Litmus test for SAG

Guild's election is referendum on Daniels

HOLLYWOOD — “What do you think of Bill Daniels?”

That question won’t appear on the ballot, but it will be the main issue on the minds of 98,000 Screen Actors Guild members for the next three weeks during voting for more than 40 SAG offices. Voting officially begins today as ballots go out to the paid-up members of the world’s best-known performers’ union, with results to be announced Nov. 5.

TV icons of the 1970s Melissa Gilbert (“Little House on the Prairie”) and Valerie Harper (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) are front-runners to succeed Daniels, who decided in July not to seek a second two-year term. Maverick board members Eugene Boggs and Angeltompkins may play the spoiler.

The contest will be instructive as the members — 70% of whom make under $7,500 a year — weigh in on the past two years, a period that shook SAG to the core. The good old days of Hollywood labor peace vanished as SAG stayed out for six months, the longest strike in industry history; members are still arguing about whether the strike over commercial work was justified.

Harper has been endorsed by Daniels, who stunned two-term incumbent Richard Masur in 1999 on a pledge of more aggressive bargaining. That approach led not only to the commercials strike but also this year’s boom-and-bust production over fear of strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG.

Although most worry was abated when the WGA settled in early May, SAG waited until after that to start talks, then went three days past expiration before reaching a deal. During the Daniels regime, SAG also stood out on these fronts:

  • It become embroiled in a still-unresolved stalemate over financial-interest rules for Hollywood’s agents.

  • It received a Towers Perrin analysis that described SAG as “organizational chaos” and warned of impending financial crisis as spending levels outstripped revenue gains.

  • Boardroom battles between supporters of Daniels and Masur erupted over Towers Perrin recommendations such as cutting the board size from the current 107.

  • John Cooke departed just 10 days after taking the CEO job due to board factionalism; the slot was filled by Robert A. Pisano last month.

  • Daniels warned a second dues increase in two years will be necessary if costs are not cut.

  • Celebrity members donated nearly $1 million for strike relief last year; high-profile members then dominated the race for board seats, with Harper finishing first of 74 candidates in Hollywood.

  • Daniels admitted that had he known of all the turmoil, he would have never run.

Mix in the current unsettled state of the nation and it’s difficult to predict how members will vote amid this week’s flurry of leafleting and campaign parties. “The Sept. 11 attacks really put the damper on campaigning-as-usual, but it’s picked up this week because most voting takes place in the next few days,” Boggs said. “If you’re a candidate, this week is the best time to get your message out.”

Harper is running a slate of 21 candidates as Actors Moving Forward, while Gilbert’s Restore Respect slate totals 11. “A lot of the campaign rhetoric is a product of the polarization of the board, with a lot of the candidates coming out of the dueling camps,” Boggs said.

While Harper has praised Daniels’ efforts, Gilbert has blasted Daniels and Harper at every opportunity. “As a result of the commercials strike and the present de facto lockout, which was caused by avoidable delays in starting negotiations this spring, the guild is facing a serious financial crisis,” Gilbert warned.

Spending criticized

She also accused Daniels allies of spending with “reckless abandon,” citing the $500,000 in costs incurred beyond what was allocated for the strike; $250,000 to hire Korn-Ferry to recruit a new national executive director; and $22,000 monthly to pay Brian Walton as negotiator on the film-TV contract talks instead of using staff.

Treasurer candidate Kent McCord, who won SAG’s Ralph Morgan Award for service in 1999, has fired back by insisting the financial problems were created under Masur as budgets exceeded income by $10.5 million during his last three years.

“In all my years of participation at the guild, I have never seen an attempt to obliterate the truth in the manner the Melissa Gilbert campaign has,” he said. “The financial difficulties existed for years before Bill Daniels was ever elected. Unfortunately, both the senior staff and the then leadership of the guild refused to acknowledge them.”

Getting nasty

The disputes between the two sides have sometimes become personal. The two camps accuse each other of childish behavior in and out of the boardroom, and sparks have flown when supporters of Harper and Gilbert have met.

Keri Tombazian, who founded the Working Actors Unite group of voiceover performers, has accused Harper’s supporters of using “bully” tactics against Gilbert volunteers. “It has been one of the most disheartening and eye-opening lessons in humanity to learn first-hand how grown men and women in the 21st century in America can treat members of their own community with complete and overt disrespect, disregard and outright meanness,” she said.

The campaign has even distressed the relentlessly upbeat Sally Kirkland, who won a board seat last year and has campaigned energetically for Harper. She also remains troubled over Gilbert turning her down when asked to make a public appearance in support of last year’s strike.

“As an actress, Melissa is very talented, and I appreciate her work for SAG on child labor issues,” Kirkland said. “But her attacking tone is not going to help us heal the wounds, so I don’t think she’s ready to be president.”

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