Harvey Weinstein’s Crimes and SAG’s Failure

Unions are the best vehicle to halt workplace harassment. But the Weinstein revelations show the Screen Actors Guild has failed its membership.

Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand standing next to a piano in a studio. Wikimedia

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 cafe 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.