For a decade the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild was marked by conflict that pitted some of America’s most famous faces against one another (and led to the coming and going of seven executive directors). David White, who was SAG’s general counsel during some of the worst of it, watched those executives come and go—and eventually left SAG in 2006 to run his own consulting business. In January 2009, he opted to return to the 120,000-member union as its national executive director. Since then SAG has negotiated and ratified at least ten contracts, nearly closed a $6.5 million budget deficit, and used technology to improve services to members. At Hollywood’s largest union these days, dysfunction has been largely replaced by efficiency. White, 42, talks about creativity, Aristotle versus Plato, and the power of a carrot and a stick.
So, you work for actors. They can be a high-strung group.
Actors bring our stories and histories to life on the screen. We ask them to channel our greatest fears and our greatest triumphs so that we can live vicariously through them and then go to dinner and talk about it. This organization provides the space for them to do that. When they’re working, they’re in their most vulnerable moment. And most of them don’t have anyone to protect them other than this union.
Most people, if they know anything about SAG, think of it only as the place that ensures actors get paid on time—or at all. Sounds like you think the union has a role in the creative process itself.
No question about it. Without the union, the amount of time you have to sit in makeup without eating has no boundaries. The amount of distance you have to travel, the amount of sleep and family time you can have between workdays, all of that is regulated by these agreements. If you take that away, actors will drive themselves into the ground for the opportunity to express their creativity through a performance because it’s in their DNA. Professional actors don’t have the option of not acting. They will do it under almost any circumstance, which is one of the reasons why people are so emotionally attached to this union.
Where did all this passion for organized labor come from?
Many of my father’s relatives migrated from Macon, Georgia, to Detroit to work for the auto industry. Some were members of the UAW. They were relatively uneducated African American workers who were decent, hard-working citizens looking for an opportunity, and their union membership allowed them to have a middle-class life. My father and his sisters owned their homes and have retirement because they were members of unions. Unions were a source of hope for people leaving the conditions of the South. No union, no opportunity.
Where did you grow up?
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at the age of five moved to Kansas City, Missouri. My father was a salesman for IBM, one of the first to enter through its affirmative action program. My mother was a self-educated entrepreneur who was the executive assistant for my father’s boss at IBM. She was part of the group that started one of the first HMOs in the ’70s, and ultimately ended up having her own consulting company.
Would you ever have guessed you’d be doing what you do for a living?
I wanted to be a doctor. But I went to an all-male Jesuit high school and in my junior year got really serious about theology and philosophy. That moved me to start thinking about how to be of service to the world. I went to Grinnell and focused on political philosophy. There I learned to deconstruct traditions and institutions and to ask: Why is this like this? Why should we accept that? It was a fantastic setting to learn how to be thoughtful about the way the world works and doesn’t work.
You were a Rhodes Scholar, right?
Yes. I came out of Grinnell dissatisfied with the ideas loosely associated with Platonic thinking. Without realizing it, when I became a Rhodes Scholar I walked right into an Aristotelian institution at Oxford. Plato starts with universal truths and speaks to a process of becoming in tune with those truths. Aristotle does the reverse. He looks at the practicalities of the human condition and reaches for an understanding of human virtue. That works much better for me. I’m looking for practical guidance in a chaotic world.
When you became executive director of SAG, the organization had been through perhaps the most chaotic period in its history. Your predecessor, Doug Allen, was a former Buffalo Bills linebacker with the demeanor to match. Some believed there was too much Platonic thinking then—too much digging in of heels and too little looking at how things could actually get done.
That’s true. That usually doesn’t yield good results.
When you were doing labor and employment work as a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers, one of your clients was the Screen Actors Guild, which eventually hired you as its general counsel. What made you leave SAG in 2007?
I had done what I had set out to do as general counsel, and it was a good time for me to engage in some of the entrepreneurial interests that I have.
Your departure wasn’t related to the fierce infighting between rival factions that marked that period in the union’s history?
Not so much. Infighting doesn’t bother me that much, except as it prevents our ability to do the work. People having different opinions is a natural and positive aspect of a robust democracy. For me it was more about “Do I have anything significant to add in this position, and if I don’t think I do, what else should I be thinking about?” In this industry there are over 80 collective bargaining agreements in play at any given time, and while large studios and networks have staff to handle that, the vast majority of everyone else doesn’t. I knew that they would pay for someone to simplify the process of dealing with such a thicket of regulations. So I formed a consulting company to provide that service. I did that for two years.
Marc Dreier, the New York lawyer who was your major investor, was later implicated in a massive securities and wire fraud case that involved a scheme to sell $700 million in fictitious promissory notes. He’s currently serving 20 years in federal prison. How did that affect your business?
He was working with a number of prominent folks in the Industry, and even after lots of background checks, nobody understood what he was also doing with five of the largest hedge funds on the planet. When all of that caught up with him, we removed his investment, and right around that time, some members of SAG reached out to me.
The place sounds like it was a hornet’s nest.
You might say. But I was trusting that the resources were here to get us out of a mess and put us back on track.
So what did you do first?
SAG is a sprawling bureaucracy. We have 20 branches across the country. We have five governing bodies—a national board, a national executive committee, three division boards—and dozens upon dozens of committees, all with member input. So we have to develop systems where we know what the left and the right hands are doing. That’s number one. Number two, we must use technology in a smart, effective way to support the work that we do. The third thing that always drives my thinking is member services.
Which includes speeding up the processing of residual checks?
We receive $2 million a day in checks, some of which are for one penny, coming in from dozens of companies. And when I came in, our process was to manually pull the documents out, take the data off the paper, and type it in. That’s crazy. I was determined that we try to get more of that information digitally—and now 67 percent of the companies are delivering digitally. To handle the other 33 percent, we obtained machines that can scan the full variety of information that comes in—rather than doing it by hand. We call them Rocky and Bullwinkle. Two other machines, Boris and Natasha, collate the information with the checks and stuff the envelopes to get them out the door.
To an outsider that sounds like pretty dry stuff.
Few things excite me as much as bringing an efficient process to life. Another thing we’ve used technology to streamline is the signatory process that producers of movies, TV shows, commercials, and new media must use before they hire a professional actor. Signing up with SAG is a complicated process that requires over 200 documents. Now it’s all online.
How does that help actors?
It dramatically simplifies the process for people who want to employ our members. It removes manual processing, allowing our staff to focus on the more meaningful aspects of their jobs. And this process makes us able to return what’s left of the bonds we require producers to put up more quickly. Then they can use that money to employ more of our members. Here’s the phrase we’ve used to describe SAG since I took this job: Easy to work with, hard to fight.
How has it been dealing with the SAG board?
President Ken Howard and the current leadership have made a point of keeping the board as a strategic, policy-focused part of the organization and giving space for me, the executive staff, and our staff nationwide to do our work and improve our operations. It cannot be overemphasized how important that is.
Where are you in the process of merging SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists?
January 2012 is our target for completion of all related merger documents. That’s when the boards will decide if this is what we want to send to the membership. If it is, the vote would come after that. The only way to protect our members is to remove employers’ ability to play these organizations off each other. A merger is the most effective way to do that. Somebody said it long before me: United we stand, divided—you know the rest.
Photograph by Chris McPherson