Members being asked to approve of contract

In a sign of the contentiousness within SAG, the guild’s move to hire a PR firm has become part of the battle between SAG leaders and the members opposing ratification of the feature-primetime contract.

Rancor rose Friday in the wake of SAG quietly hiring an outside PR firm, Saylor Co., to persuade members to approve the contract agreement reached earlier this month after a year’s worth of on-again, off-again negotiations with the majors. In reaction, opponents of the contract will hold a protest Wednesday outside Saylor’s Pasadena offices.

SAG until recently had retained a different crisis PR firm, Sitrick & Co.

“If this is such a great deal, why do they have to hire an outside firm to sell it?” asked longtime SAG member Scott Wilson, who has spearheaded a dozen anti-ratification rallies this year. “This is not an appropriate use of our dues money.”

Saylor Co. is headed by Mark Saylor, a former staffer at Sitrick and the Los Angeles Times. In response to an inquiry by Daily Variety, Saylor referred questions to SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt.

“Saylor’s expertise delivers immense value to our program and we’re pleased to add their contributions to our organizational communications efforts,” Greenwalt said. “Hiring consultant services at a modest fee is standard practice. The guild’s management has kept consulting costs to a minimum, well under budget for the last four months, and will continue to carefully manage these expenditures.”

SAG interim national exec director David White, who replaced Doug Allen in January, recently announced that 35 staffers would be laid off due to a $6.5 million deficit. White did not disclose the retention of Saylor at the April 18-19 national board meeting — prompting a peeved reaction from SAG’s Membership First coalition, which lost control of the guild’s national board last fall.

Membership First has promised to fight against ratification on grounds that the voting the deal down would force the congloms to offer SAG better terms in new media.

Proponents of the deal have contended that the pact will bring about much-needed stability plus pay raises to thesps, who have worked without a contract for nearly a year. The national board’s moderate coalition, which gained a narrow majority last fall, has blasted Membership First for being unrealistic in its approach to negotiations.

Ballots will go out early next month to SAG’s 120,000 members, with a return date three weeks later. SAG’s national board approved the tentative deal on April 19 with 53% backing the pact as the moderate side prevailed.

Wilson noted that White’s using a similar strategy as that employed by former SAG topper Robert Pisano in hiring outside PR firms to help persuade members on a key issue — in 2002 to revamp the agency franchise agreement and in 2003 to merge with AFTRA. In both cases, SAG members narrowly defeated the measures.

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