The popular actor Esai Morales, long known as a pro-union (his family and mine share a background in the old ILGWU) and progressive figure in entertainment, has taken his first shot in the ongoing campaign for the presidency of SAG-AFTRA, the newly merged union of SAG and AFTRA. While brief, his video statement has several interesting highlights.
The first and most alarming is the statement that the union is facing a $5 million deficit. The details of this are not laid out but it is consistent with the statements found on actors blogs and elsewhere that the financial condition of SAG’s merger partner AFTRA is far more dire than was understood prior to merger. His use of the word “triage” to describe what he intends to do if he wins office sounded quite dark. It may not make the best campaign slogan even if accurate.
The second highlight is Morales’ emphasis on the need for a strategy that focuses on both the industry and opportunities outside the industry. This could mean a number of things, of course, but hopefully it means Membership First, Morales’ political party, is thinking carefully about the complex environment his fellow actors and broadcasters now face. In theory that was the point of the merger but there has been no sign at all that the current elected or staff leadership has made any serious moves in this direction. Recent press discussions of the success of Netflix and of Google’s new non-union Hollywood studio should point to the areas of concern.
The third highlight is one of Membership First’s longstanding themes: union democracy. Recent reports of SAG-AFTRA trying to shut down actors’ Facebook pages on the eve of the election, potentially in violation of union members’ federally guaranteed free speech rights, is a reminder of the importance of union democracy. The problem is that in the past Membership First has professed an interest in democracy while then making moves that make that impossible. There is, in fact, very little transparency into the way the party itself functions and some indication, which I experienced first hand during my NED candidacy at SAG, that an inner circle runs the party without much input from its adherents.
A serious problem is created by the claptrap governance structure of the new union which has mixed elements of the old SAG and AFTRA, not altogether coherently. The Executive Board remains far too large to be effective in dealing with highly disciplined and better resourced entertainment and media conglomerates. The union membership should reconsider this structure at their upcoming fall convention, the first since the merger.
Morales is a new face to the public when it comes to Hollywood union politics. He certainly comes across as awake and articulate and motivated. That puts him way ahead of the current SAG-AFTRA president, Ken Howard, who apparently has not even been able to sustain a stable professional relationship with Roberta Reardon, the former head of AFTRA, in their first year as co-heads of the new union. But we will wait for a fuller assessment when Howard makes an appearance during the campaign.