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Drama dims chances of SAG strike

Moderates fail to oust hard-line negotiator Doug Allen but they do manage to undercut his authority over the actors union.

January 14, 2009|Richard Verrier

Only a few weeks ago Hollywood's biggest actors union appeared dangerously close to sliding into a strike that would shut down movie and TV production and further depress the region's economy. But a boardroom drama this week has drastically dimmed that prospect.

On Tuesday, a majority of the board of the Screen Actors Guild failed in an attempt to oust the union's hard-line chief negotiator, Doug Allen, as supporters closed ranks around him during a nearly 30-hour meeting that was supposed to decide his fate. On the face of it, that was a victory for Allen's supporters.

But the self-described moderates on the board achieved a broader goal: to neutralize Allen and his principal supporter, SAG President Alan Rosenberg, and effectively undercut the pair's authority over the 120,000-member union. The moderates' resolve in the face of parliamentary maneuvering by SAG's leaders, observers say, will embolden them to veto any strike that the leadership seeks.

"I can't imagine him weathering this political storm to wield any significant influence in the future," said David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University. "Even though they weren't able to remove him, they essentially took away a chunk of his power."

A combination of infighting at the Screen Actors Guild, miscalculations by the union's leadership and an unforeseen deterioration of the nation's economy turned what might have been a facile resolution on a new contract with the major studios into a no-win situation that has left SAG grasping for a face-saving measure.

Allen and Rosenberg, like union firebrands of yore, have been defiant in their stand against the big studios, contending that they were colluding to rob actors of valuable earnings in the digital age. For weeks the union leaders have tried to convince the deeply divided membership that its only recourse was to show a willingness to strike.

The leaders argued that obtaining a strike authorization vote was crucial to gain leverage in negotiations, which deadlocked when SAG demanded better concessions than those clinched by other Hollywood unions.

But Allen's handling of the negotiations and his aggressive pursuit of strike authorization -- support for which was never universal and only weakened as the economy soured -- put him sharply at odds with moderate board members and high-profile actors who felt the timing was ill-advised.

SAG's leaders called a meeting Monday to discuss the divisions over the strike referendum, which was originally set to occur Jan. 2. Instead, the meeting turned into a tug-of-war over Allen's future.

Moderates introduced a resolution calling for Allen to be fired and the negotiating committee to be disbanded. But that failed after Allen's supporters filibustered the vote. The negotiating committee is dominated by a faction that has resolutely backed SAG's leadership.

Moderates later accused Allen and his supporters of trying to thwart the majority of the board.

"It's important that members know there is great concern among the majority of the SAG board about the way things have been run and the proposed strike authorization," said Morgan Fairchild, the former star of "Falcon Crest" who is now a SAG board member.

Allen was unavailable for comment. Rosenberg, who led the meeting, said the motion to fire Allen was ill-conceived and accused his critics of attempting to sabotage the union's negotiations.

"For them to blame Doug Allen is beyond my comprehension," Rosenberg said. "He's done a phenomenal job."

Rosenberg said the strike referendum would proceed. Nonetheless, it appears unlikely to muster the 75% approval from voters needed to pass. Acting is itinerant work, and many actors fear that employment opportunities will become scarcer with a recession that looks to be long, deep and painful.

This week's events were set in motion last month, when SAG's New York members staged a revolt against their leaders and called on them to scrap the planned referendum. They received a powerful endorsement from more than 130 well-known actors, including George Clooney and Tom Hanks. Others, such as Martin Sheen and Mel Gibson, supported the strike authorization.

The controversy over Allen's future marks the latest turmoil at SAG, which has had three executive directors in five years. Allen replaced Greg Hessinger, who was fired after just a few months on the job by Rosenberg's supporters, who considered him too moderate.

A former official at the NFL Players Assn., Allen was hired to re-energize the union and bring new toughness to negotiations.

But from the beginning Allen struggled to adapt to Hollywood's culture. Although supporters praise him as a breath of fresh air, critics see him as a brusque outsider who doesn't understand the nuances of the industry and reflexively sides with the Hollywood-based Membership First faction that swept Rosenberg into office in September 2005.

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