SAG eyes guild ties

White aiming to improve union relations

Now that SAG’s contract crisis has finally ended, interim national exec director David White is turning his attention to improving the guild’s relations with other showbiz unions, particularly AFTRA.

Although he’s been in the job less than five months, White got a vote of confidence from SAG members in the feature-primetime contract ratification vote with the overwhelming 78% approval rate. In his first interview since the vote tally was announced Tuesday evening, White told Daily Variety that improving relations with AFTRA was high on his list of priorities.

“There are a number of ways that we should be working together,” he said. “There’s no question that we’re both stronger together. My view is that members benefit when both work together.”

White’s predecessor, Doug Allen, and SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg, hammered AFTRA on a number of fronts, leading to AFTRA last year negotiating a primetime contract separately from SAG for the first time in more than 25 years.

That AFTRA had a deal and SAG was mired in its internal crisis spurred the majors to go with AFTRA contracts for the vast majority of this year’s pilots — even going so far as to mandate that dramas be produced in digital video format rather than on film. (SAG has exclusive jurisdiction over projects shot on film while it shares jurisdiction with AFTRA for projects shot on vid.)

White asserted that he’s deeply concerned over producers opting for AFTRA for nearly all new pilots and plans to push to reverse that trend. But he won’t say whether SAG will push to negotiate contracts jointly with AFTRA again — as it did for its commercials contract. Nor would White comment directly on whether SAG should start moving toward a merger with AFTRA.

But the moderate SAG board members who forced the ouster of Allen and approved White’s one-year appointment in February have spoken out in favor of a SAG-AFTRA merger as a means of giving both thesp unions more leverage with the majors. Past attempts to bring the two unions together, most recently in 2003 when White was serving as the guild’s general counsel, were voted down by SAG members.

On the merger question White simply said, “The members are going to have to decide.”

Beyond the AFTRA issue, SAG has every reason to strengthen its relations with its fellow biz guilds. In labor negotiation terms, the next round of guild contract wrangling is just around the corner. SAG, AFTRA, WGA and DGA contracts expire in mid-2011.

“We’ve already started reaching out,” White said. “We need to be in regular communication and seeking areas of common ground. Everyone agrees with the basic notion that we’re in a better position at negotiations when we’re cooperating with each other.”

But SAG’s notoriously fractious internal politics have complicated the guild’s ability to speak with one voice in the community. And those divisions will be laid bare in this fall’s board and officer elections. White, however, said he’s hopeful that with the contract drama passed, the guild’s infighting will abate.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but within the board room, there’s a strong desire for consensus building that’s far more than has been portrayed in the press,” White said. “Individual board members approach me on a regular basis to talk about their desire to reach across the aisle and their frustration with the limited chances to do that. And that makes me confident that there are increased opportunities to work toward consensus.”

Ever the diplomat, White downplayed the difficulties posed by the split between the moderates on the national board and Rosenberg, who has declared his intention to run again for the SAG prexy post.

“Alan and I have a professional working relationship,” he said. “We both know that it’s important to work together on a variety of issues to get business done. It is an odd situation where I have to respond to the decisions of the national board, and president Rosenberg feels differently about those decisions, but we are working through it.”

White’s long-term future at SAG is also still up in the air. His current deal runs out in January, and he hasn’t decided if he’ll take the job if it’s offered.

“Right now I’m focused on preparing for the next round, improving operations and reinvigorating our relationships with other unions,” he said.

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