Membership First bashes plan to merge with AFTRA

After losing control of the Screen Actors Guild to self-styled moderates two years ago, the Membership First faction is trying to reverse its momentum.

At a fundraiser Saturday at the Westside home of former SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg, Membership First leaders portrayed themselves as scrappy underdogs more in tune with the interests of rank-and-file SAG members.

The group’s facing off against the Unite for Strength faction, which has made merger with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists its signature issue,and has singled singling out Rosenberg and Membership First for allegedly bungling the last round of negotiations.

“Unite for Strength is a juggernaut when it comes to elections, and they’re very good at it,” Rosenberg admitted in a short speech at the event. “But they’ve done nothing of worth since the last election.”

SAG’s 70,000 members in the Hollywood branch have been seeing their mailboxes and email in-boxes fill up with missives from SAG’s rival governing factions, with candidates paying a fee for having their messages transmitted electronically to members.

Ballots for the board election, with about a third of seats up, were mailed to SAG members this week, with the results set to be announced Sept. 23.

Frances Fisher, who hosted Saturday’s event along with Nancy Sinatra and Richard Schiff, sent out a recent message detailing Membership First’s merger stance, calling for an actors-only union excluding broadcasters, DJs, journalists and recording artists.

“They would vote on our contracts but they have no experience with actors’ concerns,” said Fisher, an incumbent board member. “In fact, they have conflicting interests which could make them vote against actors’ concerns. Also, they don’t increase our leverage because legally, they can’t walk out with us.”

Ned Vaughn, co-founder of Unite for Strength, said in a responding message that such concerns are misplaced since broadcasters and recording artists would represent less than 10% of members. And he noted that all perfomers are employed by the media conglomerates.

“Those conglomerates focus on only one thing: the bottom line,” Vaughn said. “They don’t care whether their profits come from traditional scripted shows — or from the news magazines, talkshows and reality programs that increasingly fill their schedules. Doesn’t it make sense to align just as tightly on our side of the bargaining table?”

Rosenberg, who served two terms as SAG president from 2005 to 2009, believes such a strategy won’t make actors stronger as a group. He contends that AFTRA’s leaders have been too accommodating to employers in such areas as terms for cable shows and in negotiating its primetime contract.

“It’s a lie to say that we’ll be stronger by merging with AFTRA,” he declared Saturday. “They want to shove merger down our throats. They don’t want SAG to have the moxie to do what the Writers Guild did and go on strike.”

Rosenberg remains unapologetic about how the 2008-09 SAG negotiations were handled — particularly the national board’s firing of national exec director Doug Allen early last year as Unite for Strength reps and their allies grew frustrated over Allen’s inability to close a deal. Rosenberg said ousting Allen made it impossible for SAG to hammer out better new-media terms than in the WGA, DGA and AFTRA contracts.

“Those tiny 20¢ residual checks actors are getting are not our fault,” he noted.

Rosenberg, who’s running for a board seat, also said he’s been working on a book about his SAG presidency, with the title, “And Then I Was Attacked by the Flying Nun,” referring to Sally Field’s opposition to his policies. His most recent acting work was on the pilot for David Milch’s “Luck,” starring Dustin Hoffman.

Though it’s out of power on the national board, with about 40% of the votes, Membership First remains narrowly in control of the Hollywood division and is running a slate of 29 candidates while endorsing four independents. Unite for Strength is running 35 candidates in Hollywood.

Even if Membership First is successful at holding on to all 13 open national board seats up for election next month, it will remain in the minority for another year. And with high-profile candidates like Jeff Garlin and Ron Perlman running on the Unite for Strength slate, Membership First could see further erosion of its power.

The fundraiser drew a variety of Membership First candidates and supporters including Elliott Gould, Valerie Harper, Ed Harris, Clint Howard, David Jolliffe, Anne-Marie Johnson, Alan Ruck and Renee Taylor.

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