She may not be quite ready to take the Screen Actors Guild to court, but the Association of Talent Agents' administrator had no problem this week in bringing her intense criticism of SAG's leadership to the acting community.
Karen Stuart, the ATA executive director, called Back Stage on Tuesday to state her own members' case.
"This is very important," she said in a deliberate voice. "The bedrock of the problem, or what I think it is, is that SAG has made a fundamental error: They are treating agents as adversaries. To me, that's the underpinnings. This leadership has made this very serious and fundamental error.
"The future will prove we're right," she added. "We're going to do everything we can for our clients. We'll show our clients that, in spite of their union, the only way for the agency business to prosper and be strong is to make the changes we sought" in the agents-SAG franchise agreement.
Stuart had brought the ATA criticism of SAG to the entire entertainment industry earlier this week, accusing SAG's leaders of attempting to cripple the agency industry and economically harm the SAG actor. The ATA, through Stuart, criticized the guild for "unlawfully" opposing new and future contracts, union actions which place the SAG-agent relationship "in danger of being irreparably severed."
The ATA made the charges in a Feb. 9 letter from Stuart to William Daniels, SAG's national president, and John McGuire, the guild's associate national executive director. Stuart placed the letter on the ATA website.
The agents were responding to a "message" placed on SAG's website warning members to not sign any agents' newly formed contracts, called general service agreements (GSAs). In the message, the guild said the new pacts could "indirectly" help agents become producers, which SAG considers a conflict of interest.
The ATA's response called the SAG message "false, misleading and injurious" to the reps, adding that the agents "have been dedicated to their clients and allies of SAG" for over 60 years.
The ATA went on to say that SAG's "current leadership wants to destroy our relationship and cripple the agency business at the expense of the SAG actor and the agent."
While falling short of directly threatening a lawsuit against the guild, the 950-word letter clearly took a legal tone in a section specifically accusing the guild of wrongdoing, and ordering it to stop.
"We are forced to put you on notice that SAG's leadership is wrongfully interfering with the capacity of ATA/NATR agents to contract with their clients," the letter stressed. NATR is the National Association of Talent Representatives, which represents agents on the East Coast.
"Further, SAG blatantly exceeds any authority it might claim when it instructs its members not to sign or delay signing general service agreements in the instance where a SAG approved contract is also executed. This pertains to services beyond SAG's jurisdiction and must be stopped."
In her interview, Stuart was asked if she was prepared to file a lawsuit against SAG.
"I don't know if I'm prepared to go that far, right at the moment," she responded. "I do believe there's an argument that SAG has crossed the line, and I do believe that they did.
"There's a line you can't cross," she continued. "I'm not bullshitting. I worked at AFTRA for 15 years as a chief negotiator. I'm a union person. So I'm continuously going to seek a settlement of new agency regulations. But I've got to tell you, their [SAG leadership's] action and inaction is causing my membership to wonder whether our goal to get a fair settlement makes sense. Their actions are so bothersome, one wonders whether anyone wants to continue to do business with them."
Stuart reiterated her letter in saying the major problem was SAG's elected leadership, but added that another detriment was "the exit of key staff." She did not list any names.
Stuart called SAG's concerns about agents wanting to become producers "a mythology. Look at our proposal. We're prohibited in our proposal from being producers, from being employers. We can't be involved in hiring and firing. They [actors] have all the protection they need."
She said the SAG leaders' stance is therefore based on "an initial untruth. Why are they trying to stack the deck against their allies? I don't know."
A Pointed Reply
The ATA letter confronted each major point SAG had made in its website message to members, claiming that the guild is acting "unlawfully."
The guild and ATA/NATR's basic contract expired on Oct. 20. The guild's message said the pact includes a 15-month grace period under which agents and actors can operate until January 2002. The guild also said it would continue to work with association members who "comply" with the pact, and all agencies that aren't members of the two rep groups.
The ATA countered that: "Article VII of the basic contract has for decades made it clear that all terms apply to all agents, regardless of ATA/NATR membership," the letter insisted. "The agency regulations expired on Oct. 20, 2000 for every agent, not just ATA/NATR members."
The letter said SAG has maintained that ATA/NATR members cannot contract with actors after January 2002, and any actors' pacts must be SAG-approved.
"We disagree with both positions," the ATA stated. "SAG leadership has by its actions and its breaches of the agency regulation, forfeited any claim that it can dictate contractual terms or enforce what it refers to as the 'status quo.'
"Moreover, even if the SAG position on these points were sustainable," the ATA continued, "the attempted discriminatory application of such 'rules' to ATA/NATR members unlawfully disadvantages the ATA/NATR agencies and unlawfully interferes with their client relationships."
Both ATA and SAG have blamed each other for stalled negotiations on a new franchise agreement. The ATA argued in its letter that the deadlock was SAG's lack of effort "to address unresolved issues…Further, SAG's leadership has repeatedly distorted what did occur at the bargaining table and misrepresented ATA/NATR's proposals…"
In its last major point, ATA blasted "SAG's statement that 'union rules dictate that SAG members may only be represented by franchise agents.' " The agents contended that such a statement "serves as a last reminder of the leadership's hypocrisy and what it has wrought. SAG has never enforced such a rule and by its failure to do so created today's circumstances. Because of SAG leadership action and inaction, there are today no franchised agents.
"ATA and NATR and its member agencies have nonetheless been to date at the forefront supporting SAG in its dealings with employers and have constantly sought to maintain a balanced 'regulation.' At a significant juncture in the course of its labor relations with employers, SAG has not only turned its back on its allies, but now appears to want to put them out of business and direct that business to others, many of whom SAG has allowed to represent its members without any rules.
"If SAG's leadership continues to harm our members' interests, ATA/ NATR and its members will do all that is necessary and proper to insure that they are able to conduct business in ways most beneficial to the actor."
The letter said in conclusion:
"The SAG/agent relationship is in danger of being irreparably severed. The SAG leadership must be prepared to address the needs of agents in the 21st century marketplace. We ask that SAG reconsider its recent actions and focus rather upon proposals to resolve our differences."
Stuart had introduced the letter by saying that the ATA's support of SAG over their 60-year relationship involved too many activities to list. But she noted recent efforts included aiding the guild during its commercials contract negotiations, and helping the union prepare for its upcoming feature-film and TV contract talks with the major studios and networks.
Greg Krizman, SAG's communications chief, said at press time only that SAG has received the ATA letter. "We're reviewing it and will make an appropriate response in the near future."
Krizman was told of Stuart's comments in her interview that SAG was treating agents "as adversaries" and "trying to stack the deck against their allies."
His response: "We've always appreciated the support of the agent community. It is still our intention to try to bring a resolution which meets the needs of all concerned parties."