SAG Gets Strict in Admitting Ex-Members

Screen Actors Guild members may soon think twice before handing in their SAG cards: Those who resign from the union -- or already have -- will face a new, stricter procedure to rejoin the guild. As SAG's national director of organizing, Todd Amorde, reportedly told members at a May 19 meeting in Sherman Oaks, Calif., the decision to resign could have permanent effects.

SAG has not disclosed the details of the policy, but the union's new stance concerning former members immediately prompted discussions about the controversial option of resigning from the union and becoming a financial-core member. Fi-core members (also known as fee-paying nonmembers) can work union and nonunion jobs, while remaining eligible for SAG benefits, by officially resigning from the union but paying the base annual dues (currently $116), withholding the portion of dues that goes toward such activities as political campaigns and contract negotiations. These members cannot vote in union elections or hold office. The right to opt for such status stems from a 1988 Supreme Court decision in Communication Workers of America v. Beck.

According to Amorde, the new re-entry rules are not intended to single out fi-core members, but the union appears to be taking a stance against the practice. "What we're going to stress is that it may be your right under federal law to go fi-core, but it's not a good idea," Amorde told Daily Variety in a May 21 article.

He emphasized in an interview with Back Stage on May 23 that the new rules will apply to former members who have "consciously" resigned from the union, not to those whose membership expired because they could not afford the dues (known in the guild as "terminated members"). "This is about people that are consciously turning their back on the union," Amorde said. "We want to let them know that making a decision like this is an important one, and that in the very near future, it may be more permanent than they realize."

Currently, to rejoin (or be reinstated into) the union, resigned or terminated members must write a letter to SAG's national board requesting reinstatement and pay a nonrefundable reinstatement fee of $100. They also must submit an account of the nonunion work they did during their absence from the union. If the board approves reinstatement, an actor must pay either 100 percent of the initiation fee ($2,211) or 20 percent of that fee if he or she has been a nonmember for fewer than five years and it is his or her first time rejoining. If an actor cannot pay the initiation fee, he or she can also submit a request to a leniency committee for consideration. As of press time, SAG declined to comment on how this procedure will change.

The System

For Colleen Wainwright, who joined the union as a child actor in Chicago, the reinstatement process was something of a bureaucratic nightmare. When she revived her acting career in her 30s, she discovered her mother had stopped paying her SAG dues shortly after Wainwright turned 18. Wainwright said she was out of the union and needed to get back in but employees at SAG's Chicago office weren't very helpful.

"They said they would let me back in if I paid the full initiation fee...which I didn't have at the time. I also felt like this completely was a classic Coogan story, so I wanted to get reinstated without having to pay," she said. After writing several letters explaining the situation, the actor "pulled out the heavy artillery" and told the union about her mother's alcoholism, which probably affected her ability to pay the dues. This time, SAG listened.

"They were very polite and nice about it," Wainwright said. "They said, 'All right, we're going to make an exception in [your] case. But know that this is your one free pass and you're not going to get another one.' " Wainwright isn't pursuing acting now, but she still pays her SAG dues to avoid having to rejoin. "As long as the dues stay reasonable, there's no reason to go through all of that hell again. I just figure I'll keep paying," she said.

However, it was relatively easy for Bruce Kimmel to rejoin the union after resigning in the early 1990s to focus on his career as a record producer. Kimmel wrote a letter explaining why he should be let back in and paid the base dues for the years he hadn't been a member. He wasn't charged any late fees. Since then, he's been a member in good standing. "If someone opts to resign and the reason they are doing so is financial hardship in terms of paying dues or just plain wanting not to work for a while, that's one thing. I think those people should not have to jump through hoops to be reinstated," Kimmel wrote to Back Stage in an email. "But for others who opt out solely to do nonunion work and who, should they get lucky, then want to waltz back in and be able to re-up and get the benefits and protection of the union? Well, that's a whole other kettle of fish."

An Easy Way Out?

Many of Kimmel's fellow full-membership SAG actors agree that those who choose fi-core weaken the union as a whole. Marlene Sosebee, a SAG member for 12 years, said she's all for tightening the re-entry rules. "I believe in a strong union and don't like when anyone tries to have their cake and eat it too," she wrote via email. "You are either in or out. Get a part-time job if you need the cash -- that's what I do -- but don't weaken our union."

Another longtime SAG member who requested anonymity wrote, "We work our asses off to get into the union to begin with, then when we discover we have to continue working our asses off to find work, some people choose to take an easier way out by going fi-core.... I think it cheapens the solidarity of our union and undermines our larger goals. It's selfish and wrong."

Fi-core actor Suzane Averitt, however, doesn't consider it selfish to be fi-core, nor does she regret it. "For me the union has never really been great.... I didn't relate to it," said Averitt, who works about 50 percent union jobs and 50 percent nonunion jobs. "I know how to choose a job and [how to] not choose a job, and I'm willing to take my mistakes."

Averitt said she first became aware of fi-core after union staffers discovered she'd appeared in a nonunion indie film. She received a "slap on the wrist" but did not appreciate being reprimanded for taking advantage of an opportunity -- especially when acting work can be so sporadic. "I'm willing to do nonunion [work], as long as it fits within my pay scale, just to be working," she said. "I can't understand how someone is cheating someone out of a job. The level that we're working at is so low, and it's for personal reasons." According to Averitt, she faces a problem as a fi-core member only when casting directors ask what "color her card is." Instead of a SAG card, she carries a receipt from the guild, which can sometimes be difficult to explain.

Kinder, Gentler to Indies

Wainwright suggested SAG should focus on making it easier for independent producers to become guild signatories rather than penalize actors who want to work nonunion jobs. "I worked on a few independent films, and what [SAG] put those filmmakers through to get signed contracts with the union was unbelievable," she said.

Another SAG member and indie producer who requested anonymity agreed that there would be less nonunion work if SAG cleared up the red tape producers must go through to get a low-budget union contract. "SAG is completely disorganized and a nightmare to deal with. It's that simple.... SAG certainly doesn't make the process easy," wrote the actor-producer. "What SAG should be doing is looking inward, fixing the internal problems, streamlining the process by concentrating on efficiency, and making it less problematic for a production to go nonunion. If they do that, more projects will become signatories, and there won't be a need for people to go fi-core."

Amorde said that's what SAG intends to do. "The antidote to people [going] fi-core is to get more nonunion jobs to go union," he said, pointing out that SAGIndie, a nonprofit division of SAG that promotes the union's low-budget agreements, offers five agreements, as well as incentives for employing women, seniors, performers with disabilities, actors of color, and SAG background performers. Amorde added, "SAGIndie is the best thing going now."