As 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.