You would never know it reading this convoluted piece by SAG-AFTRA cheerleader Jonathan Handel but a leadership crisis has hit the newly merged union. SAG veteran and SAG-AFTRA co-president Ken Howard is refusing to back his AFTRA merger partner and fellow co-president Roberta Reardon for the role of Executive Vice President in the upcoming fall elections. The union had decided to move to a single president structure this year.
Handel’s “exclusive” is elusive on the basis for the battle but it likely reflects the huge cultural divisions between the organizations that prevail a year after they cobbled together a controversial merger that followed coercive tactics by the big studios. AFTRA loyalists complain that top staff jobs are now dominated by old SAG staffers which Handel confirms. And SAG loyalists, many of whom were pro-merger, are livid at the shutdown by the union of key regional offices such as Portland.
Meanwhile, Membership First, the so-called “radical” group in the union, has resurfaced and will likely back actor Esai Morales for President.
All of this points to the core problem: what is the vision and strategy of the union for the long term? The industry in which performers work is changing in dramatic ways and the pressure is on to revise business models in the face of new technology. But decisions by the union leaders like the regional office closures and staff restructuring are justified only on the basis of cost savings with no connection to union strategy.
Union apologists will inevitably say the strategy is a secret but this leadership war suggests there is an intellectual vacuum at the top of the new organization. Perhaps we now know why the member benefit plans have yet to merge – with the union merged in name only it may make sense to wait and see if this entity will survive.