Free speech battle erupts inside SAG

Today was Sunday of course but since SAG was in talks when the phone call from Andrew Salomon, news editor of Back Stage East and currently blogging on Blog Stage’s Strike Watch, came in early this morning I figured there was news out of Encino or Sherman Oaks.
Nope, instead the matter at hand was the ongoing, if fruitless and desperate, effort of the SAG/MF leadership to campaign among dual cardholders against the AFTRA contract. There was, early on, some indication that AFTRA itself would move legally to enjoin the SAG effort as improperly interfering in their internal affairs, including the possibility of requesting AFL-CIO assistance. Nothing seems to have come of that, so SAG has engaged in a PR war to drum up votes against ratification of the Exhibit A deal.
One tactic – a classic one in union politics – is for those in power to use their control of union resources to block dissenting members (in this case those SAG members who think that SAG should not campaign against the AFTRA deal) from voicing their opposition to the anti-AFTRA campaign.  Sam Freed, a SAG member and President of the NY Division of SAG wanted to send an email to his own Division’s members explaining his opposition to the anti-AFTRA campaign.  But SAG HQ said that he could not have access to the email addresses of his own fellow SAG members.  
This is very odd and, from what I know about the facts, likely illegal, on a number of grounds.  
First the odd part: the Membership First party ran for SAG offices on the argument – quite understandably in my view – that when former studio lawyer Bob Pisano was NED he engaged in a number of organizational tactics that cut the staff off from the membership.  Thus, the name of Membership “First.” 
Fair enough.  
Ironically, though, one example of the kinds of tactics used under Pisano was the denial to MF activists of the ability to send out to their fellow members material that argued why the merger with AFTRA – which Pisano was strongly in favor of – was a bad idea.  
Among the anti-merger activists was Kent McCord, now a VP (Hollywood Division) of SAG and a member of Membership First.  McCord, quite rightly, reached out to a NY based group called the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), founded and led by Herman Benson, for assistance.
Benson is a largely unsung hero of the modern American labor movement who started AUD in the late 60s after the murder of two painters’ union staff members here in the SF bay area – murdered, incredibly and tragically, by employer-side trustees of their pension fund who were hired by the head of their union to kill them.  
I helped Benson in 1983 to organize the first west coast conference of AUD – where some 300 rank and file workers from the Mexican border to Alaska came together to strategize about the problems inside their unions.  
Although the event was hosted by the UC Berkeley law school the university threatened to fire me (I was then on the staff of the university’s labor education center and a union organizer of campus workers) if I helped with the event because the rank and file workers were a threat to their own unions back home and thus a threat to the university’s relationship to the current leaders of those unions.
Benson put McCord in touch with AUD associated lawyer Arthur Fox.  I do not know what Arthur Fox advised McCord – that would be confidential, of course, but Fox has argued many of the leading federal cases that have defined the rights of union members under the federal labor law known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, or the Landrum-Griffin Act (“LGA”).  
One of those cases was Cotter v. Helmer from which I quote below. The judge in the case was Kenneth Conboy, a storied New York prosecutor and police commissioner who was then appointed to the federal bench by former SAG President then US President Ronald Reagan.  Judge Conboy is now a partner at Latham & Watkins in New York (where I met him when I was an associate at the firm in the mid-90s).
The LGA is considered to be the “Bill of Rights” for union members because its aim is to bring inside the union organization the constitutional rights that union members enjoy in the wider political arena, such as the right to vote on key union issues and the right to exercise the freedom of speech.
It was passed in the 1950s when the high handed and sometimes corrupt tactics of some unions threatened the internal democratic life of the labor movement.  This was particularly a problem in those unions with either mob or Communist Party influence but also could be a problem in any union where a political faction or tendency attempts to run roughshod over the rights of union members as a way to maintain power.
Among others, two relevant rights are protected by LGA: 1) the right of union members to hear opposing points of view on an issue on which they are being asked to vote and 2) the right of members to present opposing points of view on such an issue.
Thus, the LGA mandates that SAG NY has a right to express its views to the members of SAG on a critical issue: whether or not to support the anti-AFTRA campaign by voting against the Exhibit A contract negotiated by AFTRA.
Since members of SAG are being asked by certain officers and staff to vote a certain way on a critical issue, those members have a right under LGA to “receive all viewpoints” in order to cast a “meaningful vote.”  Cotter.
NYC SAG appears to me to be trying to protect the rights of members to “receive all viewpoints.”

Further, “[t]he principle behind the [LGA] is “full and active participation by the rank and file in the affairs of the union.”” Id.  Such participation can only be “meaningful” as the courts view the law if the rank and file are exposed to all points of view on the vote.  

Without robust internal debate on a critical union decision, such a vote would just be a rubber stamp of the opinion of those in control of the union. That would render the union members superfluous – they might as well be members of the ACLU, the local opera society or a little league parents’ association.

For some odd reason SAG’s General Counsel, who was appointed to his position by the current SAG leadership, argues that Sam Freed cannot express his views to his fellow members because the LGA protects the rights of union members not the rights of union officers or staff.  

Well, okay, sure, it’s true that the Bill of Rights for union members is intended to protect union members, not staff or officers.  
So what?
Sam Freed is, indeed, a union officer but he is also a union member. He is trying to exercise his right as a union member.  That is the only right he could attempt to exercise under LGA because that is the only kind of right created by Congress through the LGA.  Thus, federal courts have held that members “whose views are opposed to [the union’s]…[should] have an opportunity to present their views to other members of the union.”” Id.
In other words, SAG is not allowed to discriminate against Freed – a SAG member – simply because he is also an officer.  
In any case, it is not only Freed’s rights under LGA that are at stake. Every other union member has a right, too, to “receive all viewpoints.”
In sum, SAG members have a right under LGA to hear Sam Freed’s views in order to decide how to vote on the matter that is being put before them by SAG and Sam Freed as a union member has a right to express his views in order to allow his fellow SAG members to make a meaningful decision.  
To hear from only one side violates the central principle of the labor movement’s Bill of Rights, and, frankly, smacks of the kind of bureaucratic maneuvering that is reminiscent of the mob or the stalinists who have, sadly, sometimes found their way into our labor movement.

Blog Stage: Labor Unrest, Coast to Coast