the foundational pillars. These include safer conditions in all of our working environments, aggressively enforcing our contracts, rehabilitating our health and pension plans, protecting our residuals, and of course, a more vigorous pursuit of fair, living wages. These are the essentials. Expanding on these pillars, we have our vital committee work and the important membership discussions concerning wages and working conditions. This is where we hear from members, first hand, how the industry is evolving and we prepare guidelines for future negotiations. Our members are creative, out of the box thinkers. By providing our members with greater opportunities to share their ideas, we will create a much stronger, unified union. This is how a wise leader with grit and experience can put the membership first and unite the union.

DEADLINE: How has the union impacted your life and career?

MODINE: The union has provided me with safety and financial protections creating a legacy of safeguards which I never take for granted. Residuals, pension, health care, and safe working conditions; these are all hard fought for – and won – accomplishments, achieved by tough union negotiators. I am the beneficiary of their spirited legacy leadership.

DEADLINE: SAG-AFTRA is a deeply divided union. If elected, what will you do to unify the factions?

MODINE: Our union was founded by dissidents and I bless them for fervently and successfully grappling, like Jedi, against the mighty motion picture Empire. I also believe that dissenting opinions should never be silenced – a dangerous practice that has become all too commonplace in our union and in our boardrooms. Our union must always be a fervent advocate of the First Amendment.

Legacy SAG and SAG-AFTRA has a long history of division. It’s healthy when it is a division of ideals – wrestling over how we might best solve a problem. When it becomes a popularity contest amongst a clique of likeminded people, nothing gets done and all forward progress stagnates. Our members simply want to work and be rewarded for their participation in the creation of their work. In order to improve financial possibility, working conditions, and opportunities, requires greater unity, shared determination and collective goals. It will be a great pleasure for me to bridge this divide.

I’ve found, both in my life and career, that one is always more successful when they offer an open hand rather than a clinched fist to those who don’t see eye-to-eye with you. Achieving our collective goals is much more easily accomplished when there is shared resolve and common purpose.

Harmony will make us stronger in all of our contract negotiations. It’s stupid to battle with each other when we are trying to accomplish what is right and best for all of us.
When our Local and National Board Members remember that they’re there to put the members first, and not a party or faction, SAG-AFTRA will unite.

Looking forward, my vision is a united group of SAG-AFTRA members who know their worth and won’t back down when outside forces seek to devalue their labor. This goes beyond standing firm with our employers for fair compensation and safety assurances.

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I’d like SAG-AFTRA to make sure agents aren’t operating with a conflict of interest when they represent us. I’d create a committee to look closely at the Writers Guild of America’s success in eliminating internal packaging.

Understanding the global market value of the entertainment industry and our essential role within it, is to gain a sobering insight into the power our union is capable of commanding. Operating and negotiating from this understanding must be carried into every collective bargaining session.

Producers and casting directors must be responsible for expenses associated with online submission services and self-taping.

We must organize more opportunities for background work outside the presently covered zones. All of this means greater association and partnership with each of our locals across the country.

Our union must be the clarion voice throughout our industry, assuring that our members work free from discrimination and/or harassment.

DEADLINE: If elected, what advantage is there to having served on the national and L.A. Local boards?

MODINE: Knowledge and experience. Full stop.

To vote for a president who has yet to sit on any SAG-AFTRA committee, or served on our Local or National Board, is to vote for a U.S. President who said he’d be great because he wasn’t a ‘Beltway insider’. I promise, you don’t want a president who’s learning on the job.

Joely Fisher and our MembershipFirst team have years of compassionate experience, fighting for and on behalf of all of our SAG-AFTRA members.

My rivals have highlighted their work outside of the union. I commend them. I, too, have also worked for, and served on, dozens of boards outside of my union service; Gods Love We Deliver, Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, Plastic Oceans, Weizmann Institute, to name just a few. Each holds profound and enduring meaning to me.
In the mid-90s, I convinced the William Morris Talent Agency to evolve from single-page script printing to double-sided printing, effectively cutting paper consumption in half. I shared the idea of paper reduction with other actors and agencies and double-sided scripts became the industry standard, saving millions of sheets of paper over the years. It is common-sense solutions like these that could light SAG-AFTRA’s way.

While working on a film in Ouarzazate, Morocco, I helped institute a plastic bottle deposit and recycling program. That effort not only cleared the desert of discarded bottles, it continues to provide the young kids who collect the bottles with pocket money to this day (as it did for me when I was a boy).

Bicycling has been my primary form of transportation since moving to Manhattan in 1980. I founded Bicycle for a Day (BFAD) to encourage bicycling as a way toward better health and environmental sustainability. Our first BFAD event attracted some 14,000 participants. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized BFAD as a vital program that helped to usher in the city’s bike share program, opened hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes, and established safe routes to and from NYC schools.

The decades that I’ve spent working in these spaces certainly prepared me for my leadership position at SAG-AFTRA. Serving on union committees and being a Local and National Board Member is essential groundwork for a position as important as the National President of SAG-AFTRA.

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Being president of SAG-AFTRA is not a role one plays. It is a responsibility. To the uninitiated, it could seem as easy as playing a character on a TV show. SAG-AFTRA is not, by any means, a TV show. Any leader of our union must respect the fiduciary responsibility that comes with protecting the financial livelihood and security of its members. Nothing funny or glamorous about that.

DEADLINE: Can you share any of the advice you received before making your decision to run again?

MODINE: The members who asked me to run, and have endorsed my candidacy, are many of the kindest, most egalitarian people I’ve ever met. Rather than members offering me advice, it’s really more that they are making requests of me. Members want to be told the honest truth about the decisions being made by their union. Our conversations center around the request for greater transparency and problem solving. We are not interested in finger pointing. We simply want our union to work for us.

DEADLINE: What have been the greatest successes and failures of the union’s current leadership?

MODINE: The biggest failure has clearly been the collapse of our once amazing Health Plan. The important thing for your readers to understand is how this came to be. The Union’s Board of Trustees knew – for 2 years – that our Health Plan was in financial trouble. Some of those Trustees were also members of our contract negotiating committees. The Trustees never told our negotiating committees that our Plan was failing and needed vital financial support.

In fact, the current leadership actually publicized the insufficient funding as “gains.” Our own Union was implying, and making very loud proclamations to all our members, that the Health Plan was stable.

It was just three weeks, after the current leadership had sent four separate postcards, costing over $150,000, which simply instructed members to Vote YES on the last TV/Theatrical Contract. The result of this misleading propaganda campaign was a vicious slap to our membership.

As a result of their so called leadership and their misleading marketing campaign, 12,000 SAG-AFTRA Health Plan Participants – 1/3 of the total number of participants – would now lose their health care. If the Trustees had been transparent, honest, and informative with our negotiation team, we could have mitigated this Health Plan collapse in our TV/Theatrical contract negotiations.

To add insult to injury, the current leadership used union resources to create a marketing campaign attempting to gaslight our members – that seniors were never promised the health care they had worked a lifetime to receive.

The coup de grâce for those over 65 – who’ve taken their pensions – is that they’ll no longer have their residuals count as earnings towards qualifying for SAG-AFTRA health care. That’s like paying tax at the gas pump but not being allowed to drive on the road.

I also want our members to know, they should not be fooled by those who say the union and the health plan are separate. They are inextricably linked by the fact that:
1. The Union seats the Trustees of the Health Plan and;
2. The money that funds the Health Plan comes directly from the contracts negotiated by the Union.

DEADLINE: MembershipFirst has made negotiating better contracts a chief goal. What would you do to negotiate better contracts?

MODINE: Greater transparency throughout the entire process. Beyond that, I’ll reserve my right not to share precisely how I will operate; no smart coach leaks her or his playbook to the opposing team. Suffice it to say, I’m in it to win it for all our members.

DEADLINE: SAG-AFTRA has a new national executive director – Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. Did you vote for or against him getting the job, and would you seek to replace him if MembershipFirst wins a majority of the seats on the national board?

MODINE: My colleague, Secretary-Treasurer candidate Joely Fisher and I called Mr. Ireland to congratulate him when he replaced the prematurely departing – in the middle of a global pandemic – NED David White. It was a productive conversation. Mr. Ireland was thankful for the call and assured us that he would work with us. Joely and I are eager to take up our leadership positions and discover those folks from within our union staff who share our excitement and ambitions and who’re ready to roll up their sleeves and do the work to necessary to fulfill them.

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