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Off Screen, a Union Divided; It’s Actor Against Actor as Guild Election Turns Bitter

Published: April 15, 1999

Publication: The New York Times

By Leslie Eaton

Riding around Manhattan on her bright blue bicycle, Kelly Craig resembles a lot of other young actresses in New York, with her klieg-light smile, her willowy figure and her cheerful willingness to live on a shoestring while working to make it big.

But recently, Ms. Craig has discovered some qualities she did not know she had: leadership ability, organization skills and plain old grit. Plus, she now has a good lawyer.

That is because Ms. Craig is the challenger in a bitter runoff election for a seat on the New York board of the Screen Actors Guild, which represents her and every other actor in the city who appears on film (including a lot of television shows and commercials). Ballots are now arriving in the mailboxes of 24,000 New York guild members, who have until May 3 to vote.

Film work is flourishing in the city these days, as is obvious to every resident whose even semi-scenic neighborhood was infested with movie crews last summer. It is probably the fastest-growing industry in New York in terms of jobs, according to state figures, and spent more than $2.5 billion in the city last year.

Thus, it may seem odd that the actors union is now undergoing a sort of civil war over what are fundamentally economic issues. The guild’s incumbent leaders say that concessions the union has made to producers in recent years have helped lure the film industry back to New York City, which was shunned by Hollywood in the early 90’s.

”By giving a little, we have gained a lot,” said Jordan Derwin, the longtime board member who is running against Ms. Craig.

But Ms. Craig and her supporters argue that those concessions came at the expense of the members who struggle the most, and that the union is not doing enough to help them. They complain that the union is still fighting the last battle, rather than working on new challenges like improving payments for actors’ work that appears on cable television and the Internet.

”There’s a stubbornness to change, perhaps,” Ms. Craig said. ”I believe I do have fresh ideas and a different perspective.”

There are plenty of ways to describe this election, including as a contest between youth and energy on the one hand, and age and experience on the other. Ms. Craig is in her 20’s (like many actors, she’s coy about her age) and a neophyte in union politics; Mr. Derwin is a lawyer turned actor who has been serving on the union’s board for more than 16 years (and who also declines to say how old he is).

Neither has ever had a major role in a blockbuster, but then, few people who serve on the board are household names. Probably the most famous is Sam Waterston, who stars on NBC’s ”Law and Order,” which is shot in New York.

Despite the uptick in film production, there is not enough steady work here, Mr. Waterston said. But he stays because ”the possibility of working regularly in film and television while at the same time continuing in the theater is the closest thing to heaven.”

But well-to-do actors like Mr. Waterston are a rarity, and not just on the guild’s board. ”I’m Jason, and I’ll be your waiter tonight” is only the tip of the struggling actor iceberg. On any given day, according to Jayne Wallace, a union spokeswoman, 85 percent of the membership is not working.

About 900 of the 25,300 New York members in 1997 made more than $100,000 from guild-covered work in 1997, according to the union’s data. Meanwhile, more than 6,000 made less than $1,000, and about 8,300 made nothing (though they are probably working in a non-film job).

Even excluding those who made no money, about 67 percent of the 17,000 working members did not make the $7,500 they need to qualify for health insurance under the union plan. Trying to help these people is one of Ms. Craig’s priorities, she said; she would like the union to explore creating a ”Health Fund Bank” to which members could make voluntary contributions that could keep their insurance going if they do not earn the annual minimum.

Does she qualify for health insurance? ”I think I’ll make it this year,” she said, ”I think I will, I hope I will. I had a pretty okay year.” She will not disclose how much money she makes from all of her jobs — she says she has not yet done her taxes — but it is enough so that she no longer has any roommate but her cat, Ketzel.

She takes every acting-related job she can get, including stunt work, dancing and serving as a stand-in. She models clothes and appears in filmed commercials (New York Lotto) and print advertisements (her work for a vitamin company brought not just cash, but a free supply of ginko). She acts in and produces plays in a small theater on the Lower East Side.

Both Ms. Craig and Mr. Derwin describe themselves as principal actors — meaning those who speak lines — who sometimes do background work to keep body and soul together. Such extras in and around New York get paid $102 a day.

The issue of extras is highly emotional among union members, as became clear during the original election last fall, when eight independents ran for board seats. The winners were mostly incumbents, but one challenger, Avis Boone, won; Ms. Craig and Mr. Derwin tied.

During that campaign, fliers for the union-backed group branded the independents as extras, who are the lowest in the acting caste system (or ”walking lampposts,” as one actor puts it). In New York, a lot of actors occasionally work as extras, but there is still something of a stigma attached. In California, extras are seldom professional actors, but might be teachers or firefighters or just full-time extras.

But it is not just snobbery that causes friction between the guild’s haves and have-nots, or, more accurately, have-littles and have-lesses. Midrange performers have seen their pay squeezed in the last few years, as producers try to cut costs while paying stars millions of dollars. They are outnumbered by the extras, and they worry.

”Guys like me, most years I break $50,000, but I haven’t yet gotten above $100,00,” said Michael Arkin, who has played a doorman on ”Law and Order” and was a state trooper in the recent movie ”Rounders.” ”We’re the bread and butter of the union. The demands that some people in the background community are making, they might be good, but they cost money.”

Mr. Derwin is head of the committee that advises the guild on extra performers, and he concedes that he has irked some colleagues by, for example, working on a contract to equalize the pay that extras get across the country (New Yorkers still get more than Californians, but the rates will be the same in a couple of years). He said producers had been avoiding New York because the extras earned more here.

Ms. Craig is careful not to criticize Mr. Derwin personally — and is anxious not to be seen as a troublemaker. But some dissidents complain about his travel expenses, which topped $26,000 over two years, according to documents the union files with the Federal Government.

On sets, some are quick to point out that while they share apartments with roommates in Queens or Jersey City, he lives in a building with a doorman on the Upper East Side (Mr. Derwin says his wife is a schoolteacher whose income helps support his acting career).

Lisa Scarola, a dissident board member, blames Mr. Derwin for the loss of thousands of jobs because, she says, he has approved contracts that let producers hire fewer guild members or at reduced wages, and approved contract waivers for producers who pleaded hardship.

And she does not buy the argument that concessions are necessary to lure productions to the city. ”The Statue of Liberty is in the script, 42d Street is in the script, the star lives in New York and her kids go to school in New York — they’re going to shoot in New York,” she said.

Such talk infuriates Mr. Derwin’s supporters, like Leslie Shreve, a board member who specializes in one of the guild’s more lucrative sectors, voice-overs for commercials. She credits Mr. Derwin with maintaining protection for New York background actors after a union for California extras was crushed by producers in the late 1980’s.

”That he is now being vilified is very shortsighted, very mean-spirited, and, I think, gross,” Ms. Shreve said.

Mr. Derwin clearly has the support of the union’s staff; he conducted a telephone interview from the guild office in Times Square, as Ms. Wallace, the union’s publicist, listened in.

And Ms. Craig had to take the union to court, after it refused for three months to set a date for the runoff election — and continued to let Mr. Derwin serve on the board. The union said at first that it wanted to wait until after members had voted on a proposed merger with another union, and then said it wanted to wait until the Federal Labor Department ruled on challenges to the election.

But in a ruling last month, Lewis A. Kapan, a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan, wrote that it was ”more than probable” that the union ”has not acted in good faith.” He ordered the election be held no later than Monday, which is when the ballots were mailed.

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a prominent labor lawyer who represented Ms. Craig — and whom she says she may have to pay by doing his office filing — said that while Ms. Craig is younger than most of his clients, in some ways her case is typical. ”I work a lot with insurgent groups,” he said, ”and nobody achieves any level of success unless there is economic unhappiness among the members.”

Both Ms. Craig and Mr. Derwin say they will continue to be active in the union, even if they lose the election. And Ms. Craig said she will continue to try for her dream role in a movie. ”A lawyer or district attorney part would be right up my alley,” she said. ”Strong women roles, not victims.”

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