SAG moderates put lawyer in charge, slide into irrelevance continues

picket-lineAs was widely expected the new moderate alliance at the Screen Actors Guild today named former studio side lawyer and former SAG general counsel David White their National Executive Director.  White had first joined the guild under Robert Pisano, the controversial SAG NED who had been recruited from the major white shoe LA law firm O’Melveny and Myers, longtime outside counsel to major studios. The appointment of White was apparently backed by a few directors from the more confrontational Membership First wing of the Guild as well.

White was named interim NED during a shake up in guild leadership in late 08. He quickly engineered the signing of the Guild’s major collective bargaining contract but at the cost of giving up on resolution of disputes over force majeur payments linked to the 100 day writers strike worth an estimated 50 to 60 million dollars.

In addition, the Guild was forced to agree to early good faith negotiations with the Hollywood studios. These talks are set to begin in October of next year. Since SAG will be the only guild in early talks it will not have any serious support for job actions from the other guilds.

Moderates were known to be arguing for White’s elevation instead of a full search process for a new NED because of the early talks, which, of course, ignores that it was White who was forced into that concession. The studios apparently surprised White and the Guild in those early 2009 talks by demanding a 3 year deal which would have put the Guild out of line with the other guilds in contract expiration. But the early bargaining concession undermines the value of the Spring 2011 coordinated expiration date that AFTRA, the WGA and DGA all secured.

In other words, ironically, SAG once again goes it alone in October 2010. The “go it alone” approach was widely attacked by the moderates when they were in the opposition to Membership First. MF had not been able to develop a serious alliance with the WGA in 2007-08 and then unleashed an attack on the Guild’s sister union AFTRA.

White was not alone of course in agreeing to those concessions. The new moderate group was intent on signing the deal on the table at the time but got caught by surprise on the issue of contract expiration. After the confrontational Membership First group had dragged negotiations out without any real progress the moderates felt they had no choice although they were advised by some to consider some alternatives to increase their leverage and fight on.

The larger question now is whether White’s lack of wider political and trade union experience will limit his ability to devise a serious strategy for the Guild. There has been little sign of serious strategic thinking from the Guild during his one year tenure. A full search process would have allowed SAG the opportunity to hear from and consider the views of several labor professionals about future strategy. The moderates who put White into office campaigned for control of the Guild on a narrow platform of closer ties to AFTRA and the other guilds. But there will be no time for merger prior to the 2011 contract process and with SAG going it alone in 2010 such talks will have little impact.

Unfortunately, by not thinking outside the box, SAG is likely to continue to be boxed in by the dramatic technological and financial changes wracking the entertainment industry. That most likely means only modest wage increases in the upcoming negotiations with no inroads into the studios $20 billion DVD cash cow. Meanwhile the consumers’ entertainment dollar continues to spread to new non-union sources as the Guild’s leverage and significance wanes.

It would be too dramatic to say the Guild is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because the slide in Guild power is a slow, painful process. But the events of this weekend – including the no show of the new SAG president at his first national board meeting – indicate that SAG will likely be no exception to the growing irrelevance of the American labor movement.

6 thoughts on “SAG moderates put lawyer in charge, slide into irrelevance continues”

  1. Sorry, Tom, but 123 year old OMM is as “white shoe” as it gets in what we in law schools call the world of BigLaw. It was the home of (WASP elite figure) Warren Christopher, for example, for many years. Even the LA Times describes OMM as “white shoe.” Its upstart competitor in LA, Latham, fits the noveau model – although that seems odd in light of its Mormon origins, it’s in fact true. I was offered jobs in law school by both firms and picked Latham. And I still have friends and Yale class mates at both firms.

    I certainly understand the swing back to a negotiation style as opposed to a brawling style. But that is to think about the issue in a vacuum. Of course the former is the only reasonable way to go once the battle begins. But from what position? What is the balance of forces that is the basis of the battle? Being civil will not mean much with Carole L. or her bosses

    Will White – based on his particular experience, ability, personal history, and education – know how to reposition the Guild to negotiate from a position of greater strength?

    To answer that question, I believe the board members should have done what I believe their fiduciary role obligated them to do – a normal search process. In light of the fact that SAG is not exactly an attractive place to work these days relative to the choices available to top level executive talent that might have been a relatively short process.

    At a minimum SAG leaders could have tapped into some discussion with some serious labor professionals. Even Donald Fehr, the veteran baseball players union head, who recently retired at 61, is available these days, for example. If White won the beauty contest then both he and the Guild will be better off.

    If the Guild had a rational governance structure – with a real board of 9-11 members with no alternates and the current “board” serving as an advisory body, it would not be handling the NED process in this manner.

  2. Hey Steve –

    Gonna quibble a minute with you. O’Melveny and Myers is certainly NOT a “white shoe” law firm. Maybe it would be if you were to preface it with “LA-style nouveau” – as in “LA-style nouveau white shoe law firm” but then the phrase simply becomes an oxymoron. But let that be.

    David White’s appointment will of course stir up the bellicose bunch who want a brawl instead of a negotiation, and I think that’s exactly what we need less of around SAG at this time.

    As has been noted, David is a personable and intelligent gentleman. I for one am willing to give him and his team a pretty free hand during this (truncated) period of run-up to TV/Theatrical negotiations to see what SAG can accomplish with brains rather than brass knuckles.

  3. Any constructive reasonably polite comment is welcome here no matter the political background of the poster, so I have no objection to Matt posting here.

    What should give you pause, though, is that so many in the moderate camp are now adopting the Membership First approach – a party line to be used against all comers.

    So the line being rolled out now – in addition to the personal attacks on me – is that there was no choice but to hire White because of the time pressure the Guild is under. That conveniently ignores who, exactly, put SAG on such a short time line.

    When the Producers pushed for a three year deal it was the moderates who led the charge against it and they were so dead set against it that they were willing to give up on force majeur and agreed to early bargaining. I pointed out at the time that a coordinated expiration date’s advantage could be overestimated. In any case, the decision to start early bargaining undermines any such advantage.

    White ran a small non profit in Kansas, then spent less than two years as a junior associate in Pisano’s group at a big studio side corporate law firm and then joined the Guild where he worked under Pisano yet again. From there he seems to have tried to get a consulting firm of some sort off the ground which then failed because he picked the wrong business partner.

    Fortunately, SAG came along and offered him a temporary gig because of the corner that MF painted it into with its mindlessly militant tactics. Now SAG has handed him the reins to lead the way into negotiations for another two years without any time spent talking to any other candidates. That could have happened at any time over the last year. The moderates have controlled the board for a year.

    Now, is White a nice guy?

    I suppose so.

    Is he less of a jerk than Allen?

    Of course.

    But on the major contract he made significant concessions that have now put the Guild under terrible time pressure and isolated it from the other guilds.

    Here are the kinds of questions the Guild’s board members should have asked White (and several other candidates) before making their decision:

    Why does he think actors are worth more than the producers do?

    What argument will he make to the wider world to increase the social and political pressure on the congloms so that they change the way they compensate actors?

    How will he make that argument and develop that form of pressure?

    How will he avoid getting the Guild boxed into the concessions it will have to make in the early 2010 bargaining?

    What is his plan to respond to the expansion of alternatives to traditional sources of entertainment that are slowly but steadily diluting the power of performers?

    Does he know how to organize a union membership to change the dynamics of its relationship to the producers?

    How will he deal with the AFL-CIO, in particular with the decision of the AFL to elevate AFTRA to the Executive Council?

    What is/will be his relationship with Rich Trumka, the new President of the AFL-CIO?

    What arguments will he use in re-building relationships with the other guilds? How will he repair ties to IATSE, to the ATA?

    In 2000, I am told (and since the story was such a shock to me if I am wrong, my apologies), SAG did not allow its LA staff to help with the strike…how will the new NED transform the SAG staff into a dynamic union team that generates ideas and information for the elected leadership?

    A responsible board of directors would put each candidate through this kind of examination, report on the results and make a decision after due consideration. If SAG’s lawyers did not advise the board to do that then the board did not get good advice.

  4. Steve…you are missing the obvious: the NED job has been a revolving door(you should know this better than most), and there is a sincere desire not to hold up the progress that needs to be made to get the guild back into the power position that it needs to get to. Even 6 weeks is too much.

    You’re insistence that “it won’t work” relies on what facts, exactly? Yes, merger, will be messy, but there are steps to take to get there before we get there.

    It should give you serious cause to pause that M Mulhern, who the NY membership decided was unelectable(could have something to do with him calling his fellow actors names, etc), thinks you’re now on his side.

  5. That’s an interesting idea. The key is that the Guild is swinging back and forth between two poles neither of which can succeed. The MF crowd’s concern about being tougher made sense to an extent but it was not connected to any realistic strategy for actually increasing actors power.

    Sounding tough – which was Doug Allen’s stock in trade – might work for Sly Stallone’s portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa in FIST, it won’t work in the real world. (In fact, Jimmy Hoffa had a far more sophisticated organizing strategy than has ever emerged in any of the films about him.)

    Now in response to the, predicted and predictable, failure of MF there is an argument that being “smart” is the way to go. Everyone knows David White is a smart guy, relative to most people, but that’s not the point.

    The point is to have an idea about rebuilding power. This is a matter of strategic approach not smarts. There are 100,000 paid up members in SAG – they have the potential to reshape the industry in favor of actors and other performers. But not without the right strategic approach.

    So when people respond, as some are, that indeed White has a (“secret”) strategy, they are either willfully or naively mistaking strategy for tactics. Certainly the tactical roll out of the strategy is confidential. But the “strategy” of UFS is clear and quite public – it is to try to outsmart the producers inside the bargaining room while hoping that a new relationship with the other unions can be built.

    That won’t work. Merger will be a time consuming mess and will not be on terms that work for actors if SAG does not know what it is doing. And without a clear analysis of the industry and a response (which could include ideas like yours) then they will not demonstrate to either AFTRA or the AMPTP that they know what they are doing.

    That SAG did not have the confidence to open the search process and make White compete for the gig showed weakness and it showed that White is, like Allen before him, the hand picked representative of the ruling majority. If White had emerged after a focused search process over, let’s say, six weeks as the successful candidate then he and SAG would be stronger for it. Oh, and by the way, any lawyer advising the guild would more than likely have pointed out to the directors that their fiduciary duty to the members would be more effectively met had they engaged in such a search.

  6. Wow, Steve, never spoken, but it appears you are telling it like it is. How about Handl’s suggestion, which he cribbed from the WGA:

    “A gross percentage across ALL platforms.”

    Now, that’s big. It’s also, extremely simple as opposes to fifty platforms and fifity residual deals and… the chaos of what we’ll be negotiating from in 2010 for 1011.

    But it’s comprehensive and it protects actors well into the 21st century. It takes a strike – no doubt – wouldn’t you agree? And it takes an iron clad deal with no cheating with 2 sets of books by the suits. I literally don’t know they’re capable of running an honest business.

    But it’s pretty smart, pretty smooth, and cuts actors in for a fair slice of the pie, cutting out all the chaos of the current deal – “whatever we make? we get a cut of, from first dollar.”

    Instead, your old pals over a Sagwatch talk cut-backs and downtrends every day, as if they never contributed to th weakening of the unions resolve to do this right in 2008.

    They’re not exac tly KILLING you, because you’ve been, arguably thir go-to guy on all matters union comprehension 101 and predictions, etc., but, they CLEALRY don’t like you’re saying “see those creatures over there? Guess what they are? Right! Chickens! And, they’re coming home to roost.

    Either SAG gets serious, and throws the table at the AMPTP right over, or it’s over folks.

    These people need a top to bottom ass-whuppin’ from the people who make their product to be treatd fairly, and the knuckleheads in charge now think being nice to AFTRA and the ANPTP and the DGA is the answer. And the membership voted them in!

    Wow. Well, anyway, I hope you’ll continue to point out what has been obvious to me for a year and a half – suits respect one thing: strength. SAG vacillates at it’s peril. Make that doom.

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