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SAG cuts all ties to Pisano

Guild votes in Hessinger

HOLLYWOOD — The tumultuous reign of SAG chief exec Bob Pisano is over.

In a vote marked by the same entrenched factionalism that drove away the SAG chief, AFTRA national exec director Greg Hessinger was elected Sunday to replace Pisano.

Vote by the board of directors of SAG was 65% in favor and 35% against — more than enough to ensure a quick replacement — but raised serious questions about the state of the union Hessinger is inheriting.

The Membership First faction of the guild’s Hollywood board pushed for and succeeded in getting the guild to sever all ties with Pisano rather than keeping him on as a consultant, as had been expected (Daily Variety, March 2) — even though paying out the remaining two years on his contract will be more expensive than keeping him on as a consultant. His current base salary is about $419,000 annually.

It’s a measure of how bad the blood is between Pisano and the union’s Hollywood board: Without the time spent as a SAG consultant, Pisano won’t qualify for a full SAG pension.

Pisano made headlines last week when, after 3½ years of leading SAG, he informed the guild he’d had enough of the infighting and would step down after members of both SAG and AFTRA ratified a new three-year film-TV contract. The membership did so with 76.5% support among those voting, and that triggered Sunday’s emergency board meeting.

Pisano and Hessinger had served as the lead negotiators for the two unions in cobbling together the TV/film agreement, which goes into effect July 1. Aside from that success, much of Pisano’s reign was stymied by Membership First. A Pisano-backed referendum to revamp the master franchise agreement with talent agents that would have eased ownership restrictions was quashed in 2002; a proposed merger between SAG and AFTRA was blocked in 2003; and an increase in SAG dues was successfully stonewalled last year.

Pisano’s position as a member of the board of directors of Netflix also was a source of unending controversy: It prompted a lawsuit last year by two members over perceived conflicts of interest, and while SAG’s internal and external reviews found no conflict, and a U.S. District Court judge threw out the suit in December, the Hollywood board voted three times last year to remove Pisano as lead negotiator.

Merger redux?

Pisano and Hessinger were at the forefront of the 2003 SAG-AFTRA merger campaign, asserting that combining the two would lead to greater bargaining clout and operating efficiencies, as well as resolving jurisdictional disputes. But opponents were able to persuade voters that SAG would be a shell under the new structure; that the new org would be less responsive to the unique needs of actors; and that plans to subsequently merge the SAG and AFTRA health plans would be damaging to SAG participants.

When Hessinger, 39, formally assumes his new role as SAG national exec director and CEO on May 2, many expect he’ll take up the merger banner once more.

For now, though, Hessinger appears to have the benefit of the doubt, even from his detractors. SAG first VP Anne-Marie Johnson struck a conciliatory note on Sunday afternoon:

“Regardless of the lack of a unanimous vote,” she said, alluding to the no votes on Hessinger from her and other Membership First members, “the Hollywood board and I will make every effort to assist Mr. Hessinger in achieving great success in his (national executive director) role. We look forward to moving ahead.”

There was also obligatory praise for both outgoing and incoming CEOs from SAG’s top elected leadership.

Guild prexy Melissa Gilbert said in Hessinger, “There is no person more ready to take over the reins of SAG’s executive leadership.” She called him “a passionate advocate for actors, one of the most creative minds in our industry and a seasoned, skilled executive and negotiator.”

Gilbert also was quick to tout advancements made under Pisano’s tenure.

“Because of Bob, SAG is a better-functioning, more focused and far more effective institution than it was when he assumed his responsibilities in September 2001. He put the guild on sound financial and operating footing and every step along the way has given unique energy, passion and spirit to his work on behalf of working actors.”

Hessinger, who was not available for comment, said in a statement that he was “both humbled and honored to be assuming this challenge at such a defining time for the American labor movement and for actors.”

He added a cautionary note about the guild’s notoriously corrosive culture of feuding: “If SAG is to successfully confront the challenges before it, the guild must create an internal culture where the values of unity and consensus are adopted as pillars in the foundation of this great, tradition-rich institution. I look forward to working with the board, the members and the extraordinary staff to accomplish just that.”

Pisano is expected to depart in the first week of April, after the next scheduled board meeting. He also was not available for comment, but he said in a statement that he felt “this is the right thing to do and the right moment to do it.”

Hessinger has served as national executive director of AFTRA since June 1, 2000, after joining the union in 1998.

Before that, he spent four years at CBS and Westinghouse Broadcasting, where he negotiated collective bargaining agreements with several entertainment unions, including AFTRA.

AFTRA issued a statement wishing Hessinger well in the new slot, adding that the union will be headed in the meantime by acting national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth and by national prexy John P. Connolly.

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