About five years ago, a new layer of mostly commercial actors started to gain a louder voice within SAG. Dissatisfied with what they saw as inadequate contracts and a sluggish leadership, they came together in a broad coalition eventually known as the Performers Alliance. But by 1998 their ranks had split and they opposed ratification of that year's contract. "Then the whole group took a sharp turn to the right," says a leftist founder and now ex-member of the alliance. "They mobilized and espoused a narrow, craft-based and elitist program, and they turned out enough votes to defeat the merger with AFTRA."
This was quite a dramatic victory, as the marriage of the two actors' unions had, for years, been almost a foregone conclusion. But because AFTRA, unlike SAG, includes in its ranks broadcasters' and TV and radio news employees, the alliance used an appeal to the "purity" of SAG to defeat the merger. Cashing in on that momentum, the Performers Alliance's slate won victory in Hollywood-based board elections, and Daniels, a union tyro, was chosen as president.
The new leadership was seated, sounding strident and even ultramilitant. But its erratic posturing and its open hostility to the allies of unseated president Richard Masur (a political progressive but a cautious unionist) stirred a boiling pot of factionalism. Soon, Daniels and his fervent allies were being derided by their critics as the "Branch Davidians."
The near entirety of the New York-based portion of the 105-member national SAG board and one of the union's executive directors, John McGuire, became sworn enemies of the Daniels-dominated Hollywood leadership. And when the SAG Hollywood leadership endorsed the idea of shutting down many out-of-town branches of the union, the internal war only intensified. The result is a gridlocked, deeply divided union with a severely demoralized professional staff.
President Daniels, in an interview, concedes that things inside SAG might be "chaotic" but he defends his tenure, saying, "We have brought back our high-profile performers into the union, and we have gotten a lot of working actors on the board."
One of his chief lieutenants, actor and board member David Jolliffe, is unmoved by internal critics. "We're painted as an aggressive leadership," he says. "But I wear that title proudly. When you get to my position you always have detractors. But I'm proud of what we have done, and for that Bill Daniels has to stand and have petty people with petty agendas sling mud at him."
Those "petty" critics include the long-term, often most active, guts-and-glue militants of SAG. Board member and former first VP Amy Aquino argues that the leadership is bereft of any strategic vision. "I call it the Mickey and Judy school of unionism," she says alluding to the early Rooney-Garland musicals. "It's like, 'Hey gang! Let's put on a union!'"
One recurring internal criticism of the SAG leaders is that they might go off half-cocked into the current negotiations without first taking the membership's temperature regarding a new strike. After last year's costly six-month SAG-AFTRA walkout in the commercials sector, during which thousands of actors went without paychecks, there's little rank-and-file enthusiasm for another season without work. And there's a growing feeling that the hard-line posturing of SAG unnecessarily prolonged the strike. "Claiming the contract won in that strike as a victory is proper if we're talking about drawing the members into activism," says former SAG president Masur. "But otherwise, claiming such a long strike as a victory is obscene. People lost homes and careers, and we lost work that will never come back because we gave the producers enough time to learn how to shoot outside the country."