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Fresh cast in place at Screen Actors Guild

Doug Allen is ousted as executive director, improving the odds of a new contract.

January 27, 2009|Richard Verrier

The prospect of a new contract for Hollywood's film and TV actors brightened Monday after the Screen Actors Guild board appointed a new negotiating team and ousted the union's executive director.

In a dramatic shake-up of the union's leadership, the board tapped former SAG General Counsel David White as the guild's interim executive director after firing Doug Allen, citing a leadership crisis that has paralyzed Hollywood's largest actors union.

For now, Allen's job will be split in two. As part of the shake-up, John T. McGuire, a senior guild advisor, will take over Allen's role as chief contract negotiator and is expected to move quickly to jump-start stalled talks with the studios.

In addition, the union's negotiating committee has been replaced by a task force appointed by the board, which will work to secure a TV/theatrical contract that can be sent to members with a "positive recommendation."

The actors have been working without a contract since June.

Allen's firing marks a setback for the leadership of SAG President Alan Rosenberg, who had staunchly backed his executive director as a stalwart unionist. He warned that ousting Allen would trigger a civil war.

But the board, which used to be controlled by Rosenberg's backers, is now in the hands of directors who have been at odds with the union's strategy and tactics.

"These much needed changes will allow SAG to chart a new course," the board said in a statement.

A majority of directors from the 71-member board said they had delivered a "written assent" document to SAG headquarters authorizing the move to terminate Allen as national executive director and to replace him with White. The new leader is expected to start his job as early as today.

Matt Damon was among several high-profile SAG members who welcomed the changes.

"I feel confident that with this move we can get a livable deal soon and start repairing the damage that's been done," Damon said.

The new negotiating team is expected to reach out to the major Hollywood studios in short order, seeking a contract modeled on those secured by three other talent guilds. At the same time, the new negotiators will need to prove to the union's membership that the contract is better than the studios' previous "final offer," which was very unpopular.

Allen's ouster comes two years after he was hired. The union will pay him about $500,000 to buy out his contract, which had a year remaining on it.

In a farewell letter to staff, Allen made no apologies for his record, which was marked by a series of clashes with board members and the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

"I am proud of my record," he wrote. "I wish the Screen Actors Guild and its members success and I have been honored to serve them."

The action underscores the ongoing tumult at the actors union. White is SAG's fourth executive director in just four years.

Allen's ouster was widely expected, coming just two weeks after the board majority attempted to fire him but was filibustered by Allen's supporters during a 28-hour meeting.

The board members who rebelled against Allen represent a coalition of so-called moderates who have accused him of mishandling negotiations and dividing the 120,000-member union.

Ned Vaughn, spokesman for the Unite for Strength moderate group, said, "This is a crucial chance for SAG to regroup and focus on what matters most: getting a TV/theatrical contract that the board recommends, successfully negotiating the guild's other contracts and improving our strategic relationships to benefit our members."

A Rhodes scholar, White, 40, served as SAG's general counsel from 2002 to 2006. He left the guild to co-found a consulting company. In contrast to Allen, who had a confrontational and sometimes abrasive style of leadership, White has a reputation for being low-key and conciliatory, an approach that will be sorely tested as he faces a sharply divided union.

Although he was praised by Rosenberg when he resigned in 2006, White was not popular with some of the guild president's supporters. They perceived him as too close to former Executive Director Bob Pisano, who quit after a series of clashes with the board.

One of White's top priorities will be to find a way to merge with AFTRA, which has been on the agenda of new directors in the past.

McGuire is a 40-year veteran staffer for the actors guild who has negotiated more than 30 contracts. He is "held in enormous esteem throughout the industry and the labor movement," the board members said.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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