SAG-AFTRA’s office closures and staff cuts are coming under fire from within the union’s leadership, with critics saying they could lead to an increase in nonunion productions in the states affected and may threaten the vitality of the labor movement. Moreover, some local SAG-AFTRA officials are fighting the plan, while others complain they’re scrambling to implement the restructuring without effective guidance from union leadership.
“This type of radical change is not what I sold my members when I encouraged them to vote for this merger,” Cece DuBois, co-president of SAG-AFTRA’s Nashville Local, told Backstage. “And I stood up and said it in the national board meeting. I love [SAG-AFTRA national executive director] David White. He’s a man of integrity. I know his motives are completely aboveboard, but I think this move is completely wrong headed.”
Last week SAG-AFTRA announced it would be closing 10 of its 25 offices but didn’t name the locals on the chopping block. Backstage has learned the offices slated for closure are New Orleans, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, the Twin Cities, San Diego, Houston-Austin, New Mexico, Portland, and Arizona-Utah. Those closures will mean the trimming of at least 60 jobs from the union’s payroll.
SAG-AFTRA has noted that 93 percent of its members live in the 15 markets that will continue to be served by a local office. White defended the restructuring, stating, “These moves ensure that we can adapt to the evolving industries in which our members earn a living, and are better able to protect them wherever they work around the world.”
SAG-AFTRA Co-President Roberta Reardon added: “We are a national union committed to excellent service in vibrant markets across the country. That won’t change.”
Still, DuBois, who has led the AFTRA Nashville chapter and now the joint organization local for more than two decades, said there hasn’t been a clear rationale for the plan.
“I think any kind of substantive change like this needs to wait to convention,” she said in reference to the union’s first joint convention, slated for Sept. 26–29.
“We were asking that [during the board meeting], and they were just saying, ‘We have to do this now. And it’s not permanent.’ I’ve never seen an office reopen in a right-to-work state.” The New Orleans Local is one of the few examples where an office was closed and reopened after production ramped up.
DuBois said the lack of communication by top SAG-AFTRA officials is making the transition period “especially difficult.”
DuBois said she successfully lobbied against the closure of the Tennessee office and saved one staff member’s job. Other states weren’t able to keep their offices. Officials in Portland, which is an increasingly important production center—home to TV series such as “Grimm” and “Portlandia”—have been informed they need to wind down their operation but are fighting back against the directive.
“We are very serious nationwide right now when it comes to fighting this,” said Mary McDonald-Lewis, Portland Local co-president. “The whole of my board in Portland, 100 percent of them, wouldn’t have voted for merger if they’d known they’d have had to sacrifice their local or any local. People don’t vote against their best interests, and it’s not in the best interests of anyone.”
McDonald-Lewis disputed the union’s statement that the restructuring was meant as a cost-saving measure. “The point is to centralize operations and create a staff-driven operation instead of a member-driven operation,” she said. “I don’t believe it will be a fiscal solution, and I don’t believe it will return us to focus on core competencies.”
A spokesperson for SAG-AFTRA declined to comment. In a written statement issued last week, union Co-President Ken Howard stated, “Restructuring is a necessary step to ensure sound operating principles, fiscal resiliency, long-term sustainability and the realization of our mission to provide strong representation and efficient and effective member services far into the future.”