Membership First faction disavows its own website

With ballots going out this week in the Screen Actors Guild board election, the contest has taken an odd turn with the Membership First faction disavowing its own website due to an anti-AFTRA message being posted there.

“It’s Time to 86 AFTRA!” said the membershipfirst.com site. “Let’s kick that poaching, undercutting scumbag union out of the actor business for good. The Board and Governance of SAG is neglecting its fiduciary obligation to protect SAG members, by not enforcing its own jurisdiction.”

Membership First leader Anne-Marie Johnson told Daily Variety she and the Membership First slate strongly disagreed with the message, had contacted SAG about it and was exploring legal action to get the message taken down. “Obviously this is causing harm to our campaign,” she added.

The faction, which is battling the pro-merger Unite for Strength group for control of the national board, issued a disavowal on another site, membershipfirst.blogspot.com.

“We apologize for any confusion and are working to repair the situation,” the faction said. “Until then, this blog is only authorized site for our organization.”

But it’s unlikely that the message will be withdrawn soon. Brian Hamilton, who has owned and operated the membershipfirst.com site since 2003, said he stands by the message and is not taking it down.

“I have the forum and I can say what I want to say,” said Hamilton, a 19-year SAG member. “I am saying what people wish they could say. Our elected leaders have been paralyzed by fear.”

Reps for SAG and AFTRA had no comment with the SAG rep noting that SAG, as administrator of the election, can’t comment on candidates.

Hamilton said he’s grown increasingly frustrated over what he perceives to be SAG’s lack of effort to sign primetime shows shot on digital with nearly all new series going to the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, and asserted that it’s part of a larger strategy to weaken SAG in order to pave the way for a merger. He’s also opposing the two-year-old non-disparagement agreement between SAG and AFTRA, which covers staff and elected officers.

Hamilton and two other members, Michelle Santopietro and Samantha Hartson, filed charges in May with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that SAG’s inaction represented a violation of its duty to represent members. The NLRB turned down the charges last week. The trio is appealing that ruling.

The spat over the Membership First site comes with that faction attempting to counter the campaign of the ruling Unite for Strength group, which has made a SAG-AFTRA merger its signature issue. Membership First is pushing for a merger that would create an organization that reps only actors, however.

The jurisdictional issue’s been a longtime source of controversy at SAG. A year ago, SAG’s national board officially repudiated a controversial decision by its Hollywood board to explore the “acquisition” of actors repped through AFTRA after it was ordered to do so by the AFL-CIO under terms of non-disparagement agreement.

AFTRA had taken the Hollywood board’s action to the AFL-CIO on grounds that it violated the non-disparagement agreement between the unions, which required both unions to deposit $2 million for potential fines as a condition of negotiating jointly on their commercials contract.

SAG and AFTRA have shared jurisdiction over primetime series and the longstanding agreement has been that SAG reps all projects shot on film, while SAG and AFTRA have an equal shot at projects shot electronically. With more primetime skeins shot in high-definition digital formats, AFTRA’s electronic purview has greatly expanded over the past two years as nearly all primetime pilots went AFTRA.

Hamilton’s message said that SAG members need to demand that the SAG board petition the NLRB for a “bargaining unit clarification” hearing immediately and added that Unite for Strength must be voted out office for that to happen.

Justine Bateman cited the non-disparagement agreement as one of the reasons she resigned last year from the SAG board, blasting the moderates and repeating her characterization of AFTRA as a “scumbag” union.

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