A year-and-a-half after the historic merger of the two main actors’ unions, Hollywood’s biggest talent guild will soon hold its first election for president.
But the campaign at the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists revives a schism between those who opposed the merger and those who pushed for it.
The race pits incumbent Ken Howard, who led the charge for the merger, against challenger Esai Morales, who opposed it.
Morales is hoping to rally disillusioned SAG-Aftra card holders to pull off an upset that would radically alter the union’s direction and bring his party, Membership First, back to power.
The ballots went out last month and are due back Thursday, with an announcement expected shortly after. The presidency lasts two years.
“There is only one goal, and that is to increase the effectiveness and the relevance of what used to be the most powerful entertainment union in the world,” Morales said.
The idea of the merger was to create a larger and more unified bargaining force for negotiations with producers, networks and studios. It was also an attempt to remedy a dilemma for performers who belonged to both unions but were unable to meet earnings thresholds to qualify for health benefits from either one.
The move was overwhelmingly approved in March of last year by 82 percent of SAG voters and 86 percent of Aftra voters. The combined union now counts about 165,000 members. Traditionally, SAG membership included many TV and film actors while Aftra members were heavily radio and TV station employees, such as news reporters and anchors.
Today’s merged union represents those performers – plus stuntmen, voice-over artists, dancers and even puppeteers.
Political factions with roots in SAG, namely Morales’ Members First and Howard’s Unite for Strength, still have the most political clout in the organization. Morales’ party is seen as more radical in negotiations with producers and studios, while Howard’s is seen as more conciliatory.
Marilyn Monrovia, a background actor who is running as a longshot third-party independent candidate, said both sides have made it difficult to get things done internally, given their political rivalry.
“There’s a lot of disrespectfulness and a lot of people bitter about the merger,” she said. “They create a lot of distractions when we’re trying to hold meetings.”
Indeed, Morales said many members have issues with the current leadership of Howard and co-President Roberta Reardon. He cited a range of issues that include delays in receiving residual payments, what he called excessive spending and a lack of transparency around the yet-to-be merged SAG and Aftra health and pension plans.
Morales, known for his film work in “La Bamba” and TV role in “NYPD Blue,” counts on support from backers such as actors Martin Sheen and Ed Harris. He recently voiced support for actor Ed Asner in Asner’s lawsuit against the merged union for unpaid foreign residuals. SAG-Aftra filed motions to dismiss most parts of the lawsuit.
In a statement to the Business Journal, Howard, who is known for roles in TV shows such as “30 Rock” and “Arli$$,” said Morales and his allies have an agenda that won’t help it build a strong negotiating force.
“Our opponents have never valued the strength of unity and, in fact, opposed our merger when four out of five members voted in favor of it,” the statement said. “(They) not only opposed that unity, they’ve repeatedly sued our union, costing hundreds of thousands of dues dollars in frivolous lawsuits.”
Morales’ party last held power in 2009. That’s when former President Alan Rosenberg was unseated by Howard, whose Unite for Strength party steadily gained popularity within SAG, culminating with the merger vote last year.
Rosenberg’s presidency, meanwhile, carries a legacy of defiance – in 2008, SAG walked out of contract negotiations with studios. The impasse led to lost wages for performers, according to Howard’s party, which claims it has fallen on them to clean up the mess.
Morales does not want to split the combined union. He emphasized he would avoid extremism and negotiate deals to benefit both actors and producers. But he also said it is crucial to keep the threat of a strike on the table as a last-resort bargaining chip. By contrast, he said Howard and his party are too cozy with studios.
“I’m not looking to be radical. We don’t want to kill ourselves or strike ourselves out of the job,” he said. “We want to avoid walkouts, but not on our backs.”
Morales faces a big hurdle: Howard’s camp is trumpeting a successful first major negotiation since the merger. SAG-Aftra struck a deal earlier this year for a 6 percent increase in fees for commercial performers over three years, into 2016. The union estimated it will add $238 million in earnings for actors over that period. Members voted 96 percent in favor of that contract.
“That was a good one,” even Morales acknowledged, but he said there has been a troubling stagnation of wages over the past two decades for most actors, including himself, while studios sit on huge profits.
Within the union, Morales took aim at outsize wages for select employees, while the union announced earlier this year that it will close 10 of its 25 local branches, such as an Oregon outpost, and lay off 60 employees.
The branch closures were done to help correct a $6 million structural deficit. Among the union’s highest earners, National Executive Director David White, for example, has an annual salary in excess of $500,000. Morales said he would revisit the branch closures.
One way to raise revenue, he said, would be to raise contributions from top-earning talent. Currently, everyone pays the same annual base rate of $198 plus 1.6 percent of their wages up to $500,000.
To expedite the residual payment process, Morales said he would bring in part-time employees or volunteers to speed up processing work.
He said he would also bring greater transparency to the yet-to-be resolved pension and health plan merger, which, according to him, has left many members in the dark, by communicating directly with members.
A Unite for Strength supporter who declined to be identified because she wasn’t the official spokeswoman for Howard, said she doubted that Morales could bring transparency to the pension and health merger process, since the plans are overseen by trustees rather than the union president.
She added the layoffs were an inevitable result of redundancies created by the merger and there are already efforts under way to expedite residual payments to members, such as an ongoing trial period with a new vendor. Trade paper Variety reported in June that actors have been waiting an average of 56 days to receive residual checks, up eight days from 2010. Some actors claim they’ve had to wait three months.
Howard’s supporter said the increased wait times are partly due to an increased volume of checks coming through the union from new-media jobs and an increased membership base.
More than anything, the incumbent is banking on a good showing from the large group of supporters who voted for last year’s merger. Howard is vowing to deliver on the promise of a merged union’s increased bargaining clout.
“I recognize our greatest strength lies in a united approach now that we are negotiating as one union,” he said in the statement. “We must take the same strong approach in our upcoming television-theatrical negotiations – an area where so many of our members make their living, especially in cable and new media – like we did with our commercials contract that put nearly a quarter-of-a-billion extra dollars into our members’ pockets.”
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