Union strips away members' voting rights

Hollywood stars burned by a writers' strike that halted films and dozens of television shows want to prevent another shutdown by stripping lesser-known Screen Actors Guild members of their voting rights. Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow are among more than 1,400 guild members who signed a petition calling for only actors who get at least one day of work a year to vote on strikes and contracts, according to supporters of the plan. Guild President Alan Rosenberg said the proposal will be considered by the union's board at meetings this weekend.

The measure pits actors with regular work in movies and TV against those who have taken time off or who work as waiters while seeking roles. Supporters say the proposal would ensure that those with the most at stake are the ones who decide whether to approve a contract or walk picket lines. Critics say it violates the spirit and history of the 75-year-old guild.

"It's a non-democratic proposition and this is a democratic union," said Pamela Guest, a casting director and actor who wouldn't qualify to vote under the measure. "It's not an elitist union."

Guest is married to the brother of actor Christopher Guest. She said she hadn't discussed the matter with her brother-in-law and his wife, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who are both listed as signatories on the petition.

If enacted, the changes may make it easier for Christopher Guest, Glenn Close and other supporters to prevent a work stoppage when the guild's labor contract expires on June 30, according to Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney at TroyGould in Los Angeles. It would also block votes from members whose livelihood isn't acting, such as Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.'s chief executive.

Smaller Paychecks

It's a problem that two-thirds of the guild's members made less than $1,000 last year, Moonves said last month at an investor conference. "So those are the people who are going to vote on whether they like a new contract?" he said, chuckling.

The union enters contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on April 15. The alliance represents studios and broadcasters Walt Disney Co., CBS, News Corp., Time Warner Inc., Viacom Inc., Sony Corp., General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Representatives for Affleck and Paltrow didn't respond to messages. Close declined to comment. She "is a signatory and the reasons are spelled out in the petition," said Catherine Olim, the star's publicist, without elaborating. Jeremy Zimmer, Christopher Guest's agent at United Talent Agency, said his client was unavailable.

'Shot in the Dark'

"It feels ugly," said Tara Ochs, an actress who waits tables at Asia de Cuba, a restaurant popular with Hollywood stars, agents and studio executives. Ochs opposes the limits on voting even though she would qualify to vote under the proposal.

"This is such a shot-in-the-dark business," Ochs said. "Everybody makes it on a wing and a prayer."

The proposal was scaled back this week to include actors who had worked at least one day a year on average over six years, down from five days previously. It would also allow voting by actors who get payments from reruns and DVDs or who are vested in the guild's pension.

"If those with a concrete stake in the contract have greater control, that strengthens SAG's position at the bargaining table," said Ned Vaughn, a petition organizer who has appeared in "Cane" on CBS. Background actors, or extras, who get paid less, would need to average six days of work to vote.

'Screeching Halt'

An actors' strike would be more damaging than the three-month writers' walkout that ended in February, said Jack Kyser, the chief economist for Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., a private research firm.

It would shut down television and film work, while the writers' strike mostly affected TV production, forcing broadcasters to air repeats and unscripted reality shows.

"Everything would come to a screeching halt," Kyser said.

Studios are revving up so they won't be stuck with incomplete movies in the event of a strike. Compared with a year earlier, 50 percent more film permits have been issued since Feb. 13, when writers went back to work, according to Film L.A. Inc., the agency that regulates filming in Los Angeles.

Trying to implement restricted voting will be divisive and a distraction, said guild leader Rosenberg, who opposes the measure.

Hollywood studios support the move because it would weaken the union, he said. Jesse Hiestand, a spokesman for the group representing the studios, declined to comment.

When Rosenberg goes to restaurants around Los Angeles, waiters who are guild members often approach him and argue against the proposal, he said.

While he thinks the measure will be rejected, "It hurts me to bring this before the board," Rosenberg said. "A lot of people who signed that petition haven't really thought through it entirely."


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