SAG-AFTRA Election: Factions Square Off Over Buying New Headquarters

SAG-AFTRA is the only major Hollywood union that doesn’t own its own headquarters, and that’s become a topic of heated debate between its warring factions in the union’s ongoing election of national and local officers. SAG – and now SAG-AFTRA – hasn’t owned its own national offices for 35 years, leasing at two different locations since 1986.

Both sides think they should buy one sooner or later. The opposition MembershipFirst candidates, led by Matthew Modine and Joely Fisher, want to do it sooner, and blast the current leadership for recently signing a new long term lease for the union’s headquarters on the Miracle Mile.

“For years, a staggering $6 million per year has been spent on renting our SAG-AFTRA offices in Los Angeles,” MembershipFirst says in its campaign platform. “Many more millions of dollars are squandered annually on office rents around the country. In fact, money has even been wasted renovating offices we do not own. Now, inexplicably, in February of 2021, the current National Board locked us into a new long term multi-million-dollar lease until 2032.”

The incumbent Unite for Strength party, led by Fran Drescher and Anthony Lane, wants to buy one later, and accuses MemberhipFirst of having dug the union so deep into a hole when it ruled SAG more than a decade ago that it will still take time to accrue enough resources to buy a building.

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“In order to purchase a building, we must first ensure that contract enforcement, contract negotiations, and a solid reserve fund are in place,” Unite for Strength says in its platform. “When MembershipFirst was leading SAG, they put the union in a deep financial hole. After the merger with AFTRA, we have been slowly and steadily repairing the union’s finances and building a reserve fund so that we are prepared in the event of a strike.”

The question of whether to buy or rent has been going on for decades, but this year it’s political.

On May 25, 1956, the Screen Actors Guild dedicated its new national headquarters at 7750 Sunset Blvd., which it purchased for $200,000. It was a gala event. SAG president Walter Pidgeon was joined at the dedication ceremony by numerous celebrities, as well as by Governor Goodwin Knight, AFL-CIO president George Meany, Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson and L.A. Police Chief William H. Parker. It was the first wholly-owned headquarters in the union’s 23-year history – and the last.

Thirty years later, SAG sold the building and moved into the old Hollywood Congregational Church at 7065 Hollywood Boulevard – which had been renamed The Renaissance Court, and is now home to the Association for Better Living & Education, an arm of the Church of Scientology.

There was a star-studded dedication ceremony that time too, which was attended by L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and seven former SAG presidents – Charlton Heston, Dennis Weaver, Howard Keel, William Schallert, Dana Andrews, Leon Ames and Ed Asner. There was even a brass band.

The guild had the option to buy the $6 million former church, but leased instead. It didn’t stay there long, though, out-growing the old church as its membership and staff rapidly expanded. And all the while, it was looking to find a permanent home – including a near-disastrous effort to buy and develop a vacant lot on a steep hillside in a not-so-glamorous section of Studio City.

SAG moved into its current headquarters in the historic Museum Square building at 5757 Wilshire Blvd. in 1993. AFTRA moved in four years later, and they merged in 2012. Three years later, another dedication ceremony was held when Museum Square was renamed SAG-AFTRA Plaza after the union signed a new lease through 2026. Earlier this year the union signed a new lease that’s good through 2032.

“Over decades, the union has wasted a staggering $100 million in rent in Los Angeles alone,” MF’s platform says. “We could have purchased our own building with all the equity appreciation, and security that comes with it. The DGA, WGA, Actors Equity, IATSE, Musicians Local 47, Teamsters 399 – even our SAG-AFTRA Pension and Health Plan – own their offices. Today, the problem is further highlighted as the pandemic has left much of our office space unused. Other organizations’ investments in their buildings saved money and protected their future. Recently, the present administration shockingly chose to extend the multi-million dollar annual lease for the Los Angeles Offices for another eleven years,” MembershipFirst’s platform says.

“What is our solution? Own our offices. We won’t hide from the responsibility of ownership. Instead, we will take the natural step of acquiring real estate assets, consistent with good judgment and sound financial planning.”

UFS’s platform says that SAG-AFTRA “has completed initial research and found that there are no buildings currently available that are big enough, affordable enough, and offer easy accessibility to the membership to house our headquarters. SAG-AFTRA will continue to evaluate the feasibility of purchasing a building, but in the meantime our current lease is below the market rate and a responsible expenditure of our funds. It is centrally located, close to the studios, and easily accessible to a substantial portion of the membership.”

Election ballots were mailed to members August 3 and will be counted September 2.

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