As many as 20 Screen Actors Guild branch offices across the country that had been targeted for possible closure will receive a reprieve next week, temporarily calming a volatile internal debate.
A SAG panel assigned to study the issue, which has been the cause of ferocious internal arguments for nearly a year, has asked for more time to establish specific operating criteria for SAG branches.
The deferral of the closure decision clears away a potential headache for SAG leaders, already facing the need to prepare SAG’s 98,000 members for film-TV contract negotiations and a possible strike after the current contract expires June 30. Debate over the fate of the branches has been a flash point for factions within SAG.
At its March 31 meeting, SAG’s national board is scheduled to hear recommendations based on the 10-month-old Towers Perrin report — a cost-benefit analysis that called for sweeping changes in the guild’s operations. The report’s most controversial recommendation called for consolidating SAG’s 26 branch offices into six regional offices with national headquarters in Los Angeles.
The proposal, disclosed last May, resulted in a concerted campaign against closures by officers and staffers repping the smaller branches. That effort, in turn, has sparked bitter internal debates on overall union strategy and ongoing attacks on SAG prexy William Daniels and his allies in Los Angeles.
“Inertia and reliance on the ‘old way of doing things’ might inhibit change and cause some staff members to balk at the new structure,” Towers Perrin correctly predicted last year.
Towers Perrin told SAG that each of the six offices should serve an area of at least 4,000 members, with those served by the closed offices redirected to the regional sites. Los Angeles would have remained headquarters, and Chicago and New York would have remained open, while Boston, Dallas, Denver, Miami and San Francisco were believed to be in contention as sites for the other regional offices.
The remaining SAG branches are in Atlanta; Bethesda, Md.; Cleveland; Detroit; Honolulu; Houston; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Puerto Rico; St. Louis; San Diego; Seattle; and Wilmington, N.C.
Towers Perrin argued that new technology could enable SAG to maintain a presence with field reps in cities with shuttered offices.
The report also noted that several of the SAG branches are joint offices with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists in which AFTRA administers the SAG contract. It pointed out that the 1999 collapse of the SAG-AFTRA merger effort means that such an arrangement is no longer strategically valid.
Even without the closure question, SAG’s upcoming board meeting will likely still be contentious since leaders will have to consider recommendations from other committees assigned to study the Towers Perrin report. Although SAG has not commented officially on those recommendations, sources said the board will be asked to cut the number of seats on the national board from the current 105 members and reduce the number of nationally elected positions from the current 16.
Towers Perrin said that cutting the SAG board to 40 reps would make the panel less unwieldy and create $600,000 in annual cost savings. All told, Towers Perrin recommended labor-expense cuts of up to $6.6 million annually along with other expense reductions of $2 million.
The Towers Perrin report, with a pricetag of more than $1 million, was commissioned as a condition of the board’s 1999 decision to seek member approval of a dues increase. Board members affiliated with the Performers Alliance, which helped sweep Daniels into office later that year, have been the major supporters of creating the report and implementing its recommendations.
In January, Daniels asked members to put aside their differences in order to present a united front at the upcoming negotiations.
The report, which has never been made public, paints an unflattering picture of SAG’s operations, staff, strategy and elected officials, describing the world’s best-known performers union in two words: “organizational chaos.”