Outsider becomes SAG's most militant leader

Screen Actors Guild president William Daniels used to be best known for playing Dustin Hoffman’s father in “The Graduate” and Dr. Mark Craig on “St. Elsewhere.”

But seven months into his first term as SAG prexy, Daniels is at the vortex of a bitter nine-week strike by union actors against advertisers, and he anticipates another possible strike next summer when the theatrical-TV contract expires for SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

The mild-mannered 73-year-old admits he could go down as Hollywood’s version of John L. Lewis with a reputation as the industry’s most combative labor leader ever. So he finds it highly ironic that he went into the job with no background of union activism.

“I never sought this job,” he told Daily Variety. “It’s the most peculiar thing that’s ever happened in my life.”

Daniels had been pondering whether to retire until a fateful visit in August to a coffee shop in L.A.’s Studio City, where dissident SAG members convinced him to run for president of one of the world’s most visible labor organizations. “I thought they were just asking me for advice about who should run since I know a lot of people,” he recalled.

Receptive to running

After his initial astonishment, Daniels found the idea actually made sense.

“I said to myself, ‘You’ve been in this business so long that there’s no one you’ve ever met who’s that awe-inspiring so you’re probably a good idea for this,’ ” he said. “I impulsively said yes. And I went through some hellish times where I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ “

Despite his courtly manner, Daniels turned out to be even tougher than his campaign rhetoric, which attacked two-term incumbent Richard Masur for being secretive and a “pussycat” in negotiations.

First, he stunned Hollywood by killing a waiver agreement that would have expanded the powers of agents after stars expressed reservations about it. “We brought in 50 high-profile members, and every one of them thought it stank,” he recalled.

Daniels then spearheaded SAG’s hardball stance at the bargaining table, which saw advertisers demand elimination of residuals for network TV ads.

Long-term impact

Even though commercials carry little of the glamour and prestige of film and TV, Daniels contends the contract has critical, long-term impact. If SAG rolls over on network residuals, it will have a “domino effect” and leave the town’s unions vulnerable to far more severe cuts in upcoming negotiations.

“It would have been very nice if this negotiation with advertisers were a nice, soft touch, but they came in asking for a rollback,” he said. “There’s no way the acting community is going to accept that. And the producers are going to ask for more rollbacks in future contracts if we give in on this.”

And after shuttling to New York for weeks of negotiations, he finds it insulting that the ad industry portrays SAG and AFTRA as inflexible. He pointed out that their negotiators never addressed three major proposals SAG brought to the table — cable residuals, monitoring and Internet jurisdiction — and then dismissed out of hand a recent mediator idea for an economic analysis of SAG’s proposals.

Squeezing won’t work

“It’s not SAG that’s being intransigent,” Daniels declared. “It’s these guys, who think nothing of actors. They think actors are patsies, that they can just squeeze the lower end.”

So is SAG winning the strike? Absolutely, Daniels asserted. “It’s the most effective strike we’ve ever had.

“The communication with the membership is what’s making it happen.”

Observers believe advertisers may have under-estimated SAG’s resolve. The industry clearly expected that internal dissension — a longtime problem at SAG — would hobble the ability of the union to present a united front but it hasn’t.

Additionally, SAG has been able to use the Internet to communicate quickly and directly with the rank and file, partly through an e-mail chain that reaches a fifth of its 98,000 members. It also managed to defuse some of a potential strikebreaking problem by allowing more than 1,100 non-union actors to become eligible for SAG cards by performing 80 hours of work on the strike.

For now, Daniels is not revealing if he’ll consider a second term. “I’m not saying I’m not going to because I don’t want to be treated like a lame duck,” he said. “I want to be as effective as I can.”

Future goals

Still, Daniels admitted he and SAG have a long way to go, even after the strike ends. For starters, he’d like the town’s entertainment unions to get along better with each other. “I’m just beginning to learn the histories and the animosities.”

Another goal is to convince more stars to get involved in SAG but admits he’s surprised at how vulnerable many top-drawer thespians feel about rocking the boat.

“I realized that when we brought the high-profile people in here — and they hadn’t been in here for a long time — the whole game changes,” Daniels said. “They empower this union. This could be a powerful union if we had all those high-profile people involved. It would be the most powerful thing in this town.”

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