Vallywood! Update: Forget Afghanistan – Divided Guilds Head towards Electoral Showdown

If you thought there was electoral trouble in Iran and Afghanistan, you haven’t been paying attention to the battles unfolding inside the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. Well, maybe it’s the fiery haze hanging over L.A. but as the smoke clears in the next couple of weeks and both Guilds count the votes in hotly contested presidential contests don’t expect the losing side to fold its tent and go home.

There are probably no other unions in the country – even the world – where there is such intense internal division as found in these two Guilds. The battle lines were drawn over the last decade or so, first in sand and now in cement as hard as that found under the sidewalks where they put those stars at Hollywood and Vine.

In both the WGA (West) and SAG a militant and a moderate faction are duking it out. The outcome of recent collective bargaining hangs over the campaign. The WGA went through a 100 day strike in late 2007 and into early 2008 in order to secure a foothold in new media such as programs distributed on internet platforms like Hulu. The Writers were successful, to a point, but the results were disappointing to the membership and would likely have been much more attractive had they been able to count on SAG to back them. While individual SAG actors did support the strike, SAG itself, under the leadership then of its militant Membership First group, unleashed an internecine attack on sister guild AFTRA instead of finding a way to back the Writers.

When SAG’s contract came up for negotiations in mid-08, the WGA deal was already in the can as was a similar deal by Directors and AFTRA. That created huge pressure on SAG to conform to what was called a “template” despite the shortcomings of the WGA deal. Now SAG paid dearly for its battle with AFTRA. Membership First had no strategy independent of that attack and as it dragged out negotiations the membership turned on them and control of the SAG national board shifted to a more moderate group that replaced the embarrassingly ineffectual executive director that Membership First had hired out of the corrupt football players union. Unfortunately, they have replaced him with a lawyer who has little real union experience and apparently no clear strategy to increase actor power in the industry.

Now the two forces are at odds in the election with Membership First backing the current First VP Anne-Marie Johnson and the moderate Unite For Strength group pushing veteran TV actor Ken Howard. Johnson has far more union experience and, if she did not have a volatile personality, could make an articulate and effective union leader. Howard is an unknown outside of SAG as far as labor is concerned but appears to be a stable, sober figure. But his lack of experience may make him overly dependent on SAG senior staff which has a reputation for lacking imagination.

The wild card is the independent presidential candidacy of Seymour Cassel, known to film buffs for his work for director John Cassavetes (Killing of a Chinese Bookie). Cassel is part of Membership First but like many in that group he is wary of Johnson whose domineering personality gets in the way of her considerable skills. Johnson is joined at the hip to outgoing president Alan Rosenberg. Cassel ran against Rosenberg in his re-election effort and without even campaigning came close to winning. This time around Cassel’s goal is complicated by allegations that he sexually harassed several SAG staff members. While found guilty of conduct unbecoming a union member by a hearing board, the case is on appeal and so he is still eligible for the election. The reputation hit of the charges is certainly going to cut into his vote but any votes he gets are likely to hurt Johnson – think Ralph Nader and Al Gore.

The presidential race is not the only one up for grabs in SAG. Its National Board has 1/3 of its seats up as well. But Membership First holds all of them today so any shift away from that grouping is likely to cause them to lose some Board seats as well. Since they are one vote shy today of a board majority it seems likely the moderate coalition will hold on to board power. When you include the Cassel factor it is indeed possible that the moderates will come away with both the Presidency and control of the Board.

The problem is – what will they do with that power? Other than their obsession with the idea of merging with AFTRA – an idea that has been on the table for more than a quarter century without success – the absence of a clear strategy is the most telling problem for the moderates. Their criticisms of Membership First’s mishandling of the last contract round always made sense but their contribution generally stops there. Ask how they would handle the $20 billion annual windfall to the studios in the form of DVD revenue or how the Guild can increase union power in the new media era and the conversation comes quickly to a close.

Even in defeat, of course, Membership First is not going to go away. They tap into the understandable resentment that has built up inside the Guild as first DVD’s and now the internet eat away at what was once a powerful force in the industry. MF’s problem, though, is to assume that militancy alone is the answer – but even they gave up on DVD’s without a fight last time around and they take an all or nothing approach to new media that guarantees negotiations will always be a non-starter. The backing by some of Cassel indicates that they realize they do not have all the answers.

If Ken Howard does become Guild president he should take that message to heart. To begin to rebuild actor power in the wider world, the Guild itself must get beyond its own internal divide. That’s why they call it a “union,” right?