Rosenberg Wins SAG Battle, But Can He Win Peace?

After all the votes were counted late last week in the Screen Actors Guild elections, the body politic of actors working in movies, television, and commercials remained the same: a fragile organism with fractures that have proved difficult to heal. SAG national president Alan Rosenberg survived an intraparty challenge to narrowly win re-election Sept. 20, then flew to Washington, D.C., hours later to try to prevent SAG's closest sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, from leaving Associated Actors and Artistes of America, a consortium of labor groups known as the 4A's.

Meanwhile, the guild's New York division elected a new president, Sam Freed, whose opinions on key issues mirror those of his predecessor, Paul Christie. Although Rosenberg has worked to improve relations between his Hollywood base and the political leadership in Gotham, the sides remain apart, particularly on matters concerning AFTRA.

All told, the president of the nation's largest actors union is fighting internecine battles on three fronts less than a year before talks begin with producers on a new film and television contract, which he called "one of the most significant negotiations in the history of entertainment." How can Rosenberg -- or any union official -- operate effectively in such a state? "I'm just trying to build unity," he told Back Stage. "We still seem to be at odds. Hopefully, we'll come to some kind of resolution."

Two years ago Freed was one of three signatories of a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor challenging the validity of Rosenberg's election. (The Labor Department did not intervene.) This year was different for Freed. "I'm happy to see him win, to continue," he said. "There's two years of work there, and I'm happy at this juncture not to be starting anew with a national president... . I can only remain confident, because we work better when we're united."

Others remain skeptical that Rosenberg can hold such a tentative alliance together. "Alan's got a big challenge in front of him," said Seymour Cassel, Rosenberg's fellow Membership First associate who lost the presidency by fewer than three percentage points. "We've forced him to alienate New York and AFTRA."

"The difficulty will be how many promises or implied promises he has made," said a former member of the Hollywood board who requested anonymity. "If Alan can make the tough decisions, then fine. But if Alan just wants to have people like him, well, we could be in trouble."

One entertainment industry insider with significant experience on each side of the labor-management divide was "shocked" at how close the vote for president was. "That shows you how strong the support for Seymour was and that a lot of actors [in Los Angeles] are looking for an aggressive agenda," said the insider, who requested anonymity. "If I'm Alan, I'm pretty careful about how moderate I'm going to be."

Digital Divide

The biggest problem facing SAG is its relationship with AFTRA, with which it jointly bargains its most lucrative contracts: the TV/Theatrical and Commercials agreements. The two unions have had their relationship, known as Phase One, for almost three decades, but it is currently tenuous. Rosenberg, SAG national executive director Doug Allen, and other guild officials have objected to AFTRA organizing basic-cable programs, contending such work is beyond its jurisdiction. They also said the contracts pay performers less than comparable guild deals. AFTRA officials have said they have the right to organize any show shot digitally. As for pay rates, AFTRA has not addressed the issue specifically, but officials have said they have organized shows that previously were nonunion.

Ordinarily, the 4 A's would mediate such a dispute, but AFTRA might exit the group to directly affiliate with the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO executive council gave its president, John Sweeney, the authority to issue AFTRA a direct charter after details are finalized. Rosenberg, who sits on the executive council, opposed the move and said the granting of the charter is far from certain.

When asked what would have to happen to get the two unions back on the same page, Rosenberg responded, "I don't know.... I don't know if we've even agreed on what we're working towards. We haven't agreed to what the endgame is."

About 44,000 union performers have memberships in both unions. From Rosenberg's perspective, he wants either to get the contracts identical "so we're not involved in a fire sale to the bottom" or to develop a shared-services agreement in which each union would help the other with expenses and organizing. "They haven't been terribly receptive to that," he added. "I understand their point of view, but let's worry about our members." At present, he said, the two sides are "still involved in the stage of really listening."

AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon and executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth were not available to comment.

The War at Home

The election results released by SAG do not break down the presidential tally by geographic region, so it is not clear how much support Rosenberg received from his home base, Los Angeles. However, Cassel was re-elected to his seat on the national board in the Hollywood division with 71.1 percent of the vote and received the most votes of any board candidate. With an agenda tailored almost exclusively to working actors in Los Angeles, one can assume his support in Southern California was broad-based. That he received so many votes while being a member of the incumbent's party raises questions of how strong Rosenberg is within the L.A.-based Membership First faction, which officially endorsed Rosenberg for president.

"I don't think he looks on Membership First as his own party," the former board member said of Rosenberg. "And a very big part of Membership First didn't support him.... The 700 votes [roughly Rosenberg's margin of victory] came out of New York and the branches. He has to know it's a very, very thin line."

For his part, the SAG president is confident of his standing within his own party. "I don't know if Membership First is divided, but if it is divided, it's not divided in half," said Rosenberg, who was planning to meet with his political associates earlier this week before traveling to Hawaii. "I don't think I've done anything that should have upset them. As far as policy is concerned, I've asked them, 'What is pissing you off?' They don't seem to be able to articulate it."

According to Cassel and the former board member, they fear if Rosenberg listens too much to New York and the regional branches, he will make deals with producers that will mean lower wages and inferior working conditions -- in part because New York and the branches have a more sympathetic view of AFTRA.

"If you want to live in Indiana and Idaho and work as an actor, I think that's great and God bless you," Cassel said. "But you can't expect to be unified with us unless you realize that...[a vast majority] of the work originates out of Los Angeles.... I figure New York and the branches don't really work the contract like we do."

Rosenberg dismissed that argument. "This is not the time to be Hollywood-centric," he said. "Our employers don't care about a union split. They will simply wait for us to fall apart."

Managing Options

Having a fractured labor coalition would seem to benefit the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents producers and studios in union talks. However, that isn't necessarily so, according to one longtime observer of the negotiating process who is close to producers. "When you negotiate these things, you're not negotiating a divorce," said the source. "I always look at it like you're renegotiating your prenup."

Still, the source said, a full-blown split with AFTRA could provide producers with options: "If in fact there is a strike -- and AFTRA is not [aligned with] the guild -- that means people can produce [television], as long as you do it digitally."

Rosenberg does not quite understand how New York guild members could support AFTRA contracts, "but I suspect we're being punished for the failure of consolidation [in 2003]," he said. "That was then; this is now."

Freed said there is not a quid pro quo, but he has maintained that all of the divisiveness would have been avoided if the two unions had consolidated, a move many in L.A. opposed.

According to the industry insider, who has worked with labor and management, Rosenberg cannot achieve total unity because Membership First and the ruling party in New York -- United Screen Actors Nationwide -- are diametrically opposed on the AFTRA issue. "There is no common ground," the insider said. The president's best hope, according to this source, is to bring "the more moderate elements in Hollywood" together with New York, a formidable but not impossible challenge.

Rosenberg remains unfazed: "If I didn't think [these problems] were solvable, I wouldn't have run for president again."

Andrew Salomon can be reached at asalomon (at)