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Actors Guild dissidents cry foul over 'special bulletin'

September 12, 2008|Richard Verrier

No Screen Actors Guild election would be complete without controversy, as evidenced by the latest drama inside Hollywood's most discordant trade union.

Next week, nearly one-third of SAG's 71 national board seats will be up for grabs in an election that could change the course of the organization.

But even before ballots have been counted, dissident board candidates are fuming over the timing of a "special bulletin."

The bulletin was recently mailed to the guild's 120,000 members at an estimated cost of more than $100,000. The 12-page report went far beyond the typical contract update and included a detailed critique of the studios' offer. It warned that the studios sought to "take away many of the protections the union has fought so hard for" while denying such basic demands as a 10-cent increase in the mileage rate for actors.

The mailer also included response cards asking members whether they supported accepting the studios' offer or wanted to continue negotiating to secure a better deal.

For the dissidents, the mailer felt more like SAG-financed campaign literature than a straight-up report on the talks.

Ned Vaughn, a spokesman for the dissident Unite for Strength slate, questioned why the mailer was sent out in the middle of a board election, rather than, say, in early July, just after contract negotiations sputtered.

"A contract update mailer that contains so little updated information but so clearly casts the current leadership in a positive light is suspect," Vaughn said.

He and his group, which counts Tom Hanks, Sally Field and Alec Baldwin among its celebrity backers, have blasted SAG leaders over their negotiating strategy and warring with the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. They're squaring off against Membership First, the faction that holds a slim majority on the SAG board and dominates the union's negotiating committee. Its celebrity supporters include Sean Penn and Martin Sheen.

Dissidents and New York board members also have questioned why the response cards contain bar codes that would allow SAG to identify how individual members voted, saying that would violate a long tradition of anonymous voting.

New York board members were so incensed last week that they demanded SAG declare the poll null and void. That didn't happen.

A representative said SAG Executive Director Doug Allen was unavailable. But in a letter to the board posted on SAG's website, he stated that the poll was simply intended to sample member views on the studios' proposals and contract negotiations. The bar code, he added, was aimed at preventing fraud and permitting a "demographic analysis of the response to determine how representative the response is."

Allen said that he had instructed the company tabulating the results to "make sure that the name of any responding member is to be kept confidential and is not to be used for any purpose."

Negotiating committee member George Coe called criticisms of the mailer "ridiculous" and said the purpose of the mail card was solely to help negotiators. Besides, he added, most members probably cast their votes for the board before receiving the mailer anyway. "If the timing was based on winning the election, this would have been sent out two months ago," he said.

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