Showbizreporting's Blog

June 2, 2009

Report from Crazytown (letter) by Mike Farrell (From MASH as BJ Honeycut) (Feb. 8, 2009)

Report from Crazytown February 8, 2009 Because the board of the Hollywood Division of SAG now allows members from its area to attend board meetings (after signing a form about no-no’s), I thought it would be worthwhile to see if they’d let me in to watch the February 2nd meeting last week.  This was the first meeting scheduled after National Executive Director Doug Allen was fired by the National Board and replaced by Interim NED David White, who I knew when he was SAG’s General Counsel from 2002 to 2006. 

Because Doug Allen’s hard-nosed style made him the champion and the favorite of the Membership First faction that hired him, and because said faction continues to control the Hollywood Board even after losing control of the National Board in the last election, this meeting, being David White’s first as NED promised to be interesting.

To set the stage, as it were… Membership First is the current name of the faction that, in essence, split our union into ‘political’ groups. Organizing an effort to assert control over the Guild in the 90s, this group succeeded in defeating then-President Richard Masur and installing William Daniels, their titular head, as president.  The Daniels Administration led us into the commercials strike of 2000, torpedoed a Masur-led effort to solve problems between SAG and the ATA (the collection of agents representing most of the working actors), re-wrote the Guild’s constitution and, in general, disdained and tried to minimize the input, effect and value of members in the New York and Regional Branch Divisions of our national union.

This Hollywood-centric group, operating under different names but known in recent years as Membership First (MF), has demonstrated a proclivity for tactics and rhetoric that have caused it to be referred to in the media as the ‘militant’ faction of SAG.

In the years my wife, Shelley Fabares, and I served as National Board members and on the Hollywood Division Board (Approx. 2001 – 2005) – Shelley for three years on both Boards and I for three years as SAG’s First VP under President Melissa Gilbert and one year as a National and Hollywood Board member – we worked hard, along with allies in Hollywood, New York and the Regional Branch Division, to repair what we saw as the damage done by the attitudes, choices and behaviors of the Hollywood-centric-types who continued to be a loud and often obstructionist presence in the union by dint of their strength on the Hollywood Board.

During our terms, for example, they sabotaged an agreement we negotiated with the ATA agents, waged a dishonest campaign that just barely kept the consolidation and Affiliation agreement (that would have merged AFTRA and SAG and averted our current problems) from succeeding, and made life so desirable for our bright, inventive and gutsy NED, Bob Pisano, that he decided to step aside and allow the position to be taken over by the terrific man who had been running AFTRA, Greg Hessinger.

In the 2005 elections, Membership First achieved its long-sought goal by attaining enough votes in Hollywood to give it control over the majority of the Guild’s National Board, with the single voice of moderation in Hollywood provided by the incredibly courageous Morgan Fairchild, who has maintained her seat, and somehow her sanity, in the ensuing years.

The first National Board meeting under this new majority and its president, Alan Rosenberg, engineered the firing of Greg Hessinger and the abrogation of the contracts of two executives he had hired, acts that cost the Guild’s members hundreds of thousands of dollars and a significant portion of the union’s already-battered reputation. 

Deteriorating relations with New York and the Branches were then exacerbated by the hiring of Doug Allen and a new, even more assertive posture for the Guild. This new energy resulted in the quick, embarrassing defeat of Mr. Allen’s attempt to force the ATA agents into an agreement, assaults on AFTRA that nearly destroyed SAG’s 30-year-old Phase One relationship with that sister union, a now 7-months-long stalemate in negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP, the infamous attempt to scuttle AFTRA’s contract with the AMPTP, and a wasteful, expensive, tone-deaf campaign for a strike authorization in the midst of our country’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The growing confusion, upset and dissatisfaction of the membership then resulted in the election, last September, of a significant number of independent, non-MF actors to the Hollywood board.  Coalescing as Unite for Strength – their primary focus reuniting with AFTRA – these new faces on the Hollywood Board joined with Morgan Fairchild to bring a different, more rational energy to the National Board’s majority.  

In the first meeting of the newly-constituted National Board on January 12th, 13th, they put forth a motion to fire NED Doug Allen and disband the Membership-First-dominated negotiating committee that had been unable to complete an agreement with the AMPTP.  This effort by the majority was frustrated by a series of parliamentary tricks and filibustering that refused to allow a vote on the measure.  This unprecedented attempt to frustrate the will of the majority, orchestrated by the now-minority MFs and abetted by the Chair, President Alan Rosenberg, succeed in making SAG an industry-wide laughing stock by creating a 28-hour board meeting at which no business was allowed to be done.  None.

Told that any future attempts to assert their authority and fire Doug Allen would meet the same impasse, the Board majority used a little-known constitutional owner granting them the authority to act outside a meeting and, on about January 26th, presented a “written assent” signed by the majority of SAG’s National Board members to the Guild’s legal counsel.  This document, verified and accepted by SAG’s counsel and outside advisers, fired Doug Allen, installed David White as Interim NED, disbanded the negotiating committee, replaced it with a Task Force made up of members from all divisions, and named John McGuire, a 40-year SAG staff member and veteran negotiator, as the Guild’s chief negotiator.

As you might imagine, President Rosenberg, 1st VP Ann-Marie Johnson and their MF colleagues were not happy.  Thus, my interest in attending the February 2nd Hollywood Board meeting.

Told that the MFs had arranged for a protest demonstration outside the SAG offices before the meeting and had asked their supporters to stack the list of spectators, I tried to get on the list and failed. Hearing that one could wait in line and be admitted if the available seats were not all filled, former National Board member and Guild Treasurer James Cromwell and I went to the SAG offices early and stood in the Stand-By line hoping to be allowed in.

When the demonstration outside concluded, many of those in or watching it came into the lobby and joined us in line. Some were from the stunt community and some were background actors, two constituencies the MFs have formed ties with. As we waited, a few of them engaged us in conversation, questioning how we could support an end to residuals, the “gagging” of President Rosenberg, the illegal firing of Mr. Allen, and a list of terribles they had been told by their MF leaders. We explained, over time, that none of this was true and some of them actually listened.  We learned, as well, that a lawsuit and request for a temporary restraining order were being filed by President Rosenberg, VP Ann-Marie Johnson and two MF National Board members, Kent McCord, and Diane Ladd, challenging the firing of Doug Allen. Did I say obstructionist?

We were allowed into the crowded meeting, given further instructions as to what visitors could not do, and then brought into the Cagney Room to be seated. The meeting began forty minutes late, due, we were told, to the unusual number of visitors this evening.  VP Ann-Marie Johnson, an intelligent and articulate woman, chaired the meeting, explained what would take place, and then asked staff, board members and the visitors each to introduce themselves.  After a couple of pieces of routine business, Ms. Johnson read the statement of the chair (the VP chairs the Division meetings, President Rosenberg chairs only National Board meetings), which was interesting.  With new Interim NED David White to her immediate left, she spoke strongly against the action of the majority (without mentioning the lawsuit she was filing) and lauded the no-longer-employed Doug Allen as the strongest and best leader and negotiator in SAG’s history.  This, of course, was met with wild applause from the MF majority and many in the peanut gallery around us.

I don’t recall if it was before or after the statement of the chair, but Ilyanne Kichaven, Hollywood’s Executive Director, made an eloquent pitch for unity which was roundly applauded and quickly forgotten. Next, Ms. Johnson introduced David White, explaining that he would speak, the floor would be open for questions, and then she would allow statements from the members.

David White gave a brief account of his background; acknowledged that he knew many of those on the board from his years as General Counsel, spoke a bit about his personal philosophy, his view of and affection for the Guild, and how he intended to fulfill his obligations as Interim NED.   He kept it short and left the rest of the time for questions.

As expected, it was a grilling. The questions were quickly reminiscent of the “are you now or have you ever been” era.  Who approached you about taking this job?  I want names!  When did they approach you?  On what date?  You were hired as Legal Counsel by Bob Pisano: do you have a continuing relationship with Bob Pisano: did Bob Pisano arrange for you to get this job?  Have you spoken with Bob Pisano about the job?  What is the nature of your relationship with Bob Pisano?

Clearly, they thought they could tar David with an association to someone they hate – and because they hate him they think everyone else does.  But David was great.  He explained, patiently, that he worked for the law firm that Pisano had met with and was hired for the job.

No, he said, Pisano did not have anything to do with his being offered this job.

Then, when the interrogator asked if Pisano had called him, he said, “Yes.  After word got out that I had agreed to take the job, Bob Pisano called me and said, “What the hell are you doing?’”

It got a great laugh.  Try as they could, they couldn’t rile him and over time only made themselves look smaller and more petty. Because each questioner had a limited time, it quickly became clear that there was a prepared list of questions – a kind of script – that was passed along from one MF to the other, all intending to expose what they saw as a gross conspiracy perpetrated by evildoers that had stripped them of their champion, not to mention their majority.  The toxic tone in the room quickly took me back to our time on the board, a period rife with personal attacks, lies, power plays and histrionics.  After one of our first meetings, I remember Shelley, exhausted and near tears, saying, “These people claim to be union supporters, Democrats, but they behave like the Bush Administration!”

What was wonderful was watching David White respond, calmly, clearly, patiently, to each question, brushing aside the sarcasm and the lousy implications and giving the facts as he knew them. They wanted to know how much he was being paid and who had negotiated his contract, to which he said his contract was only now being negotiated.  When he started to answer the question about his salary he was interrupted by SAG’s General Counsel, Duncan Crabtree, who pointed out to the board members that some of this information was inappropriate for an open meeting and should only be discussed in Executive Session.

After the interminable questions ended, having been lightened only by a few welcoming notes offered by some of the non-MF members, Ann-Marie called an end to the questions and opened the floor to statements. And now it got nasty. Possibly because David had handled his end of things so well, many of the questions became spears thrown at the non-MF members present and the National Board in general.  How dare they use this illegal device, the “written assent,” to fire Doug Allen?  Did they lack the courage to debate the issue openly and allow everyone to vote on it?

This, it was clear, was for the benefit of their supporters who were avidly listening and applauding every time a nasty shot underscored one of the talking points they’d been fed. Finally, one of the new board members was able to speak to these charges and explain that when they had tried to do just that, to debate the issue in the National Board meeting and vote on it – (at this point the Chair tried to cut him off, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss what had happened at the National Board meeting.  He, however, was not cowed by her and said he had no intention of talking about the business of the meeting and went on, explaining) – they had not been allowed a discussion or a debate for the length of the meeting, which left the ‘written assent’ as their only avenue to achieve the will of the majority.

After this, more MFs claimed Alan Rosenberg had been “gagged.”  How could people who believe in free speech do such a thing, they wanted to know?  But none of them acknowledged, or mentioned, that then Doug Allen was in charge he and Alan Rosenberg would not allow any of the elected officers to speak officially, even to his or her own division members, without having what they wrote edited by Hollywood.  What the written assent did was, in essence, the same thing, saying that Rosenberg could speak or write his own opinion, but no longer could he speak officially for the union without clearing it with the majority.

However, true to form, the next speaker and the next and the next continued the barrage of assaults on the now-hated majority.  They spat out words like “unity” as a curse and swore there would never be unity.  They spewed vitriol on the new members and said those who signed the ‘written assent’ did so in blood. (I don’t remember the exact words, but it was about ‘blood’ on the document.) It was awful. I remember when we were part of the board, trying to explain the level of toxicity in these meetings to other actors and finally coming to the understanding that you actually had to be in the room to “get” it.  And here we were in the room again, getting it. Poor Jamie had his head in his hands half the time.

The harangue ended, finally.  The strategic mistake the new members, the rational members made, I think, was allowing Ann-Marie to cut off the list of speakers when only her MF colleagues were lined up to spew.  It allowed them to dump on David, to harangue the new members and to condemn the written assent and what they called the unfairness, the gagging, the illegality of it all, without any rational response.

When a break was called I walked over to say hello to Morgan and some of the new members.  I could see their shock. This was not something they had experienced before, it appeared, and one of them even told me he was thinking about not coming back.  I encouraged him to stick it out – not only to stick it out but to encourage his friends to run for board seats this year so the rational voices could take Hollywood back.

Jamie and I left, shaking our heads at the behavior of these people once again.  But maybe, we said, just maybe if enough people care about their union to put in some time, we can get it back on the rails.

The next day, as you know, Rosenberg, et al’s suit and request for a TRO were filed.  That knocked the scheduled reopening of negotiations with the AMPTP off the tracks again.  A couple of days later the judge refused the restraining order and said he thought the lawsuit had little chance of success.  Rosenberg’s lawyer said they’d appeal. But today, I hear, the National Board met once again and, after another attempt at filibuster, the majority succeeded in passing all the ‘written assent’ motions in a meeting, so the negotiations are again rumored to begin this month. It’s your union.




1 Comment »

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

    Comment by sandraraven — June 30, 2009 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

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