In what might have been anticipated by SAG followers, the internal political battle at SAG is now turning into a legal battle.
However nasty and brutish this conflict may appear to be, to paraphrase Hobbes, this leg of the “f-ing civil war,” in the immortal words of the SAG President Alan Rosenberg, is likely to be short.
To re-cap for the non-Vallywood followers of King Harvest, the 120,000 member Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, is engaged in protracted contract negotiations with its major employer group represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the AMPTP. Their key contract covering film and TV work expired last June 30 and an effort by a tough talking faction that until recently was in control of the Guild’s leadership and staff, known as Membership First, to convince their fellow actors to strike to support bargaining demands ran into a firestorm of opposition.
Elections last fall shifted control of the National Board of SAG towards a less tough talking group known colloquially as the New Majority, but made up of representatives of actors in Hollywood, New York and the Regional Boards that represent SAG in other parts of the country. This group recently ousted the controversial National Executive Director of SAG, Doug Allen, and replaced him with two interim figures, a Chief Negotiator (John McGuire, a longtime SAG advisor and former staff member) and an Interim National Executive Director (David White, an entertainment lawyer who was once SAG’s General Counsel).
Although no one I have talked to has actually seen the court papers that are supposedly to be filed tomorrow, the media are reporting that Membership First leaders including SAG President Alan Rosenberg (AR) and 1st Vice President Anne Marie Johnson (AMJ) are planning to sue to enjoin the dismissal of Allen and the replacement of SAG’s contract negotiating committee by a task force.
Most likely this action would be filed in LA Superior Court and would initially be a request for a preliminary injunction against the hiring of McGuire and White and the replacement of the Negotiating Committee. There are two very large barriers to success, however, in the action by Rosenberg and Johnson.
First, the standard for a preliminary injunction itself is very high. Such motions are granted reluctantly by judges since they require the judge to intervene in a dispute about which they know almost nothing. They must be convinced that to NOT act would cause irreparable harm to Rosenberg and Johnson, that the harm to be suffered outweighs that which will be imposed on SAG, that the injunction would be in the public interest, and that Johnson and Rosenberg have a substantial likelihood of prevailing on their claims at a full trial.
While as SAG members and leaders AR and AMJ could assert some basis for a claim that dismissing Allen and disbanding the Negotiating Committee would cause some harm (perhaps based on a claim, however unjustified, that the SAG Constitution was not followed), it is much less clear how they will convince a judge to block contract negotiations over billions of dollars impacting hundreds of thousands at the heart of the Los Angeles economy. Far more likely the balance of the harms greatly favors the SAG National Board in this case. Certainly the public interest prong of the legal test favors SAG given the bias towards peaceful and efficient resolution of labor disputes.
And the likelihood of ultimate success would seem a real up hill battle for AR and AMJ since they would have to convince a judge that when it comes to firing the Guilds top staff member and disbanding a board committee is somehow not the province of the board itself. Of course, the National Board has ultimate authority to manage the affairs of SAG.
Second, if the move for a preliminary injunction fails, AR and AMJ could move for a permanent injunction but failure on the preliminary injunction would not bode well for their success. Thus, in my view, this latest stage of the internal SAG war may succeed in de-railing negotiations with the studios for a week, two at the most, while a judge considers the motion, but is not likely to reverse the current course SAG is on towards a relatively quick resolution of the current contract stalemate.
UPDATE: SAG has released a statement that certain SAG Board Members plan to move for an “expedited injunction” to prevent the implementation of the recent decisions by the National Board. A hearing in LA Superior Court is set for tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM. Since the announcement mentions the “written assent” signed by a majority of the Board, it means the hearing could also include an attack on the attempt to prevent SAG President Alan Rosenberg from speaking on behalf of SAG. As I have previously written this is the one provision of the written assent that I think could be subject to successful legal attack.