A Rerun Worth Watching

Screen Actors Guild, Buffeted by Infighting, Braces For Controversial Election, Again

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

When it comes to histrionics in Hollywood, it's been tough to top Screen Actors Guild board meetings over the years.

On Jan. 28, the rancor is likely to reach a fever pitch once again.

With supporters of presidential candidates Melissa Gilbert and Valerie Harper preparing to square off later this week over the merits of a planned election rerun, politics at the long-divided union have reached a new nadir, some members say.

& quot;If things proceed along the lines I expect, we may have to get security guards, & quot; joked Amy Aquino, a SAG board member and Gilbert supporter, who was defeated in her bid for treasurer last fall.

Aquino's situation is emblematic of the distracting political drama playing out in the world's largest performer's union. Although she lost to Kent McCord by fewer than 50 votes and stands a good chance to win in a make-up election, Aquino opposes a revote. Meanwhile, McCord and fellow Harper backer Elliott Gould, who was elected to the post of recording secretary, both favor a new election.

& quot;I find it unfortunate that (the election controversy) is tarnishing the image of SAG once again, & quot; said former guild president William Daniels, a Harper supporter who decided not to run for re-election after being worn down by the bickering. & quot;It's nothing new, but it's still disappointing. & quot;

The disputed election of Gilbert and the other top officers is just one of several issues facing the divided union this week.

The board's franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents, whose members are seeking more flexibility in their business dealings, was due to expire Jan. 20, and the 97,000-member union is in the midst of a fiscal crisis due in part to its strike against advertising agencies in 2000. Last week, the guild reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount with a former executive who had alleged racial discrimination.

Hard knocks

This is not how it was supposed to be when well-regarded former studio executive Bob Pisano was hired as national executive director and chief executive of the world's largest performer's union last fall and shortly afterward Gilbert won out over the more radical Harper.

Although SAG long has been fraught with divisive politics and serious organizational inefficiencies, both Gilbert and Pisano pledged to work to ratchet down the acrimony and to focus on improving bottom line pay and working conditions for actors as well as the overall image of the union.

They may yet succeed. But like others before them, Pisano and Gilbert are learning first hand that tranquility and decorum are anything but SAG attributes.

Nevertheless, Pisano said SAG's roughly 400-person professional staff continues to focus on the tasks at hand. Those include negotiating with ATA, managing guild members' residual payments and pension plan and lobbying for relief from runaway production.

& quot;The internal operations of the guild continue as usual with the input and assistance of officers of the board, & quot; Pisano said. & quot;We are on track to a resolution of the election issues in the near future. & quot;

Others, however, lack Pisano's positive outlook.

& quot;What this is costing SAG is another chunk of respectability and functionality, & quot; said Trista Delamere, who unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in the fall.

Vexing Election

Although they have stayed out of the fray for the most part, much of the current acrimony at SAG revolves around Gilbert and Harper.

Their camps break down along traditional geographic and philosophical divisions, with Gilbert representing the old guard that is often aligned with New York and other regional branches and that has taken a more conciliatory stance in its approach to labor issues.

Harper represents an outspoken wing of the guild that is more closely associated with Hollywood members and that achieved its first big victory with Daniels' election.

Almost immediately after the final votes were tallied in early November, questions emerged about irregularities in New York, where a signature line had been omitted from ballots and officials continued to accept ballots for two days after the deadline because of mail delays due to the anthrax scare.

Because of that, a SAG committee decided earlier this month that the election of the guild's top three elected positions must be held again. The committee also ruled that Gilbert, Gould and McCord could remain in their jobs until new elections are held.

The decision for a new vote has unleashed a flood of criticism, in part by Gilbert supporters who claim the election committee was dominated by Harper backers. Another player is failed presidential candidate Eugene Boggs, a non-working actor and law professor who insists that the SAG constitution bars Gilbert and the others from remaining in office.

Boggs, who received 2,500 votes, was rumored to be considering dropping out and backing Harper, but he said last week that he would stay in the race. In the interim, he has submitted a resolution to the board to have Gilbert removed from office.

Breaking her silence on the election dispute, Gilbert said last week that Boggs' interpretation of events was off the mark.

& quot;I'm in a very awkward position, but as president of this union - and I am the president - it's my duty to be the face and the voice and carry out the desires of the board. The chips will fall where the chips fall, & quot; she said.

Some of Gilbert's supporters have been less restrained.

& quot;This is sour grapes. (Harper's supporters) are coming from the point of view of 'my way or the highway,' & quot; said the one regional president. & quot;They would rather see the guild unable to function effectively than to function without their person as president. & quot;

Harper could not be reached be comment, but her supporters said it was clear Gilbert benefited from the election irregularities. & quot;A new vote is the only course of action, & quot; Daniels said. & quot;We had to salvage this election for the membership. & quot;

Limbo

The one point on which SAG members on both sides agree is that the union cannot function as an effective advocate for actors' rights until the election dispute is settled.

& quot;I think the situation is worse than it's ever been. The mood is not good, & quot; said Bonnie Bartlett, Daniels' wife and an Emmy Award-winning actress. & quot;You're trying to have a career and you're trying to work for SAG and nothing gets done. It can be very frustrating. & quot;

A make-up election has been tentatively scheduled for March, but that date, as well as the election itself, is anything but a sure bet.

& quot;There's zero justification for a new election. They have failed to demonstrate on any level how someone was disadvantaged by what happened in New York, & quot; Aquino said. & quot;And a new election will cost this union $200,000 at a time when it's in a major fiscal crisis. & quot;

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