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Is SAG’s Rosenberg Serving the Cause, or Wreaking Havoc?

by Danielle Berrin

March 18, 2009 | 5:40 pm

<i>SAG President Alan Rosenberg speaks at the 15th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations announcements in Los Angeles on December 18, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/PHIL MCCARTEN</i>

SAG President Alan Rosenberg speaks at the 15th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations announcements in Los Angeles on December 18, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/PHIL MCCARTEN

Alan Rosenberg was once known as a charming, hard-working actor with a passion for his craft. He had a knack for playing softhearted roles — the slightly schlubby boy-next-door whose vulnerability was so endearing, you immediately loved him. He got his break as the intellectual among sharks on the courtroom drama, “L.A. Law,” and, more recently, he played a compassionate children’s legal advocate on “The Guardian.” By Hollywood standards, he never made it big — he didn’t pull in a million-per-paycheck, and though he has countless credits to his name, he was rarely the star. Yet despite all this, Rosenberg’s likeability and stable, midlevel career gave him enough clout to follow in the footsteps of James Cagney, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston to become president of Hollywood’s largest union, the Screen Actors Guild.

Now, four years into his tenure, both Rosenberg’s career and his personal life are a wreck. That much was clear the Saturday night I first met him, in early February, at a bustling Italian restaurant in Brentwood. The place was crammed, with a crowd of people clogging the entryway. Rob Reiner and his wife dined with Tommy Schlamme and Christine Lahti; a table over was Elizabeth Shue, and Oliver Stone held court in the private wine room. But even the stargazing couldn’t distract onlookers from staring at the embattled Rosenberg, who dined in a corner alone.

Two weeks prior, Rosenberg’s crusade to gain strike authorization for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) had suffered a severe setback. In the midst of contract re-negotiations, Doug Allen, SAG’s national executive director and chief negotiator — as well as Rosenberg’s avowed partner — was fired by the national board. “This is the darkest day within my memory. It kills democracy at SAG,” Rosenberg told Variety. On that same day, in a move that effectively neutered his two-term presidency, Rosenberg was told he no longer was an official spokesperson for the guild and could not communicate on behalf of SAG to other organizations, the public or the press.

The reprimand signified both a humiliation and a failure.

Rosenberg’s fall from grace is a lesson in the politics of Hollywood. In less than a year, industry respect for him and his three-decade career has virtually vanished. Once praised as a hero, an old-fashioned labor zealot who would “fight like hell” for middle-class actors — and rail against the cold-blooded studios — Rosenberg is now at war with many in his own guild. Bitter factionalism has torn SAG apart, and at the same time empowered the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the trade organization with whom the unions negotiate, and which is made up of the most powerful industry overlords — Les Moonves (CBS), Harry Sloan (MGM), Jeffrey Zucker (NBC), Peter Chernin (News Corp/Fox), Brad Grey (Paramount Pictures), Michael Lynton (Sony), Robert Iger (Walt Disney Co.) and Barry Meyer (Warner Bros.). These men control the media conglomerates that determine labor wages. As a result, Rosenberg’s four-year crusade to negotiate better actor contracts is stuck in a three-way gridlock, with no end in sight.

Many have dismissed his cause as a suicide mission. Initially, Rosenberg positioned himself as the president who would unite actors, both the famous and the not-so; instead, he has become SAG’s scorned leader at what is arguably the guild’s most divisive period ever. And Rosenberg, a once idealistic reformer, has become one of the most reviled men in Hollywood.

But after talking to Rosenberg, it’s clear that whatever he has done, he did because he wanted to make the industry a better place for actors. Whatever his failings, his unwillingness to compromise, even his admitted missteps, all were done with belief in a higher purpose — that unions still matter and can protect those at a disadvantage. It’s a commitment to the working-class of Hollywood, the background performers who live beneath the glamour, but who enable the Hollywood machine to run. It’s a commitment to a higher purpose that, at least until now, hasn’t paid off. 

None of this, of course, mattered to the maitre d’ at Toscana, who kissed Rosenberg on both cheeks, shoved a glass of Chianti in his hand and praised him as one of the restaurant’s best customers. When Rosenberg passed my table, he was warm and gracious — he’s the type of guy who shakes your hand in both of his, in a kind of embrace. He has kind eyes and a worn, wrinkly face. These days, he looks tired, but even so, he remains ruggedly handsome at 59, even though on this night his appeal was buried beneath his melancholy. 

There are those who say he erred irreparably from the very beginning. In 2005, in one of his first acts as president, Rosenberg reportedly shut down a SAG meeting, ordered the entire staff to leave and called the board to an executive session, in which, on a complete party-line vote, he motioned to fire their national executive director, Greg Hessinger. The move became known within SAG as “the coup of the century,” according to Richard Masur, a former SAG president, and may have set a tone for Rosenberg’s leadership that some felt was bleakly authoritarian.

It was not clear what Rosenberg’s plan was for finding Hessinger’s replacement; no professional search company was hired, nor strategy presented. Some insiders believe this was because Rosenberg already had his sights set on Allen, a former NFL linebacker and second in command at the National Football Players Association for more than two decades. Rosenberg’s good friend Patrick Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America-West during the 2007-2008 strike, recommended Allen — someone Verrone admired — even though the WGA had voted to reject Allen as their chief negotiator. Allen eventually became a polarizing figure, perhaps because he, too, was willing to go to the mat for the little guy. Rosenberg unequivocally says, “In my opinion, Doug Allen was the best thing that ever happened to this union. He was fired because he was too good, too strong, too much of a unionist. He was the first time we had anybody who wanted to fight and stand up for actors.”

Rosenberg and Allen’s partnership was resolute. While it frightened moderates in the guild, it empowered the majority of SAG’s membership.

I called Rosenberg a few weeks after we first met. He was in Cleveland for the month, directing a student production of Neil Labute’s “Audubon” for his alma mater, Case Western Reserve University. He was eager to set his record straight.

“I guarantee you, the person who wants to see a strike least of anybody in this country is me,” he declared up front. “But the fact is, that’s the only tool you have at the end of the day.”

Since the moment he took office in 2005, Rosenberg planned to wage a labor war with the studios for better actors’ contracts. He encourages the perception of SAG as a hard-line labor movement that looks out for the little guy. He advocates for better benefits for every actor — higher residuals and a stake in new media. He is someone who looks ahead and hopes to guarantee actors a more stable financial future, and he was motivated by direct, personal experience. “Friends of mine were moving backwards. I was scared about my own ability to make a living,” Rosenberg explained. “I looked at my friends and saw that they were retreating financially — employers introduced several concepts into the way we were compensated that really made it much more difficult for middle-class actors to make a living. I thought there was a need to do something, especially looking towards the Internet and the future, and understanding that our employers would look for ways, as they always do, to reduce our compensation.”

In anticipation of the contract’s June 30, 2008, expiration date, Rosenberg began to organize. He and Allen traveled to nearly every one of SAG’s 24 membership branches across the country, holding meetings and discussing hot-button issues. It was a genuine effort to live up to the promises he’d made in his campaign. Those who opposed him saw the agenda as capricious, an impulsive unity tour to gain favor for Allen, whose presence in the union was resented by both moderates and some who sat on the leadership boards. Leadership outside of Hollywood, specifically the national board and the New York branch, perceived an “Alan and Allen” directive to transfer all guild power and authority to the Hollywood branch. When they arrived in New York, Rosenberg and Allen were poorly received.

“You know, it’s interesting, because even during very contentious meetings, where people were kind of skewering me, they stood up and they talked about how I actually did unite this guild. I believe I’m the only president who’s traveled to just about every one of our branches — I think I missed two of the 24,” he said. “I spent two years of my life away from my son, and it didn’t help my marriage either.”

Rosenberg was born in Passaic, N.J., in 1950. His mother was a housewife, and his father managed a local department store called Wechsler’s, before starting an importing business for bicycle parts based in New York. A businessman first, his father also was a known swing musician and stage performer, which Rosenberg recalls with fondness. (Talent runs in the family — Rosenberg’s first cousin is Donald Fagen, principal singer/songwriter of rock band Steely Dan.) Despite having an Orthodox grandmother on his mother’s side, Rosenberg grew up an assimilated Jew. He did, however, follow the ritual pattern — Hebrew school followed by a bar mitzvah. Nevertheless, “bacon was a staple in my household,” he joked.

Rosenberg and his elder brother, Mark, showed early predilections for both social justice and entertainment. In 2002, Rosenberg told The Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman that he decided to pursue acting “to effect social and political change.” Indeed, he took up with the civil rights and anti-war movements while at Case Western in the ’60s. Brother Mark was a fiery student radical, connected with the Black Panther Party, who later became president of Warner Bros. studios. (Mark died prematurely at age 44 of heart failure; his widow, Paula Weinstein, is a prominent producer.) Rosenberg went from school protests to the Yale School of Drama — where Meryl Streep broke his heart and he decided to drop out.

Within the decade, he married and divorced actress Robin Bartlett and managed to charm the beautiful soap actress and future “CSI” star Marg Helgenberger. They met on “Ryan’s Hope” and reconnected years later while in line at a bank. They married and raised a son, Hugh, who is now in his freshman year at Indiana University. It was Helgenberger’s insistence that their son be brought up with some spiritual identity that got Rosenberg back to shul, first at Mishkon Tephilo and then at Adat Shalom. The couple even performed together in A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” to raise money for the synagogue.

The marriage elevated Rosenberg’s profile, and the 1990s were good for him, with a string of five TV series in a row that kept him employed for a decade. Because all five shows were picked up, Rosenberg was paid for every episode in each — whether he was onscreen or not — providing uncommon stability for an actor. “I’m a middle-class actor who’s gotten very, very lucky,” he said. Indeed, Rosenberg is the first to admit the element of fate in his career, because, as he will tell you, of the 120,000 members in the guild, 80 percent are unemployed at any given time. And even with his breakthrough, which amounted to hundreds of episodes of television, Rosenberg reverted to struggling when those shows ended, because of paltry residuals.

“We live by the money we earn when they re-use our images,” Rosenberg explained. “Unfortunately, since that time I’ve had trouble making the $28,000 a year when I used to qualify for our best health plan. Most years, residuals are responsible for 30 percent of my income. In the last couple years, since I’ve been president of SAG, I haven’t been working all that much, and residuals are responsible for 90 percent of my income. If it hadn’t been for my soon-to-be ex-wife, who has a very good career, I would have had trouble qualifying for health care.”

Residuals are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Between jobs or during periods of unemployment, actors depend on payoffs from previous work. If the studios continue to profit from those programs — whether through reruns, DVD sales or commercial products — then it might seem to follow that the actors, writers and directors who helped create that content should also benefit. But for now, networks have the right to re-run programs on the Internet without compensating an actor the way they must if the program were re-run on television, for example. And that is the crux of the current fight.

“Whenever a new media comes in, our employers find a way to reduce our compensation by transferring product from existing media to new media,” Rosenberg said. “We’re not looking to make a lot of money in this; we’re looking to establish principles — if they make money, we make money; if they don’t make money, we don’t make any money at all.”

Most in the industry agree with his principle, but they fault Rosenberg for being overzealous, perceiving him as a radical and an egotist. Why should he hold out for an increase in DVD residuals when no other union has gotten this benefit in their contract? Moreover, why shouldn’t actors accept the same deal negotiated by writers and directors over a year ago? There is palpable industry resentment toward actors for thinking themselves a special case — and endangering everyone’s livelihood in the process with the threat of stopping all work.

And it is precisely that self-serving attitude that some say led Rosenberg astray.

In January 2008, industry columnist Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times praised Rosenberg for backing the Writers Guild of America during its 14-week strike. Under Rosenberg’s helm, SAG showed a great deal of solidarity with the WGA and is largely credited with the latter’s ability to launch an effective work stoppage. Rosenberg marched on picket lines and attended meetings. He also galvanized SAG support to boycott the 2008 Golden Globe Awards — a turning point in the writers’ strike. Just when studios began to quiver in fear at the prospect of an Academy Awards blackout, the Directors Guild of America stepped in and signed a deal with the producers. Then, after a three-month standoff, the WGA was forced to reach an agreement, as well.

But any good will the public felt for Rosenberg then, was squandered when he and Allen mounted a dispiriting opposition to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) prior to their contract renewal last July. The two share members — and a complicated history — SAG and AFTRA are responsible for all unionized, working actors in the United States. As such, they might be perceived as rival unions, but at least since the resolution of a 1980 strike, the two unions had avoided competition and negotiated their contracts jointly, in a legal stipulation known as “Phase One.” Instead of receiving two separate ballots on which to ratify different contracts, SAG and AFTRA members received only one ballot, and for three decades, the unions were effectively merged for purposes of negotiation.

Union parity was dramatically altered when Rosenberg and Allen arranged a series of private talks with AFTRA’s top leadership — Roberta Reardon, president, and Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, national executive director. Rosenberg questioned why AFTRA should have 50 percent of the vote during joint negotiations, when it was only responsible for 5 percent of earnings. Over a Las Vegas dinner in Spring 2007, Rosenberg and Allen reportedly asked the pair to accept junior status during their 2008 negotiations. The women refused. A war of words ensued, and there was much political wrangling.

It is generally felt that AFTRA’s ultimate decision to negotiate their contracts independently was a reaction to another meeting, this one between Rosenberg, Allen and two AFTRA-represented actresses from “The Bold and the Beautiful.” But that was just one event in a series of political manipulations that strained relations between the guilds. Some in SAG believe Rosenberg and Allen waged an unfair campaign to bully AFTRA into a minority voting position (and may have spent upwards of $150,000 to do so). And yet, others feel AFTRA jumped at the chance to negotiate alone — a chance to bargain for cheaper contracts and directly compete with SAG. But to the public and the press, it appeared AFTRA had overreacted and ultimately abandoned SAG in the negotiating process.

“I believe the absolute focus that Alan Rosenberg and Doug Allen put on AFTRA, changing the relationship between SAG and AFTRA, was the explicit reason for the failure of this negotiation,” Masur, the two-term former president of SAG, said by phone from New York. Masur is among the current leadership majority who believe Rosenberg botched any hope for negotiating a good deal.

“Had the energy that was poured into the various campaigns against our sister union [AFTRA] been focused on the negotiations with our employers, we would have been in a much stronger position to make a better deal,” Masur said.

Hearing this repeated back, Rosenberg told me, “Richard Masur has his facts wrong.” He said that the Phase One negotiations never resulted in good deals. His intention in changing the relationship was not to upset three decades of union parity but to get better deals for his members.

Even if some members of SAG were outraged, with a majority party vote Rosenberg could basically do whatever he wanted.

“It’s not sufficient to be right,” Masur said about Rosenberg’s methods. “[Rosenberg and Allen] failed utterly to create a consensus around their goals, and you cannot move forward with the kind of aggressiveness that was demonstrated in this negotiation without being absolutely secure in having a consensus behind you — and a consensus does not consist of saying, ‘We have the power; do what we say.’”

Rosenberg said he is proud of the campaign he mounted against AFTRA. When AFTRA finally signed a three-year prime-time TV contract with the studios in July 2008, Rosenberg perceived their less-than-overwhelming majority vote as a victory for SAG. But the union had been badly damaged from infighting. By now, the WGA, DGA and AFTRA all had signed contracts — Rosenberg’s dream of solidarity seemed impossible, and the press began referring to SAG as “rebels without a cause.”

It wasn’t long before SAG’s powerful elite lost complete confidence in Rosenberg’s leadership. They held him responsible for unproductive negotiations and an increasingly divided guild. By fall 2008, Rosenberg’s “Membership First” party had lost its majority on the national board, presaging a torrent of unfavorable events.

Already last November 2008, many believed Rosenberg had lost too much momentum to win. All the other unions had negotiated new contracts, and then the economy tanked, which has had a sobering effect on the entire industry: How could actors voluntarily strike as millions are losing their jobs everywhere?

Rosenberg spits spiders at the notion. He pulls out the fact that the actors’ union was first formed in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. “During economic hard times, my responsibility, and the union’s responsibility, to protect its members grows exponentially,” he said. “It doesn’t lessen. You don’t give up the future. You don’t give up the next couple of decades in new media. You don’t abdicate your responsibility to your members because of hard financial times — you try to protect them.”

So Rosenberg pressed on and decided to pursue a strike authorization vote. History proves, he said, that once the studios have a formula they’re happy with, they don’t revisit it. People begged him to wait: Settle now, they advised, and renegotiate in three years when the economy improves. But Rosenberg kept his eye on the future all along. He thought, “What if the economy is no better three years from now? Or, if the U.S. is on the verge of recovering from an economic recession, would the industry support an actors strike then?”

He became the subject of a hostile media blitz. His colleague, Masur, wrote on The Wrap, “Alan Rosenberg has proven again and again that he is not capable of being an honest, neutral spokesperson.” Once a supporter, columnist Goldstein recanted, “Rosenberg’s critics were right, and I was wrong. Everything at SAG has gone to hell in a handbasket.” Goldstein called him in the Times “a wealthy weaselly actor who only cares about his own paycheck, not the betterment of his less fortunate guild brethren.”

Some of the industry’s most powerful movie stars also publicly refuted him — George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon endorsed a no-strike petition. Others, including Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen and Ed Harris, took his side. But Rosenberg is resentful.

“If our biggest stars, instead of attacking us, had gotten behind us, we would have had a deal months ago,” he told me. “Everything that’s ever been gained by this union has been achieved by our biggest stars standing up for the little guy, and unfortunately, that ethic seems to be gone.”

In early March, Clooney and Hanks began strictly informal talks with the studios, hoping to end the stalemate.

Rosenberg’s critics say he’s out of touch with reality. They say he failed to organize; he couldn’t unite the guild, and all the promises he made about changing the status quo have been left unfulfilled. There is a tradition in Hollywood that whatever union or guild leads in negotiations with the studios, everyone else goes along with that. But with such a predetermined process, did Rosenberg ever have a fair shot?

Others believe the WGA irreparably hurt the actors by negotiating ahead of them. If they had waited just a few more months for actor contracts to expire, the two unions striking together might have added up to a powerful opportunity. The primary issue being negotiated now is when this new contract will expire; after nine months of stalled talks, actor contracts will expire out of step with the other unions, which could hurt SAG on the next go-round.

Indeed, the future of the Screen Actors Guild — and Rosenberg’s career — hang in the balance. A total of eight contracts should have been negotiated in 2008, but the year ended without signing even one. The studios now have the means and the strategy to crush SAG. With so little collective power, there is talk that SAG is becoming irrelevant. Kind of like its hard-line union president, who nevertheless hopes to return to what he does best — acting — despite having been on a set only four days since he took office; despite an industry of new enemies that await him.

Still, Rosenberg continues to dream his dream — a partnership between the unions and the studios as a way to buy labor peace for decades to come. And he has paid a high price for his idealism. Even as I had my last conversation with him as we went to press with this article, I couldn’t escape the image of him sitting alone in that restaurant. And yet, these were his closing words to me:

“This mission has been the most important thing that has gone on in my life,” Rosenberg said. “I’ve been lambasted, lied about and attacked — but I know in my heart and my soul that everything I’ve done has been for the right reasons.”

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