Harvey Weinstein Revelations Force the Question: Where Was the Screen Actors Guild?

Morgan Spector

Producer Harvey Weinstein attends The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 26592_009 (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TNT)

This post first appeared at Jacobin.

Now that the sup­pu­rat­ing boil that was Har­vey Weinstein’s career has burst, and the open secret of his preda­to­ry behav­ior has spread across the world, recrim­i­na­tion and soul search­ing are the order of the day: who knew? Who could have stopped it? Who should reform the cul­ture of per­va­sive abuse of pow­er in Hol­ly­wood, in Wash­ing­ton, and in the Amer­i­can work­place in general?

A num­ber of oth­er high-pro­file accu­sa­tions — Oliv­er Stone, Ben Affleck, Amazon’s Roy Price — have fol­lowed the Wein­stein rev­e­la­tions. More are sure to come, as the entire indus­try final­ly faces at least some of its ugli­est demons.

But ques­tions still abound. What respon­si­bil­i­ty does the Wein­stein board have? What about agents who con­tin­ued to send their clients to meet­ings with him? Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, what about the Screen Actors Guild-Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Tele­vi­sion and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)?

Though we should blame no one except Wein­stein for his vile actions, arguably no enti­ty should be more shak­en by the sto­ry than the union that for decades failed to pro­tect its members.

SAG-AFTRA has a zero tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy on sex­u­al harass­ment. Why then did none of the women whom Wein­stein harassed or assault­ed feel like they could go to their union for help (as the Cana­di­an actor Mia Kir­sh­n­er has also asked)? How could he hurt so many peo­ple for so long and still remain at the top of his field? What did the union know about Har­vey Wein­stein, and when did it know it?

Show busi­ness is a strange beast, and a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult one to reg­u­late. The work­place itself is a mov­ing tar­get — as like­ly to be a hotel room or a café in Bul­gar­ia as an actu­al set. Rep­re­sent­ing the full spec­trum of human expe­ri­ence requires per­form­ers to be naked, to sim­u­late sex, to fall in love — all in front of dozens of peo­ple, often most­ly men. At least some of an actor’s pow­er stems from his or her beau­ty or sex­u­al allure — and in an indus­try where even the most suc­cess­ful of us are com­plete­ly replace­able, we all want as much pow­er as we can have.

None of this excus­es preda­to­ry or sex­u­al­ly inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior. The field’s com­plex­i­ty means that the sys­tem pro­tect­ing us from sex­u­al mis­con­duct has to be sophis­ti­cat­ed, respon­sive, and above all transparent.

The union is the best vehi­cle to cre­ate such a sys­tem, but it has to do better.

Recent­ly, I con­duct­ed an infor­mal sur­vey among my female friends in the indus­try (though men expe­ri­ence harass­ment too), and while every sin­gle per­son said they’d expe­ri­enced or knew some­one who’d expe­ri­enced harass­ment or vio­lence, none of them knew any­one who had turned to the union for help.

It must hap­pen. But it clear­ly doesn’t hap­pen enough.

On its web­site, SAG-AFTRA lists the pro­ce­dures for fil­ing a harass­ment or dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaint. After not­ing the var­i­ous state and fed­er­al dead­lines, the web­site informs mem­bers that they:

will need to con­sult out­side coun­sel, but SAG-AFTRA can assist you in locat­ing attor­neys who work in this area. If you choose to com­plete the Com­plaint Ques­tion­naire, you and the EEO & Diver­si­ty staff can then review the details of your com­plaint in order to deter­mine with you whether or not SAG-AFTRA should file a claim on your behalf. If fil­ing a claim is deter­mined to be the most appro­pri­ate course of action, SAG-AFTRA will send the pro­duc­er a for­mal com­plaint along with a copy of our pol­i­cy regard­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and harass­ment. The com­plaint will require that the com­pa­ny inves­ti­gate the com­plaint and take imme­di­ate action to rem­e­dy any inap­pro­pri­ate con­duct. Upon com­ple­tion of its inves­ti­ga­tion, the pro­duc­er is required to pro­vide SAG-AFTRA with a response as to the results of its inves­ti­ga­tion and any action tak­en to rem­e­dy the mis­con­duct (i.e., sus­pen­sion or anoth­er form of dis­ci­pline against the per­son who engaged in the mis­con­duct). We will then pro­vide you with for­mal notice of the results and find­ings of the inves­ti­ga­tion and dis­cuss with you the action(s) tak­en, if any.

This is woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. For one thing, it places too much of the onus on the work­er. Implic­it in the deci­sion to let the sur­vivor guide enforce­ment is the acknowl­edge­ment that fil­ing a harass­ment com­plaint could harm the survivor’s career, which is exact­ly what the union should work to pre­vent. It also leans too heav­i­ly on pri­vate legal advice and the right to file claims in state and fed­er­al court.

Unions have the capac­i­ty to do more. As a SAG-AFTRA mem­ber, I rou­tine­ly receive Do Not Work” notices about pro­duc­ers who have failed to agree to union con­tracts or vio­lat­ed con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tions. If zero tol­er­ance is indeed the goal, why not use these same tools to pro­tect mem­bers? If the per­pe­tra­tor is a pro­duc­er, or mem­ber of anoth­er guild, SAG-AFTRA could shut down pro­duc­tion until they are sat­is­fied that their mem­bers can work safe­ly. Offend­ers with­in the union, after receiv­ing due process, could be thrown out and blackballed.

The out­line of the com­plaint pro­ce­dure is also not near­ly detailed or trans­par­ent enough. What does the union con­sid­er an appro­pri­ate rem­e­dy” for mis­con­duct? What about pro­duc­ers with mul­ti­ple projects? Will SAG-AFTRA pun­ish a pro­duc­er on one project but allow him to con­tin­ue to work with its mem­bers on anoth­er project?

Appro­pri­ate trans­paren­cy would address these and sim­i­lar ques­tions. (What will hap­pen to a pro­duc­er who vio­lates the union pol­i­cy more than once? What will hap­pen to SAG-AFTRA mem­bers who vio­late the pol­i­cy? What about mem­bers of oth­er unions with whom actors rou­tine­ly col­lab­o­rate: IATSE, Team­sters, WGA, DGA, PGA, and so on?) It should also detail the stan­dards of due process that the union itself would use to deter­mine a complaint’s valid­i­ty, allow­ing a vic­tim to know in advance whether the union is like­ly to take their side.

Addi­tion­al­ly, SAG-AFTRA should become a more force­ful pres­ence in the work­place and estab­lish its harass­ment pro­to­cols in per­son. I have worked for a cou­ple of pro­duc­ers who required harass­ment sem­i­nars before work could start, but there’s a dif­fer­ence between a cor­po­ra­tion pro­tect­ing itself from a law­suit and work­ers orga­niz­ing to pro­tect each other.

Why couldn’t a union rep be on set the first day of every shoot, with man­dat­ed atten­dance by pro­duc­ers, cre­atives, crew, and cast, to dis­cuss pol­i­cy and pro­ce­dures and make sure mem­bers know their rights and know the union has their back?

Per­haps even more impor­tant than spe­cif­ic pol­i­cy improve­ments is fos­ter­ing an under­stand­ing of our pow­er as union mem­bers. We should expect more from our union. We should lean on it for strength and use it to build sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er mem­bers. Increased pres­ence and vis­i­bil­i­ty on set would go a long way in that regard.

I’m not an expert on the rel­e­vant legal frame­works or in SAG-AFTRA’s inter­nal debates, but one thing we know with absolute cer­tain­ty is that the cur­rent mod­el doesn’t work. Even in the wake of the Wein­stein rev­e­la­tions, SAG-AFTRA released a sim­ple state­ment encour­ag­ing mem­bers to report instances of harass­ment. That is not enough.

SAG-AFTRA should fol­low the lead of unions like the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca East and con­duct a top-to-bot­tom, pub­lic review of its prac­tices — not just to ful­fill its duty to mem­bers, but as an exam­ple for work­ers in every indus­try. When we live in a soci­ety as unequal as ours, when pow­er­ful men like Har­vey Wein­stein or Don­ald Trump use their posi­tions to abuse oth­ers, sol­i­dar­i­ty is the only solution.

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Mor­gan Spec­tor is a New York – based tele­vi­sion, film and the­ater actor.
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