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David White steps down as executive director SAG-AFTRA after 12 years

The LA Times logo The LA Times 5/14/2021 Anousha Sakoui
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: David White in 2020. He is stepping down as national executive director of SAG-AFTRA (Jordan Strauss / Invision/AP) © Provided by The LA Times David White in 2020. He is stepping down as national executive director of SAG-AFTRA (Jordan Strauss / Invision/AP)

David White, the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, is stepping down after a dozen years running Hollywood's largest union.

White, 52, told the board on Friday he plans to leave the job this summer to pursue other, undisclosed opportunities.

In a statement, the union praised White and said he would be leaving his position this summer after overseeing an historic merger between two of the industry's biggest unions, the launch of technical innovations and shoring up the organization's finances.

“His tenure has been marked by stability and tremendous accomplishment," SAG-AFTRA President Gabriella Carteris said in the statement. "I know that David had opportunities to leave SAG-AFTRA over this past year, and the union and I are forever grateful that he made the decision to stay and see us through the most challenging days of the pandemic. On a personal note, I have worked closely with David and have seen his brilliance and dedication up close. I will miss having him as a trusted partner.”

In an interview, White declined to specify what his next role would be but said "it's an ideal time for me to make this move as I consider the next steps in my professional journey."

White added: “This organization has seen 12 years of growth and stability, and it’s important to me to hand the leadership baton off to the steady hand of our excellent management team."

White — whose contract was due to expire in February 2023 — expressed his support for Carteris and the union's leaders and staff.

"SAG-AFTRA employees are bright, dedicated, and focused every day on delivering extraordinary member service and time-saving innovations that make working with the union more efficient and effective,” he said in a statement.

White, who is widely respected in labor circles, has stayed in the job longer than some anticipated, overseeing a union with more than 160,000 members who include actors, stunt performers and broadcast journalists.

In 2014, he was a leading candidate to become executive director of the NBA Players Assn., but he was passed over for that job when the NBA announced that it had selected Michele Roberts, a Washington attorney, for the position.

The former SAG general counsel joined the guild in 2009 as national executive director and guided it through a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in March 2012. Two previous attempts at the merger had been unsuccessful and plagued by infighting.

He was widely credited with bringing stability to the union, which had been roiled by infighting among members over the merger and other issues.

White served as SAG-AFTRA's lead negotiator in contract talks with the major studios that last year resulted in wage increases and improvements in residuals from streaming services. The union estimated the value of the three-year contract covering motion pictures, scripted prime-time dramatic television and new media production at $318 million.

In 2019, SAG-AFTRA struck its first deal with Netflix to further protect members whose work is increasingly channeled through the streaming platform.

Earlier this year, the union developed agreements for new media sectors to cover the growing influencer industry.

During his tenure, SAG-AFTRA developed technology capabilities that included direct deposits for member residual payments; a sexual harassment reporting platform; and an online portal launching in late 2021 that will streamline the process for signing independent producers.

Along with Carteris, White led the union’s four-year effort to combat sexual harassment in the industry and was a key author of its 2018 sexual harassment code of conduct, prohibiting unaccompanied auditions in private hotel rooms and residences. The code also included standards for intimacy coordinators.

The union also credited White with bolstering its general fund, which had been depleted before he assumed operational leadership, and helping it weather the economic effects of COVID-19 pandemic.

Like other unions, SAG-AFTRA was hard hit as revenues to the entertainment industry collapsed. Over the last year, it has had several waves of layoffs and reduced staff to about 400, down from 630 in 2012.

White's total compensation was listed at $789,669 in a 2020 annual report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

White hasn't shied from controversial fights. Earlier this year, he brought charges to the union's board against President Trump that said the former TV show host and SAG-AFTRA member had violated the union's constitution by inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol and denouncing his attacks on broadcast journalists who are also part of the membership. Trump resigned his membership before the vote, but the union went on to to bar Trump's rejoining.

Last year, SAG-AFTRA also settled a turf war with East Coast-based Actors' Equity. After a public and bitter spat, the two sides came to an agreement in November over the coverage of live theater that during the pandemic has increasingly relied on recording and streaming performances. While SAG-AFTRA believed any filmed content was within its purview for organizing, Actors’ Equity argued that the larger union was making it harder for its members to work and access benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

White, SAG-AFTRA's first Black executive director, has been an outspoken advocate for improving diversity in Hollywood. He has spoken about the depiction of Black men in media and last year called on police unions to confront systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd.

He served as a commissioner for the Industry Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace and is a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

White experienced personal tragedy in 2018 when his wife, Susan Watanabe, a TV writer who was known for supporting progressive candidates and causes in L.A., died at the age of 49 of a brain tumor.

The Michigan native grew up in Kansas City, Mo., had been general counsel for SAG and was hired as its executive director on an interim basis in January 2009, replacing Doug Allen. Allen had been ousted after clashing with board members.

A faction known as Membership First that supported Allen and opposed the union merger opposed White's hiring and has continued to criticize the union's leadership.

The Rhodes Scholar was named national executive director of the newly formed SAG-AFTRA in May 2012.

White holds degrees from Grinnell College, Stanford Law School and the University of Oxford. He worked as a labor and employment lawyer for O’Melveny & Myers.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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