Tinsel Town's Civil War

The race for the SAG-AFTRA presidency is as divided as Hillary v. Trump
Actors on strike in the 1930s.
Actors on strike in the 1930s.

The Hillary/Trump fiasco isn’t the only presidential race with all the makings of a reality show. The mud-slinging, press conference brouhaha’s, hotly contested issues, fiercely divided camps, etc., aren’t just reserved for Washington. There is another altogether insane presidential race, and the similarities to what’s currently happening in our nation’s capital are striking.

The fight for the SAG-AFTRA presidency has become one of the more ugly Hollywood power struggles in recent memory. However, if, due to a few other minor distractions in the daily headlines, you haven’t been paying too much attention to this one, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Let me bring you up to speed.

After the 2012 merger of the two largest entertainment unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, things began spiraling downward at a snowball’s pace. And it appears they’ve finally come to a head in this election, due primarily, to the essential divide over one, basic principle: To Strike or Not to Strike?

Since the early part of the twentieth century, the ability of workers to go on strike if they believe management is treating them unfairly has been a cornerstone of fair labor practice. Granted, nothing’s perfect, but the ability for a group of workers to unite and force the hand that feeds them to feed them a bit more, is vital to keeping the playing field at least somewhat level. Especially, these days.

Back in the thirties, when the studios threatened to cut actors’ wages in half, the decision to strike gave rise to the first incarnation of SAG. The studios were vehemently opposed to the actors forming a union, telling them the industry would collapse, and most would never work again. In actuality, as a direct result of the actors standing their ground, we entered the Golden Age of filmmaking.

At the moment, the video game arm of the union is currently on strike. However, it seems, aside from a litany of other issues, one of the main points the movie/television actors can’t seem to agree on is the idea of a strike as a potential bargaining chip, and thus, have split into two diametrically opposed camps - one which believes the ability to threaten the studios with a strike is an absolute necessity - even if only as a negotiating tactic, and one that believes just the mere mention of one is a death sentence. In fact, the opposing side was recently quoted going as far as to say, “A union always loses in a strike.” A dramatically misinformed statement.

In the past few months, the fight to guide this extremely tumultuous, and now heavily divided, union of television and movie actors has basically come down to two contenders - actors Esai Morales (La Bamba, Bad Boys, The Brink, Ozark) and Gabrielle Carteris (Beverly Hills 90210, King of the Hill). Veteran stuntman, Pete Antico, is also running, but he is the black sheep. Having no prior union experience.

The reason for the intense debate amongst the members, is that a new contract has been presented to the union by Hollywood producers and they need to vote to accept it or reject it. By all accounts, Ms. Carteris’ party, Unite for Strength, seem to be the “Republicans,” while Mr. Morales’ party, Membership First, look to be the “Democrats.”

Esai Morales
Esai Morales
Gabrille Carteris
Gabrille Carteris

Since the untimely death of former Pres. Ken Howard in 2016, Ms. Carteris has been acting President of the union and has even won re-election. However, it’s worthy to note, the previous election was more like something you’d see in a banana republic; as the voting was limited to that of board members only, the majority of whom belonged to Ms. Carteris’ party. Not exactly a fair fight. This election proves to be a bit different, as all union members will be allowed to vote.

There are those, like Mr. Morales, who believe the former 90210 star is once-again, running a disingenuous campaign. One filled with deception, secrecy, disinformation, and untruths. Sound familiar? Ms. Carteris has been accused of doing everything she can to tilt the outcome her way; i.e. flying all over the country and campaigning like a politician while the members pick up the tab, even bringing security guards to member meetings and intentionally not providing microphones, thus creating a tense atmosphere of one-sided dialogues and unavoidable confrontation.

When there are microphones present, the meetings frequently dissolve into chaos if one of the opposing candidates attempts to speak. In fact, you can view the tail end of a recent gathering of union members here, and see for yourself just how cray-cray the sh#t’s actually gotten. About ten seconds in, when Mr. Morales tries to speak, the microphone is taken from him and all hell breaks loose.

According to Mr. Morales, one of the main points on his agenda is to immediately rectify the bizarre pension situation. Apparently, you can work for both AFTRA and SAG during the year, but if you don’t reach a certain specific earnings mark for each side, you do not get an increase in your pension from that respective side. That may sound reasonable, until you learn that even if the sum total of your earnings from both unions, combined, surpasses those individual numbers, you still get nothing. If that isn’t enough, the office staff at the union apparently earn higher pensions than union members, themselves. Talk about a slap in the face.

Then, there’s the issue of real estate. Unlike the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, and Actors Equity - all of whom own their respective headquarters -, the current leadership of SAG-AFTRA still rents and refuses to purchase the building its headquartered in, claiming they’re “not in the real estate market.” You don’t need to be in real estate to see that statement is a bit shortsighted. Not only did Mc Donald’s build its franchise on owning the land its restaurants were on, but, considering the DGA bought their building decades ago and it’s now worth ten times the amount, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize the value of equity in negotiations, or that owning property is much more beneficial than renting it.

By asking the members to accept the current contract, as is, which many say does little to alleviate any of the above issues, Ms. Carteris has been accused of towing the corporate line and actively working to prevent the union from utilizing its most powerful tool to date; the aforementioned, strike.

While Ms. Carteris pitches the new contract as a “win” for the members on the union’s Facebook page, citing across the board increases in payouts/royalties, first year wage increases, and increases to the pension fund, the response has been overwhelmingly negative; with ninety-nine percent of comments urging members to vote “No.”

With ballots having gone out this past week, and the deadline to vote being just two weeks away, if Ms. Carteris is to retain the presidency, she seems to have an uphill battle on her hands, as the public sentiment appears to be against her strategy of status quo is progress. Many members have questioned why one of their fellow actors would be so easily swayed into taking the path of least resistance when it comes to protecting their financial futures. The only one who can answer that is Ms. Carteris.

Keep in mind, we’re not talking about multi-millionaires squabbling over who gets the bigger yacht. Ninety-five percent of the union members are nowhere near the status of a Pitt or a Clooney. These are people who do it because they love the craft, and they deserve to have as much security as they can get. Lord knows, unlike a doctor, dentist, or lawyer, no one goes into acting for the money. So, to see a group of artists, who, by all rationale, should unquestionably be on the same side, picking each other apart, is quite sad.

As divided as they are now, Mr. Morales says the main goal of he and his supporters ― like Ed Harris, Rosanna Arquette, Bill Murray, and Nancy Sinatra ― is to bring the battered and torn factions of the actors union together again. Something the studios surely don’t want to see. For, as we are sadly all too familiar with these days, it’s much easier to conquer your opponent when the troops are fighting amongst themselves.