AFTRA vet gets SAG card

Hessinger is on the job

HOLLYWOOD — Screen Actors Guild’s last CEO, Bob Pisano, started his new job on Sept. 10, 2001.

Today, AFTRA’s outgoing topper, Greg Hessinger, officially assumes Pisano’s old office.

Privately, Pisano would sometimes refer to this inauspicious start date with a wry look and a heavy sigh, as if it alone explained everything you needed to know about his bumpy 3½ years at SAG: Nobody could have known it at the time, but his tenure turned out to be somewhat cursed from the start.

In fact, Hessinger faces many of the same problems, Pisano faced, but with what’s likely to be a much shorter honeymoon period than Pisano’s.

SAG watchers believe the key factor in how Hessinger’s tenure plays out will be the September elections for officers and board members. Allies of current prexy Melissa Gilbert — who advocates a pragmatic course — control the board room, but have seen their majority erode in the two most recent elections to the Membership First faction, which advocates a more aggressive stance.

Formidable challenge

No presidential candidates have been announced yet, but Gilbert would represent a formidable incumbent, given that she’s won two two-year terms as president. The election will likely turn on such divisive issues as SAG’s inability to boost DVD residuals in its most recent film-TV contract.

Hessinger is inheriting a union whose interactive contract with vidgame companies is on its third extension, and whose membership has OK’d a strike authorization. If the union doesn’t get meaningful gains in pay or make progress on residuals, things could quickly get hairy.

Hessinger’s also taking the reins of a union that allowed its oversight of the major talent agencies to lapse three years ago, when members refused to approve a Pisano-backed revision of SAG’s Master Franchise Agreement. He’s also overseeing a guild that narrowly refused a dues increase last year and a merger with sister union the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists two years ago.

Hessinger headed AFTRA for five years; he campaigned for the 2003 merger with SAG. In the wake of the defeat of that effort, he spearheaded a cost-cutting effort at AFTRA.

Gilbert and her board allies handpicked Hessinger as Pisano’s successor — a move that generated opposition among the anti-Pisano and anti-merger factions of the board. But the votes against Hessinger weren’t so much an expression of opposition to Hessinger as they were dissatisfaction with the secrecy of the process, one board member explained.

Merge purge

Hessinger’s initial entry into SAG has been helped by the positive impressions he’s generated from his handling much of the film-TV contract negotiations last winter and from his pledges of honesty and transparency at last month’s SAG membership meeting in Beverly Hills. During that event, he was vague when pressed about the possibility of another run at merging with AFTRA — an indication that many months are likely to pass before the divisive issue is pushed again.

As long as Hessinger doesn’t start out pushing a merger, he’s likely to operate in a far less hostile environment than Pisano did. During the last year of Pisano’s tenure, conflict-of-interest allegations stemming from Pisano’s post on the board of Netflix poisoned what was already a rocky relationship with the board.

SAG conducted internal and external reviews by counsel and in all cases found no conflict; last December, a federal judge threw out a conflict-of-interest suit calling for the removal of Pisano as the union’s chief negotiator.

Nevertheless, the hostility led to three attempts by the Membership First faction of SAG to oust Pisano as lead negotiator. The inability of SAG to achieve any major advancement on DVD residuals in the new film-TV contract (mirroring the new Directors Guild and Writers Guild contracts last fall) may have been what prompted 23% of SAG members to vote against ratifying the pact.

Manageable baggage

Hessinger, 39, comes into the post sans major baggage. He provoked some grumbling during the run-up to the merger vote, as AFTRA devoted resources to competing with SAG for contracts on shows shot on digital, even though AFTRA has been unable to organize much of cable TV.

Calling Hessinger an “expert who can hit the ground running,” SAG secretary-treasurer James Cromwell said he hoped that “healing could begin so we can get on to the real work of this union.”

However, Cromwell also cautioned that “if Greg Hessinger is asked to do the bidding of the Hollywood board rather than what he believes is in the best interest of the membership as a whole, then we will have a repeat of the Pisano fiasco — for no reason at all.”

Hessinger, who carries a reputation for remaining unflappable, joined AFTRA as assistant national director for news/broadcast in 1998, then succeeded Bruce York as national exec director two years later amid the SAG/AFTRA strike against advertisers.