Defend SAG President Rosenberg’s Free Speech Rights? Yes….

As Vallywood readers know, I have not been a strong supporter of the tactics and strategy put in place by the Membership First team at the Screen Actors Guild. SAG President Alan Rosenberg, First Vice President Anne Marie Johnson, Chief Negotiator David Jolliffe and their hand picked and now fired NED, Doug Allen, thought, mistakenly and tragically for the Guild, that a “go it alone” approach would free SAG of the shackles of their fellow Guilds thus enabling SAG to secure a strong contract.

Instead, this strategy has left SAG “last in line” with no deal now nearly seven months after the expiration of their most important contract.

In response a new opposition movement grew up inside the Guild led by veteran activists in the New York and the Regional Board Divisions together with the lone and brave dissenter from Hollywood, Morgan Fairchild. Then in the fall elections an important new group with many followers in the previously Membership First dominated Hollywood Division emerged, Unite For Strength. Their election platform clearly recognized the central failure of the Rosenberg regime: the Guild cannot win significant gains in the industry on its own, it must develop a coherent and coordinated strategy with its sister unions. Thus, they have called for a renewal of merger discussions with AFTRA as a first step in that direction.

Fair enough. But when this new majority attempted to carry out their new mandate they ran into a rule-breaking filibuster at a recent 30 hour National Board meeting marathon, shamefully led by SAG President, Alan Rosenberg. With no other choice the new majority took the unusual step of acting by majority written assent, a little used but completely legal and democratic provision in SAG’s Constitution, to oust NED Doug Allen, change the negotiating team and install former SAG General Counsel David White as “Interim NED” and veteran SAG advisor John McGuire as “Chief Negotiator.” 

As I have already blogged here, I think that while a move to change the negotiating team had to be made in order to lead the Guild forward in negotiations, it was a mistake to split the NED position into two with now two senior executives reporting to the board. While White and McGuire may work well together this is an inherently unworkable structure. It suggests, as David White himself acknowledged in an email to SAG members yesterday, that his is only a caretaker role.

But SAG needs far more than a caretaker, especially now. In my view, the new majority should have recruited and installed a leader they feel they can work with for the next few years and someone they feel can develop a strategy that re-unites the Guild and works to achieve the Guild’s goals.

Instead, the new majority compounded their governance mistake by also attempting to muzzle the free speech rights of the President of SAG, Alan Rosenberg. No doubt, as the saying goes, Rosenberg abuses the privilege; most recently of course in his inflammatory rhetoric about starting a “f-ing civil war” inside the Guild.

But if the National Board majority felt that Rosenberg’s behavior has been so egregious (arguably, true), then the Constitution provides for an impeachment process. That, however, was not the step taken by the Board.

Instead, the Written Assent provides:

“Effective immediately, no one other than the Interim National Executive Director and John T. McGuire, or their designee, is authorized to communicate on behalf of Screen Actors Guild to other organizations, the general public or the press on any subjects whatsoever, including the actions contained in this document. This pertains to all SAG staff and elected officers.”

Rosenberg, however, is as Guild President, the “chief elected officer” of the Guild and, under California law, its chief executive officer as well. Rosenberg is one of only two Guild officers who is directly elected by the membership. In that sense, his power is greater than that of a typical corporation president, who is ordinarily chosen by the board rather than the members of the corporation.

Thus, while the National Board, of which Rosenberg is a member, has authority for most Guild decisions, it shares its power in important ways with the President. And that is at it should be, unless the Guild membership or Board decides to amend its Constitution. It is therefore inconsistent with the ordinary rights and privileges associated with the Guild President to attempt to limit his ability to speak on behalf of the organization.

To make matters worse, the Written Assent places complete control over Guild communications in the hands of two paid staff members, neither of them actors and neither of them elected by the board or membership. Even board members themselves cannot speak for the Guild under this rule unless one of those two staff members allows them to do so.

This provision makes no sense legally or politically. In fact, it is already being used by Rosenberg and Membership First to undermine the credibility of the new majority. As a lawyer himself surely David White recognizes the problem with the provision. He should suggest to the board it be reversed as soon as possible.

That step might go a long way to bringing together both sides in this internal union battle in order to solve the larger issue of rebuilding a united Guild leadership.

1 thought on “Defend SAG President Rosenberg’s Free Speech Rights? Yes….”

  1. If you give the new leadership any credit for intelligence, you cannot just dismiss the possibility they knew exactly what they were doing with the gag order in the assent. Clearly, it was not necessary to achieve the immediate goals of changing direction at the Guild, and it does bear the taint of being unduly repressive of an elected officer’s rights.
    However, if, with hindsight, you give the “new majority” any credit for political smarts as well as intelligence, imposing and waiving the gag order was a gambit that has actually worked very, very well.

    First, they show the opposition that they have the power to do it, whether or not it was a legal exercise of that power. That demonstration of the willingness to use the potential (if somewhat arbitrary) strength of pure majority rule should be remembered by those it was employed against. If nothing else, it could be considered giving them a small taste of their own medicine.

    Second, almost immediately, and well before almost all legitimate criticism of the Rosenberg gag (including yours), they waive it, demonstrating a clear difference between the way they will treat internal dissent and the way Rosenberg did. Giving Rosenberg the forum to air his personal grievances about the change in leadership stands in stark contrast to the policies followed by Membership First, up to, and including the conduct of the special meeting several weeks ago. The new leadership not only looks like the good guys, they show they’re not afraid of what he might say. Compassion and confidence is a pretty good image to project in the middle of chaos.

    Third, no matter what he actually said, it was a win-win for the new leaders. If Rosenberg accepted the loss of control and was conciliatory, pledging to work with the new team, the guild would take giant steps toward regaining some of its reputation and credibility. The new leaders could take credit for bringing the factions closer together.

    And if he took the opportunity to rage against his opposition, and typify them as destroyers of what was good and true about SAG, and continue to defend his actions without the slightest hint of self-doubt or taking some responsibility for the results, then Rosenberg has provided all the legitimate justification the new leadership needs to marginalize him and his supporters in SAG governance now, and as far into the future as he keeps it up. It is pretty clear that Rosenberg hasn’t seen any of Blagojevich’s recent press conferences, or he might have tried a different approach.

    We now know how he used the opportunity. I suspect the new leaders knew exactly how he would respond. Give credit where it’s due.

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