Amid election snafus, guild aims to enforce Rule One

Law enforcement high on SAG agenda

Rule One Of SAG: “No member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect.”

The Screen Actors Guild remains one of the world’s most recognizable labor orgs but faces plenty of headaches just the same.

Its 98,600 members run the gamut from the world’s biggest stars to part-time waiters, messengers, construction workers and odd-jobbers. Less than 2% of the guild make more than $100,000, so for the great majority of thesps, the always unpredictable outlook has become even choppier.

“This is a tough racket, particularly since Sept. 11,” says Jack Logan, a retiree who joined SAG a decade ago when he was cast in a Chevy Malibu ad. “So much of it is just being in the right place at the right time.”

SAG has been at the forefront of Hollywood’s consciousness for the past two years: first with a six-month strike against the ad industry in 2000 and then being the second part of possible back-to-back work stoppages by writers and actors last year.

Even though the Writers Guild of America and SAG wound up settling their film-TV contracts, the uncertainty created a de facto strike — first a production frenzy for four months, followed by a decline in May and June, a plunge in midsummer and a long slow recovery that is finally starting to gain steam. The writers’ settlement made a SAG deal much more likely, particularly since the divided actors leadership never made any strike plans.

There was actually hope that SAG might be able to put aside the boardroom battling, what with no labor contracts due to expire until late 2003. But the leadership picture remains fuzzy and contentious with the rerun of fall’s elections for president, secretary and treasurer due to procedural violations.

The key contest pits a pair of 1970s TV names: Melissa Gilbert, who won 45% of the vote in November, against Valerie Harper, who won 39%. Elliott Gould and Kent McCord are also rerunning their races after winning secretary and treasurer, respectively.

Rank-and-file members are mostly perplexed but still retain an old-fashioned Hollywood optimism about the future of the org’s management.

“As an 11-year member of SAG, I am both enlightened and disillusioned by the events surrounding the union’s recent presidential election,” says Candice Kraft. “Disillusioned because as a performer I’d like to think that artists collectively supercede all politics and enlightened to learn that the struggle for power transcends all. But the whole of the union is bigger than the sum of any of its officers.”

Disharmony reigned at SAG due to differences on issues such as the value of the strike, how to deal with runaway production, agents’ demands for easing of ownership limits by producers and distributers, and cutting the size of the national board from 107 to 62.

In a telling development, former Disney exec John Cooke took the CEO slot and resigned 10 days later due to the factionalism; former MGM exec Robert Pisano took over in September on an 80-20 vote.

About the only issue that has brought unanimity at SAG is an upcoming campaign to enforce Rule One, the ban on members performing non-union work with a start date of May 1. SAG has been engaged in an educational effort, such as lining up endorsers such as Harrison Ford, Holly Hunter and Kevin Spacey, and including notices in residual payments (“What you don’t know could lose you residuals”).

SAG also has been playing it close to the vest as to what steps it will take against a member who gives in to the temptation to work nonunion contracts in places like Prague or Pretoria.

“I think the Rule One campaign is a great step by the elected leaders because it really gets down to dealing with a bread-and-butter issues,” enthuses Gene Feldman, an eight-year Hollywood member who ran for the board in the fall. “If they’re serious about enforcement, it can have a huge impact.”

The step comes with more and more production leaving the United States. An independent report by the Center for Entertainment Data & Research recently showed a jump in feature film production in Canada has led to a loss to the U.S. economy of $1.8 billion and of 22,400 jobs in the past three years.

“For most actors, the big questions are always going to be do I have an agent, can I qualify for health insurance and what are my working conditions like,” says Feldman, who came into SAG on a Nike commercial with Dennis Rodman. “I wish SAG could run more smoothly and focus on the key issues even though it’s hard for the leaders to set aside their politics and egos.”

‘No regrets’

Retired prexy William Daniels, who left in November after a single term, says he has no regrets about putting in a long two years as SAG’s 22nd president. The experience deepened his commitment to the core concept of an actors union.

“Things are always pretty tough for the average workaday actor and I would hate to be a young man because it’s more difficult than ever with all the corporate consolidation, the recession and the cost-cutting,” notes Daniels, who won two Emmys on “St. Elsewhere.” “The politics at SAG are just plain unfortunate but you find that lots of other unions have these internal struggles too. I want to stress that I’m certainly glad I got involved because of the two contracts, which have some real advances.”

Daniels also cites moves to cut the board size, the appointment of Pisano and the startup of the campaign on Rule One as heartening developments.

“I think that SAG has some real momentum,” says the ever-upbeat Daniels. “I hope it doesn’t lose it.”

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