After a shaky start in last year's Screen Actors Guild elections, Working Actors Unite has become a major force in the politics of SAG's sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
On Fri., Jan. 5, candidates endorsed by WAU won the Los Angeles AFTRA local's presidency, the local's second and third vice presidencies, 10 seats on the local's board of directors and 14 seats on AFTRA's national board. Dozens of WAU-endorsed candidates also were elected to serve as delegates to AFTRA's next convention.
By contrast, the Performers Alliance—the dissident group that has come to dominate SAG politics—won only four seats on AFTRA's national board and one local vice presidency.
WAU was formed last year in opposition to SAG's new leadership, which WAU accused of "ignoring current realities." WAU, however, won only five of the 25 SAG board seats it was contesting last year and seemed destined for the political scrap heap.
Its comeback Friday in the AFTRA elections, however, could give it more credibility when SAG holds its national elections this year.
"We are very interested in continuing to make an impact on our unions," WAU co-founder Keri Tombazian said. "We want to continue to put forth our idea that working actors, who have the most at stake in the contracts, are best qualified to keep the unions healthy."
Many AFTRA leaders, worried that the Performers Alliance might try to take over AFTRA, have expressed concern about the direction in which the Performers Alliance has taken SAG in the past year. They point to the mass exodus of SAG's top staffers, the ongoing problems SAG is having with its increasingly disgruntled talent agents, the too-long actors strike against the advertising industry and the threat of another strike against the film and TV industry this year as reasons for their concern.
"It's a real ticklish situation with AFTRA and SAG this year," said AFTRA Los Angeles local president Susan Boyd, who was re-elected without opposition. "SAG is heading down a slippery slope, with the elected leadership taking too much responsibility for what the hired staff is supposed to be doing.
"I see an unfortunate trend toward SAG's senior staff leaving in droves. They are not able to carry out the mandate of the members-at-large. That can only be bad for SAG and AFTRA.
"There are a lot of very good, very caring people over there who aren't able to do their jobs."
SAG and AFTRA came close to merging two years ago. AFTRA's members approved the merger, but SAG rejected it soundly. Since then, the unions' leaders have been trying to work together on joint contracts, and to avoid jurisdictional war.
Boyd, who quit SAG's board during the summer, said she did so because the guild's new leaders treated her like a spy.
"I wasn't being put on any committees," she said. "I was viewed as an AFTRA spy. My input was not highly regarded anymore."
SAG, she said, "is being manipulated by a few who think they know better than the rest of us. I wish SAG the best of luck, but it's an insider government. What's going on at SAG is what the previous administration was wrongly accused of being—a top-down government."
Boyd, who was supported by WAU in her reelection bid, said she is "delighted that the WAU folks did as well as they did. I hope we can contribute to a really sane summer for both AFTRA and SAG. There has got to be a successful way around a strike for this upcoming contract. We've been through six months of hell during the commercials strike, and the industry shouldn't be so ready to rush into another one."
WAU officials say they're less interested in politics than in putting working actors onto the two unions' boards of directors. Leaders of the Performers Alliance, however, have accused WAU of being a stalking horse for ProAct, the SAG political group that was headed by former SAG president Richard Masur when he was dethroned in 1999 by current SAG president William Daniels and his slate of Performers Alliance running mates.
WAU members have denied any connection to ProAct, though Masur and several of his former ProAct running mates received the WAU's endorsement in their successful campaigns to serve as delegates to AFTRA's next convention.
Asked if there is any connection between ProAct and the WAU, Masur said: "It's more accurate to say that there's a connection between WAU and not-PA (Performers Alliance).
"This is the not-PA slate. If anything, these people are not-PA, and if they did well, it's a pretty solid repudiation of PA."
The Performers Alliance only endorsed 11 candidates in the recent AFTRA election. PA-endorsed candidate Carole Elliott was elected fourth vp, and incumbents Jay Gerber, Virginia Watson, Paul Napier and Russell McConnell were elected to the national board. (Gerber and Watson were also endorsed by WAU.) Their winning candidates were all incumbents, so there was no net gain for the PA.
Besides Boyd, other local officers elected with the WAU's support were second vp Ron Morgan and third vp Alice Backes.
Several local candidates ran unopposed and without the endorsements of either political group. They include first vp Marvin Kaplan, recording secretary Jackie Joseph and treasurer Gerber.
Kaplan was the top vote-getter in the local board election, and the second-highest vote-getter after Gerber in the national board races.
Winning local board candidates who were endorsed by WAU include Jackie Joseph, Cedering Fox, Lori Alan, Bill Ratner, Ron Morgan, Matthew Kimbrough, Joshua Escandon, Cheryl Baxter, Sally Stevens, and Dan Navarro.
WAU-backed candidates elected to the national board were Gerber, Joseph, Stevens, Barbara Barri, Watson, Alan, Bobbie Bates, Fox, Jackie Ward, Ratner, Navarro, Lorin Dreyfuss, Steve Susskind, and Kimbrough.
Robert Easton and Nina Diamante were elected to the national board without the endorsement of either group.