SAG ousters open door to major melee

In a stunning move underscoring Hollywood’s labor uncertainty, a split SAG national board has fired national exec director Greg Hessinger.

Sunday morning’s vote at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica came less than a month after control of SAG’s 69-member national board shifted by a narrow margin to the more assertive Membership First faction headed by president Alan Rosenberg.

SAG’s board tapped chief financial officer Peter Frank as Hessinger’s interim replacement and announced it had created a committee to search for a permanent CEO.

“The recent election made clear that our membership expects concrete results, particularly in our collective bargaining and our nationwide organizing efforts,” said Rosenberg in a statement issued at the end of the two-day meeting. “After much consideration and debate, the national board has decided to make a change in our staff leadership that will allow us to focus our resources more intensely in these areas. We have great respect for Greg and are grateful to him for his service to the guild. We wish him well.”

Sunday’s voting followed usual party lines as reps from Hollywood were nearly unanimous in backing the firing while those repping New York and the regional branches opposed it.

Spurring the dismissal were Hessinger’s recent moves to hire former AFTRA execs Rebecca Rhine and John Russum plus former ad industry exec JoAnne Kessler without consulting Rosenberg or the national board.

“Those hirings were the last straw,” one insider said.

Although SAG had no official comment, several insiders said the board also fired Rhine, Russum and Kessler on Sunday.

The board also decided it would not pay Hessinger the $1.4 million he’s owed for the remaining 3½ years on his contract. That prompted Hessinger to issue a statement Sunday threatening legal action if the board doesn’t adhere to the contract.

According to non-SAG sources, Rosenberg and his allies have asserted that federal labor law provides that the right of elected union leaders to hire execs gives those leaders rights over the terms of previously negotiated employment contracts.

Hessinger has contended that his contract gave him the right to hire execs without approval of the national board — just as Bob Pisano had during his turbulent three years as SAG chief exec.

Dual message

By canning Hessinger, who succeeded Pisano in May after five years as AFTRA’s national exec director, Rosenberg and his allies are sending a dual message: SAG’s leaders are adamantly opposed to a merger with AFTRA, and they plan to take a far more confrontational stance with employers in negotiations and in organizing non-union work.

SAG’s board also split along factional lines in March when Hessinger was hired at a time when the moderate wing, led by former president Melissa Gilbert, had control of the board. And the board agreed at that point to pay Pisano — who was recently named president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America — about $1 million he was owed under the terms of his contract.

Membership First often clashed with others over Pisano’s approach to negotiations, with Gilbert’s allies asserting that Pisano was opting for the most pragmatic course.

Hessinger’s firing also is certain to add turbulence to an already volatile labor outlook for studios and nets. It comes on the heels of a massive shift at the WGA West, where Patric Verrone’s Writers United faction took control last month amid pledges of being significantly tougher with employers and then fired longtime exec director John McLean.

Rosenberg had indicated on the day after McLean was cut loose that he had no plans to ask the SAG board to replace Hessinger, stating at the time, “I have a great deal of respect for Greg and I look forward to working closely with him in his capacity as executive director of our union.”

Rosenberg, who beat Morgan Fairchild and Robert Conrad for the presidency, had appeared to be striving to present an image of working cordially with Hessinger in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s start of the national board meeting. However, Hessinger had clashed with Membership First members soon after coming aboard last spring over recommending approval of a new interactive games contract without residuals.

Bad blood

Hessinger, who turns 40 today, also brought historical baggage with him for having been a strong advocate of merging SAG and AFTRA in 2003 — a combination that was narrowly defeated by SAG members over concerns that the guild would lose its identity and that there could be difficulties in merging the SAG and AFTRA health and pension funds. Had the merger gone through, Hessinger was in line to succeed Pisano as top exec of the new union.

In addition, Hessinger provoked resentment in the aftermath of the six-month commercials strike in 2000 when AFTRA insisted it would pay only 11% of the strike costs — in accordance with its earnings on that contract. SAG leaders at the time asserted that AFTRA ought to pay half the costs since it had equal representation at the bargaining table.

Hessinger had relocated from New York to Los Angeles when he accepted the SAG job. In his statement Sunday, Hessinger said he had taken the job with a commitment to work on behalf of guild members “and was honored to do so.”

In turn, the SAG national board “made a contractual commitment to me,” he said. “While the board may have the right to choose its own chief executive, that right does not include the ability to repudiate a legally binding contract entered into in good faith. SAG members who depend on the enforcement of their own contractual protections for their very livelihood should understand the sanctity of a contract. If their elected leaders choose not to do so, I will take all steps necessary to enforce my rights.”

Prior to becoming SAG’s interim CEO on Sunday, Frank had served nearly two years as the guild’s CFO and deputy national exec director for finance and administration.

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