Deja vu all over again at the Screen Actors Guild….

One of the interesting aspects of today’s news coming out of the headquarters at the Screen Actors Guild – the ouster of SAG head staffer Doug Allen – is how smoothly the process went. Several of the most knowledgeable commentators, including Dave McNary of Variety and Jonathan Handel of the blog Digital Media Law clearly expected fireworks if not a battle to defend Allen by the Membership First party that had backed Allen so vociferously at the recent National Board meeting marathon.

Instead, Allen was gone within minutes after the majority written assent was delivered by a delegation representing the new majority on the board.

As of yet, the new NED, David White, has not been the subject of any criticism whatsoever by Membership First, despite a past when White as SAG General Counsel defended the Guild in its legal battles with the then out of power Membership First party. Normally when Membership First senses that someone is to be promoted to NED who is likely to steer the ship in a different direction there are howls of protest not to mention a rather scurrilous form of personal attacks, usually behind front entities like SAG Watchdog, a website run by Arlin Miller and widely seen as a mouthpiece for Membership First.

(Update 1/27: the hits are now coming in at Mr. White from Mr. Miller. It appears that the aim is to “taint” him with his experience as a corporate lawyer, of all things.)

That suggests an important question: could Membership First have been willing to see Allen thrown overboard without a protest today because the new structure set up by the written assent may work in their favor?

There is a hint of an answer to this question in today’s Los Angeles Times story on the Allen ouster. They point out that the National Board motion ousting Allen makes White the NED but makes John McGuire, currently a paid consultant to SAG, the “Chief Negotiator.” In other words, the titles that Allen held as one have been split in two.

This comes as a surprise.

It was thought that if Allen was ousted that White or someone else (the only other name to surface was Sallie Weaver, a former SAG staffer who is a business partner of White’s) would take over as interim NED and McGuire would continue as a consultant on the negotiations. Instead he is being given a post that makes him, in a sense, a parallel CEO, particularly in light of the seven or eight major contract negotiations that SAG is now engaged in on both coasts.

That division of labor, of course, weakens the position of the NED significantly and, in my view, is an unwise move by SAG. In fact, both sides in this dispute have attempted to make this move in the past. When I was named the “leading candidate” for the NED spot in 2006 I was told during the contract negotiations that followed that the Guild wanted to split the NED position in the very same way.  

At the time I was taken aback by the suggestion because the Guild’s search committee had never indicated that this was their intention. I thought then that it was Membership First alone that wanted to change up the governance structure at the last minute. But, it turned out the idea had support in New York SAG as well.

I pointed out to Guild leaders then what I later said in a detailed memo called The Future of SAG: that splitting up the top executive position of the Guild in this manner was unworkable and would deprive the Guild of the strategic leadership it desperately needs. As I said then, and believe now, to create two senior executives in this manner invites dissension between the two, and because both will report directly to the board tempts them to play politics within the very large SAG board and, vice versa, tempts board members to play politics with the staff.

But it is those very same risks that may appeal to Membership First. The new dual power scenario means that the Board will be under tremendous pressure to supervise the work of the two executives. That means that those executives will be more dependent on the Board and that no doubt suits Membership First just fine, since they have shown how capable they are of controlling Board meetings as they did in the recent 30 hour marathon.

Instead of an unstable dual power structure, the Guild’s board should be downsized so that it can in fact make decisions about basic Guild goals and then hire the single right chief executive to lead the Guild staff in devising and executing with the elected leadership a strategy to achieve Guild goals.

The first real challenge for the new SAG team will be served up in the next few days: what position will they adopt with respect to the so-called “new media template,” which Membership First, with a poorly conceived and even more poorly executed strategy, has understandably opposed. The new executives owe the SAG membership a fiduciary obligation – they must fight for SAG members’ interests and thus it seem highly unlikely that they can simply start throwing demands on new media and DVDs overboard in order to secure modest gains on the remaining issues, and then call it a day.

But to put up a serious fight on these issues will require a much more robust argument about new media. That was something Membership First ignored despite warnings from many. Thus, they dug their union into a deep hole. The new leadership will have a tough time pulling themselves out of it. It is not clear that the dual power structure chosen by the new board majority is up to that task.