Vote gives moderates the edge in SAG

HOLLYWOOD — Dissidents backed by Tom Hanks and Sally Field won six of the 11 Hollywood division seats on the national board of the Screen Actors Guild, empowering moderates inside the industry's biggest union and potentially changing the dynamics of stalled contract negotiations with the studios.

"Private Practice" star Amy Brenneman and veteran film and TV actor Ken Howard were among the candidates elected from the Unite for Strength group, which challenged the leadership of SAG President Alan Rosenberg and the incumbent faction that supported him, Membership First.

With the support from moderates in New York and SAG's regional branches, the dissidents will now have enough votes to muster a majority of seats on the national board. Membership First holds a slim majority on the 71-member national board and dominates the guild's negotiating committee.

A newly reconfigured board could help jump-start talks with the studios, although it's unlikely the stalemate will end anytime soon.

The union's 120,000 members have been working without a contract since June 30, with the guild and studios at odds over how actors should be paid for shows that are distributed via the Internet and other new media.

Unite for Strength candidates could push to unseat Doug Allen as the union's chief negotiator — or even fire him. Such a step, however, probably would deepen rifts within an already divided union, which has been buffeted by executive turnover. Allen is the third executive director in the past five years.

What's more, replacing the guild's chief negotiator while contract talks are in flux could further weaken SAG's leverage. In addition, it's unlikely that the studios will significantly modify their "final" offer. The studios repeatedly have rejected SAG's chief demand to extend jurisdiction over all shows specifically created for the Web — a goal shared by moderates and hardliners alike.

Nothing will happen before the board meets Oct. 19.

The election highlighted the factions inside Hollywood's largest fractious union. Hanks and Field squared off against Membership First supporters Sean Penn and Martin Sheen.

The dissidents accused SAG leaders of mishandling negotiations and waging an ill-fated campaign against the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, that they say weakened SAG's leverage.

AFTRA recently reached agreement on a three-year prime-time TV contract with the studios that was modeled on accords negotiated by writers and directors but criticized by SAG leaders as a bad deal for actors. The two actors unions have sparred over jurisdiction in television, and AFTRA has signed several new shows since it reached a new contract.

Membership First, which has made issues affecting so-called middle-class actors a priority, opposes merging the two unions, contending that AFTRA has too many nonactors as members and that its contracts are inferior.

The Membership First candidates elected include Joely Fisher, star of the sitcom "'Til Death"; Keith Carradine, who played a special agent in the "Dexter" TV series; and Scott Bakula, known for his role as the captain in "Star Trek: Enterprise."

The studios believe that SAG is increasingly isolated. They've determined that SAG leaders do not have the clout to obtain a strike authorization vote from members.

SAG leaders, however, say members have backed their negotiating strategy. On Wednesday, they touted the results of an informal poll in which 87 percent of the 10,000 respondents agreed that leaders should not accept the studios' final offer. The studios countered that the poll was not representative because fewer than 10 percent of the guild's members responded.

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