Hollywood Reporter Q & A
SAG-AFTRA 2019 Presidential Candidate Questionnaire
(on the record)
Current and past SAG-AFTRA, SAG and AFTRA service (national or local officer or board memberships; committee chairs)
I’m currently National Secretary-Treasurer of SAG-AFTRA & Los Angeles Local SAG-AFTRA President.
Before elected to both offices in 2015, I served on the boards of Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for 12 years and the merged SAG-AFTRA National Board for two years.
I also currently sit as Chair of the LA Conservatory committee, Vice Chair of Stunt and Safety committee and as a Vice Chair to the LA Military and Family Support committee. I’m a member of the President’s Blue Ribbon Safety Taskforce. My many years of board service include five turns on the TV/Theatrical Negotiating committee, member of the Communications Committee, Disciplinary Review Committee and the National Executive Committee.
What specifically have you accomplished during your service?
Committed to protecting our members who are working by advocating for strong contracts, enforcing those contracts, and providing the safest sets to work on as possible in contract negotiations
Participated in the last 5 TV-Theatrical contract negotiations as a member of the SAG-AFTRA Negotiating Committee
Overseen 11 straight quarters of budget surplus, and 4 straight years of record surplus
Countless years of chairing and serving on numerous union committee victories
Served on the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents more than 300 affiliated unions
Led the strike actions against BB&H in Los Angeles
Spearheaded the successful effort to establish the Stunt Coordinator eligibility guidelines and Stunt Coordinator Code of Conduct, including to helped develop and implement the stunt coordinator verification process
Instituted stunt performers and their work to be recognized at the SAG-AFTRA Awards
Mitigated the lease agreements of the original SAG-AFTRA offices in New York, and rented out the offices
Conducted a study to determine the possibility of buying a union building in Los Angeles
Chair of the Union Veterans Council of Los Angeles, and working in association with the AFL-CIO and Defense Department to help get veterans work after they finish their service in the military
Member of the Blue Ribbon Safety Task Force
Helped establish a sub-code on SAG-AFTRA membership cards
Helped to implement Direct Deposit for members across the country
Helped to create Pension and Health age and service
Supported Department Backs for Stunt Performers, Singers & Dancers, and Background Performers
Increased the Los Angeles Conservatory from 1,200 members at the end of 2017 to 3000 plus members currently
Supported the increase of event workshops and panels for members from 280 to 499 events attended by over 37,000 SAG-AFTRA members.
Quadrupled the membership of the LA conservatory and significantly expanded classes and table reads to help support union performers
In the past two years, how many national board meetings have you attended and how many have you missed?
I’ve never missed a national board meeting. I’ve attended all 16 scheduled meetings in the last 4 years.
I’ve always been on executive committee because I’ve always represented the stunt community.
I’ve only missed an LA board mtg once because I had to be at the hospital with my son.
What are the three to five main issues facing SAG-AFTRA and how would you address them?
I would tackle head on the residuals issue that has weakened our union, and has made it more difficult to nearly impossible for our members to earn a living wage as a professional performer in the industry.
I learned this firsthand recently when I received a residuals check from a SAG-AFTRA job I did for a network television show. When I opened the envelope and saw the minimal amount I was in shock. Compared to previous checks before the last several contracts that have been negotiated, the amount would be at least in the hundreds. This check barely cracked 2 digits.
It is residual checks that help performers maintain a living wage as they go out for new work. Performers rely on these checks. They rely on union leadership to protect their rates. But this is no longer happening. Unfortunately SAG-AFTRA members are not sharing in any of the profits that are coming from all the “new media” that is being created. Instead, the companies, the employers, are using the term as a loophole to circumvent paying the rates that professional performers deserve.
Content created by streaming services are basically “one-offs” that don’t re-run in other places. Performers basically only get one shot to earn on a project. By the way, every content creator, from Netflix to HBO to Disney to ABC, will be able to define themselves as “streamers,” which is yet another way they will try not to properly compensate for the services of a professional performer.
Because of the changes in the business and residuals, members' Pension and Health contributions are also adversely affected. For example, when I started in the business and worked on a network TV show, the first residual I received was 100% compensation because that is the residual formula for network reruns. So I would receive my daily which today is $980.00 (pre 7/1/19 rate), with a downward escalation of compensation with every use. In 2019, networks are not rerunning their shows on network, or cable, but are going straight to streaming platforms. That residual is monetarily substantially less for a 90 day period. There is a huge monetary deficit for our members, not only for compensation of residual income, but also for P & H contributions. This is one of the major factors affecting our membership's ability to make a living, and support themselves.
So how do you change this? You elect a leader, like myself, who has the experience and the strength to know what battles to pick, where to draw the line, and how to use the inherent leverage that we as performers have (without us, professional performers, what is the audience watching exactly??) to fight for better rates that are in line with cost of living numbers, and which ensure performers can earn a living wage.
2) EMPOWER THE LOCALS
The perception is that SAG-AFTRA is only LA or NY. While LA and NY make up a majority of the membership, the 23 locals other than LA or NY have more membership combined than NY – approximately 45,000 members.
In order to create more solidarity in the union, which would create more strength and resolve in its members, I would create an education and engagement campaign inside the union, and within the industry by partnering up with other organizations and individuals, to increase awareness about the other locals across the country, how important it is to support them, how important it is for a local production be a union production, and offer ways to incentivize these productions to go union.
It’s also important to note that our locals are in such a weakened state because there is no consistency across the board for all locals regarding union rules and regulations. They’re not on the same page, and this needs to change. The rules are so different from local to local.
One example, BACKGROUND. There isn’t national coverage for BG performers, there’s no uniform rule for local zones. Where one local might be 75 miles, the other can be 25 miles.
You know what this means? It means if production is out of that zone, they don’t have to use union BG performers.
And get this, in New Mexico, THERE IS NO BG ZONE. And guess what’s happening as a result? Netflix is building studios there, and is planning on producing 55 productions in the next year!
I don’t think I need to remind you how non-union, unprotected BG is treated? But I will. You don’t get a chair to sit on. You don’t get water to drink. You don’t get to sit under shade or receive any environmental protection.
So because this is not being done, locals feel like they are not connected to the union at large, nor do they believe that they are being supported, which increases member and voter apathy, which negatively affects everything from the casting process, to on set production, to contract negotiations in the boardroom. Quite simply, the more isolated these locals feel, the less motivated they are to support its leaders, let alone union policies, which only plays into the hands of employers who might be looking to exploit them. Of course not every employer is exploitative, however a weakened union, with disgruntled members, allows them to negotiate much more advantageous deals for themselves, not the professional performer.
Why is this happening? Because the union has done things a certain way for a period of time, and change is difficult. One of the major things union leadership does is create this hierarchy amongst the locals, and not include them in the process. A specific example is the current President's "Presidential task force" which is made up of the president's appointees. As President I would disband this task force and create a member outreach group which is made up of every local president and director as a part of it, which will create an environment where it's clear that national is supporting local. Local presidents need to be empowered to run and shape their local to meet the specific needs of their members, but with the intention of inclusivity, not consolidating power at the top, they can do this under the national umbrella, and we can all be on the same page, which is not what's happening currently.
There’s also no real incentive to support the “other locals” if your party is composed of mostly LA or NY local “celebrity” candidates who have no intention of serving, but towing the party line. It’s all connected.
So how will I change this? How will I do this differently?
Like I stated above, it’s time to empower our locals. It’s time to support our locals that are trying to achieve tax incentives for production in their states by being am active part in those discussions and proposals and incentives.
Another crucial way to strengthen our locals and increase inclusiveness is to improve local staff contract training, and customer service. In order to this National leadership needs to create a unified system that has every Local President and staff on the same page, rowing in the same direction, and accountable for the service they’re providing the membership.
We need to improve training of staff regarding union regulations to help prevent contract violations and expedite claims quickly when they do occur. We need to improve speed and customer service culture to please, instead of frustrate potential employers and members when trying to produce union content.
The only way to achieve this is top down. It’s the President who sets the tone, who molds the culture, who is the one responsible to unify and to engender trust. And that is what I plan to do and to be as President of SAG-AFTRA. I work for the membership so the membership can work.
3) SUPPORT PRODUCTIONS GOING FROM NON-UNION TO UNION SIGNATORY
A big issue that every local is facing is losing work to non-union productions. Not only does it negatively affect a member’s opportunity to earn a living wage, but it erodes the strength of the union.
Unfortunately, non-union production is rampant, and needs to be greatly curtailed, which currently is not being done.
I would address this issue by creating and promoting a major outreach and education program to producers across the country to teach them how easy it actually is to become signatory, and how the union is there to help a production, not hurt by adding supposed financial burdens.
There’s a false impression that the producers just want to save money, which is partially true, but I’m not sure if you know this, but we have 41 different contracts to fit their needs. It’s not difficult to get signatory. Again, the key is to educate producers to go union and inform them what they’re missing out on by not going union. Just one example, I led a program like this for SAG-AFTRA members in the Palm Springs area, and it has been working really well.
The outreach and education campaign would consist of direct meetings with producers and productions companies centered near every local across the country. Panels and workshops would also be conducted to further communicate the message that SAG-AFTRA wants to work with producers to bring union production to every part of the country, and that we’re here to solve problems, not make things more complicated or prohibitive.
Another way that I would address this issue is to consistently educate the membership about how important it to understand a founding principle of our union, Global Rule One. This is a promise we make to each other that we will not work without a union contract. Global Rule One strengthens inherent protections won in the collective bargaining agreements by setting a professional standard, solidifying our bargaining power and cementing our influence. The consequences of violating Global Rule One are devastating. When members work off the card, it lowers the professional bar, degrades earning power, erodes the hard-won gains of our union and, simply put, is not acceptable.
Once again though, the members need a union they feel they can rely on, and turn to with their issues, not one that they think is there to get in the way of their employment. Ultimately it doesn’t just come down to the message, but how that message is being communicated, and who is communicating that message. When you have a leader who sets a tone of inclusivity and education and communication and transparency not only within the union but in relation to the industry as a whole, only then will we begin to seriously curb non-union productions, and motivate producers to go union and stay union.
4) ELECTION REFORM
I would advocate and enact election reform in order clean up the election corruption that is happening in the system. Currently, not only are members disconnected from the process, but even if they are interested to vote it appears that they “only” have 2 choices - candidates on the Unite For Strength slate, or candidates on the Membership First slate.
For the most part, these “choices” tend to be “celebrity” candidates who run only because of their profile, their “star” status, not because they truly want to represent the membership, let alone have the time to attend to all the responsibilities that come with elected union service. The reason for this is because these factions don't let people run for national positions even if that person wants to. They decide who will run for what spots and that's it, and it’s usually best if those candidates are known personalities in the industry in order to get votes. So if there are 20 open national seats open they only run 20 for national. If there are only 20 local seats open they only run 20 for local. The voters don't have any other choices from that faction. The factions want to fill those spots with people that will go along with what that faction wants in the boardroom with no opposition.
And when members vote for these candidates they aren’t necessarily voting for the candidate they think they’re voting for because once in office they replace themselves with replacement officeholders. In essence, you could say that all these parties are doing are running “fake candidates.” It’s all just a popularity contest, with the factions giving the illusion of choice to the member, but really only interested in solidifying its power.
This does not promote voter engagement, let alone solidarity. This only contributes to dividing the membership, as opposed to truly educating the membership and getting them involved in the process. That’s why turnout is so low, and members are so disappointed in the union leadership, and doesn’t trust that they are being protected.
That is why, with the support of my fellow elected and members, I would strive to take out the “politics” in our election process. The election process would be open and transparent so we can vote for union leaders whose only allegiance is to the membership, not other intra-party or extra-party interests, which the current parties are beholden to.
What in your record and experience makes you the best person to address these issues?
I believe I am the best person to address these issues based on my overall experience as an elected board member and officer, and appointed committee member, and my record as LA Local President, and National Secretary-Treasurer, which shows that at every level I’ve always been involved in working on these issues. While there is always more work to do, we must also understand that it’s a process to make change happen, and as President I will continue to focus on these issues, and I will have the mandate to create a culture where we can continue to problem solve, and best serve our members.
Also, quite simply, I can identify with the majority of the membership, and they can identify with me. The majority of members aren’t “celebrity” performers, they don’t make million dollar contracts, they work scale, just as my husband and I have done since 1987. And just like them, I know what it’s like when you haven’t worked for a long stretch of time, and rely on your union to help you, and protect you, until you land that next job. I’ve thankfully and with much gratitude been able to buy our home, and pay the bills, and raise our children, as a working class SAG-AFTRA member, and I intend on ensuring that possibility for every member.
How have you demonstrated sensitivity to issues of gender equity and sexual harassment?
I completely support what our union is doing in regards to increasing the awareness to issues of gender quality and sexual harrassment, as well as increasing the protections.
While it’s been overdue, I can say that we have so many great members out there supporting and promoting these issues, and calling for real contractual guidelines to protect our members on and off the set. The union has been partnering with organizations to help codify these guidelines, and we will continue to push the industry in this area.
One of the specific issues that I’ve been involved with is instituting “intimacy coordinators” on every set. It is so important, and I want EVERY MEMBER to know that they can feel safe, coming on set, and doing the work.
I want to give a special shout out to Chantal Cousineau and Michelle Hurd, who have been leading the way with this effort, and have been incredible advocates on behalf of SAG-AFTRA. I am so proud of them, and I will always support their efforts 110% to ensure that we are ALL treated equally and with respect.
How well or poorly has your opponent addressed the above issues (the three to five main issues and incl. the gender issues)?
Unfortunately one of my opponents has no real record on these issues, having only served on the board for 2 years, his first two years ever serving, plus he’s never been on a committee, so it’s difficult for the member to truly know how he intends to address these issues, no matter what his official statements or surrogates may say.
The other challenger, the incumbent, unfortunately has not addressed these issues in any substantive way, but rather only points to seeming gains that have been made, as opposed to giving a full, transparent picture of where our members stand in regards to these important and complicated issues.
Were Matthew Modine’s tone and comments analogizing Chantal Cousineau to an “abused animal that … wants to bite and attack” appropriate?
Words matter. Using hurtful words is never a good thing. As a leader you need to choose your words wisely, and he’s cavalier with his words. That’s not the character you want in a leader.
Given the phenomenon of pattern bargaining and the fact that the DGA usually negotiates first, how can SAG-AFTRA make significant improvements in residuals and basic wages?
The dynamics in the numbers are just so different. As you know, the reason why pattern bargaining doesn’t work for SAG-AFTRA is because on a set you only have 2-3 WGA and DGA members getting residuals, while there are potentially hundreds of SAG-AFTRA members. The idea of “pattern bargaining” just shouldn’t be applied to us.
Are you a client of atty Robert E. Allen of Pierce Bainbridge?
Regardless of whether you are or are not a client of Robert E. Allen, how significant are the allegations in his 7/29/2019 letter regarding Gabrielle Carteris?
This is an ongoing legal issue, and it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in. I just don’t have all the facts.
Was it appropriate for Gabrielle Carteris’s candidate statement to (arguably) imply that she had negotiated the Netflix deal?
Again, this is an ongoing legal issue, and it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in.
Did you support the SAG/AFTRA merger? In what ways has it delivered on its promises and in what ways not?
I supported the idea of us merging, but I did not support the merger effort because I had too many questions I needed answered, primarily financial ones, and I just didn’t receive the clarity I would’ve needed to make a strong final determination.
However, once the merger did happen AFTRA was clearly not in the positive financial position they claimed to be in. We also had to close many local offices because finances were so bad, we lost staff, we lost departments. In the last 4 years though, with the help of membership and the staff, I have been able to bring them back.
Moreover, pre-merger, when SAG was negotiating with producers, AFTRA walked out of the room. And then when we went back in, and negotiated our deal, AFTRA came back and undercut us. So, is it better that we’re now merged? Yes. As in most cases, there are always pros and cons. But I can say that now that type of undercutting in negotiations can’t happen. While it’s been a challenging process, as President I promise I will continue to improve the state of the union, and strengthen it for the membership.
Describe the proper role of staff in relation to the president, board and executive committee.
The proper role of staff is to be in a neutral position at all times. And for clarity’s sake, the staff is under the purview of David White, who’s our National Executive Director. And the only staff the national board hires is David White.
Are there too many staff making over $150,000? Are some or all of the staff above that level overpaid? Please explain your answer.
This is a complicated area, with too many moving parts to truly give a thoughtful answer within this particular questionnaire. As with every issue and area I approach, my operating principle is transparency. There are many factors to go into the end salary of any given staff in any given year. When you look at an LM2 there are other factors that contribute to that salary.
Is the staff pension accrual rate too high? Please explain your answer.
We need to bring the members up to match it. Just as staff benefits from working at our union, so should our union members. In order to do this we need to increase contributions to the pension plan, and there are ways to accomplish this. We need to increase residual formulas, all productions need to go union, and meaningful gains during contract negotiations.
Has the tone of this election campaign been appropriate? Have you and your slate (if any) been truthful and respectful? Have the opponent(s) and their slate (if any) been truthful and respectful?
Unfortunately the tone of this election campaign has not been respectful, and bottom line this has to do with the toxic election process and culture these slates have perpetuated. The existence of slates, of two sides, is just so antiquated, and deeply antithetical to the whole reason we are a union in the first place. For a union to serve ALL its members, and to be strong in negotiations, it needs to be in solidarity.
If its members, who I believe do want what’s best for SAG-AFTRA as a whole, are now creating “slates” to run candidates that doesn’t serve the membership, that only divides the membership. As a result an atmosphere of rancor and division permeates the election, where we’re no longer talking about real issues, but potential lawsuits. And no matter who gets elected, our union is setting itself up to walk into negotiations already divided, already conquered. It also sets the union up for a contested election that will cost our members hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I’ll be blunt, what’s taken over the body politic of our union, what’s in essence hijacked it, is an alliance to slate over who will best serve our union and our members. It’s a cancer, and we’re in a moment where the 2019 SAG-AFTRA Election, and our union, is in critical condition.
That’s why I left the slates. That’s why I’m running as the Independent Candidate for SAG-AFTRA President. And that’s why I’ve endorsed board candidates from both slates, including independents. Because I truly believe that NOW is the time we can make a change, where we choose individual over slate.
Anything you’d like to add?
I encourage every member in every local to VOTE. It’s all about voter engagement. Only 20% of our members vote in elections, and even less on our contract ratifications. It’s very sad. But I also understand why. While we are one union, we are not on the same page, we are very much not in solidarity, and the members know that, and are clearly fed up. It’s something I’ve also heard as I’ve been campaigning at all the different locals, and hearing from them in their emails to my campaign.
The members feel they can no longer rely on a union that they feel doesn’t have their back. Is that a reason for being apathetic? Sure. One of them. I get it. But I will contend that it’s not a reason to not vote. A vote is one of the most important tools a member has to express their voice, and no matter how you feel, we need to hear your voice. Because voices add up. Votes add up. And as we’ve seen, voices do get heard.
I’m running to be SAG-AFTRA President so I can represent those voices. I am running because the energy in LA has changed in the last 4 years underneath my leadership, and I want to take that energy and spread it across the country. When I first became LA president, there would maybe be 50 people attending in the Cagney board room. But now just in the last 2 weeks it’s standing room only not just in the Cagney, but in the overflow Maxwell room. The increased energy and community has been inspiring and clearly shows me that together we can make this happen in every local, the locals are yearning for it.