Campaigning kicks into high gear

The campaigning among those who hope to chart the course for the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America West is kicking into high gear today as ballots are mailed for the guilds’ fall officer and board elections.

Results from both elections will offer insight into the next round of guild negotiations with the majors. The WGA West tally will be announced Sept. 18. SAG’s results will be unveiled Sept. 24.

With memories of the 100-day writers strike still fresh, the 120,000 SAG thesps and the 8,000 WGA West members are already immersed in heated campaigns pledging either assertiveness or pragmatism in the next round of negotiations.

In the respective prexy races at both guilds, current WGA secretary-treasurer Elias Davis faces former WGA West president John Wells while at SAG, 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson, board members Ken Howard and Seymour Cassel and independent Asmar Muhammad are seeking the top slot.

The contest in the WGA East, where ballots went out last week to 4,000 members, looks to be quieter, with current president Michael Winship running unopposed.

WGA West prez Patric Verrone is termed out from another election as prez; SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg’s opted to forgo a third term, admitting that he’s less likely to be re-elected than his ally Johnson.

Verrone and his allies on the WGA West board have dominated the guild’s politics for the past four years with a heavy focus on organizing and criticism of the guild’s minimum basic agreements struck in 2001 and 2004. Wells has defended those earlier deals, and disputed the suggestion that strikes are the only way for the WGA to achieve progress in pact negotiations.

“We are going to have to work tirelessly to significantly improve our residual structures in new and old media and adapt to the changing business models,” Wells said. “I wish we could say the hard work is done, but it is not. I believe we are in a three- or four-contract cycle that will take at least a decade of negotiation to navigate successfully.”

Davis said he doesn’t want to see the guild endure another strike.

“Our members have gone through a painful 100-day strike followed by a deep recession that is only now beginning to turn around. I will, if you elect me, do everything in my power to avoid another strike. I will work as I always have — to improve the lives of all our members — and we have many ways of accomplishing that goal without a strike.”

As for SAG, actors are deciding whether to support the self-styled moderate coalition, dubbed Unite for Strength, that dominates the national board and is repped by Howard in the prexy race, or hand the reins back to the hardliners in Membership First, whose prexy candidate is Johnson.

Both sides have been blasting and blaming each other for SAG’s ills in the wake of the June ratification of the feature-primetime contract after a year of stalling tactics — particularly in new-media compensation.

Both sides have recruited stars, who are virtually certain to be elected to national board slots, including Ed Asner, Ed Harris and Martin Sheen on the Membership First side and Dule Hill, Hill Harper and Nancy Travis for Unite for Strength.

The vitriol is not surprising, given that the national board fired Doug Allen as national exec director despite a 30-hour filibuster and an unsuccessful lawsuit by Rosenberg, Johnson, Kent McCord and Diane Ladd.

Howard has accused Membership First of recklessness in its aggressive strategies toward AFTRA while Johnson has asserted that the guild’s new contract is a disaster for members.

“The results of Membership First’s leadership have been disastrous,” Howard said in a recent interview with Daily Variety. “They’re not listening to members, and going it on their own without AFTRA has resulted in enormous losses in TV jurisdiction. The sense within the acting community is that something at SAG has gone awry.”

Johnson, who was on an East Coast campaign swing this week, told Daily Variety that members are perturbed and confused over the new film-TV contract. Moderates have touted the pact as a pragmatic response and the best achievable at the time.

“Members that I’ve talked to have been taken aback by the new contract,” Johnson said. “They’re not pleased about the terms and they’re upset over the ongoing uncertainty over AFTRA’s jurisdiction.”

Membership First has opted for a reorg of the two unions under which SAG would rep all acting work. Despite the recent setbacks to her side, Johnson believes her faction has managed to get rank-and-file members far more engaged.

The moderates believe that both unions should move toward merging. “(The) merger should have already happened,” Howard said.

SAG members gave a 78% endorsement of the feature-primetime pact in June in what was seen by many as repudiation of Rosenberg and his Membership First allies.

So, at first glance, signs point to the moderates gaining ground in the election. But SAG’s membership has been notoriously unpredictable in elections, veering back and forth between moderates and self-described progressives during the past decade.

Cassel is a wild card in the calculus, running for president as an independent after splitting from Membership First. He nearly defeated Rosenberg in 2007 and has consistently advocated taking a confrontational stance in bargaining.

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