In 800 Words

Our interview with David White, national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, prompted a long letter from Doug Allen, who previously held that post (Speak Easy, “Divided We Fall,” July). He says his tenure was mischaracterized and explains why in more words than we could possibly fit in the September issue. Rather than smush his rebuttal down to size, we give Allen the floor here.

I have not spoken publicly about my tenure at SAG since my departure, but not because I am defensive about my performance or lack pride in what we accomplished while I was there. I have not spoken about my tenure until now because it is someone else’s turn and because David White hasn’t until now disparaged me any more than I did my predecessors as SAG NED. In the “Speak Easy” interview, however, Amy Wallace mischaracterized my negotiating style and personality, suggesting that I was unwilling to compromise and not interested in “getting things done.” David White agreed with that mischaracterization, even though he wasn’t there and didn’t spend any time with me when I was at SAG.  

During my time at SAG, we negotiated the first pension increases for actors in nine years. We streamlined the residual payment process, making it faster and more accurate, and developed effective procedures to find long-lost actors owed residuals. We completely revamped the SAG Web site after exhaustive work by member committees to make it more user friendly and useful to members, incorporating regular video content for the first time. We also created an independent online resource (iActor), incorporating members’ reels and résumés and bringing actors and casting directors together. Almost all of the senior staff hires and restructuring decisions I made remain in effect, and among the most important was a first-rate chief information officer, who remains in that position and has driven technological change at SAG since I hired her. The referenced $6.5 million deficit was for the year in which every SAG agreement was up for negotiation and was offset by a $33 million reserve, 25 percent of which was accumulated during my tenure. Even the online signatory program White referred to began before I left. David White should be proud of the advances he has made in processes that serve the members, but he has built on what came before and on the efforts of a hard-working staff and volunteer members, just as I did.

Even more troublesome, the questions and David White’s responses seem to suggest that efficiency and lack of passion are the most important criteria in judging union success. I disagree. Effective membership service is important, and the staff I worked with at SAG will tell you that we lived by that every day. But getting collective bargaining agreements done, and achieving fair and just agreements, are not, in this case, the same thing. It is illustrative that, in Amy Wallace’s questions and White’s answers concerning residuals, there is no mention of the paltry or nonexistent residuals paid for reuse of content online, where millions watch reruns today, or of how he intends to retrieve the online residual can he has kicked so far down the road. I get the “easy to work with” part, but I haven’t seen any fighting with management, much less seen a SAG under David White that is “hard to fight.” Talking about it is no substitute for being able and willing to do it. As I told the SAG board just before their unanimous vote to hire me, a union without the capacity to strike, and the willingness to consider striking in the face of an intransigent management, is engaged in collective begging, not collective bargaining. That is not a provocative statement; it is simply a reality of labor relations. 

I have been in the labor movement for all of my 38-year career, only two years of which I spent as a linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. My “demeanor” in dealing with Hollywood management was professional and businesslike. I didn’t raise my voice very often, because I learned a long time ago that anger doesn’t persuade people. Your article’s characterization took my strongly held convictions and conflated them with stubbornness and a combative demeanor. The truth is inconveniently otherwise. We offered management a variety of compromises during my negotiations, but the AMPTP and its constituents were the ones who were resolutely stubborn, and ultimately successful, because some in the actor leadership, represented by folks like James Cromwell and Seymour Cassel, found it easier to fight other actors rather than to fight against management proposals that resulted in agreements that are bad for actors. 

I wish the SAG membership every success. They work in a tough, competitive profession where rejection is much more common than work. That is why they deserve a real union that will actually fight for them and beside them, not against them. A company union that is focused only on efficient delivery of an ever-shrinking, collectively bargained pie is not what they need.

Doug Allen
Bal Harbour, Florida