'My heart has always been with unions'

Robert Bendiner once said, ''A candidate is not out to explain anything to you - it is not your mind he's after, it is your glands.'' Now that this candidate for Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president has stopped the election rhetoric and has become, in fact, president, people are looking to me for the meat behind my words, for what I plan to do with my newly acquired union position. Some are skeptics, and I can't say that I blame them, for my entrance into the union hierarchy has been in double-time.

But my heart has always been with unions - unions made an impact on my life before I was old enough to work. As a kid, I remember mimicking what I'd read in the press and berating the coal miners for being out on strike. My football coach, whom I respected, overheard me and replied, ''Well, you sure can't take away a man's right to strike.''

On the surface, that's not an earth-shattering statement, but it was a revelation to me. I've never forgotten his words or my feeling; it's had an underlying influence on me in my own union labor activities. As I grew older and began working, unionism became more personalized. One of my many jobs while trying to get a foothold in acting was in the auto industry. I worked in two plants - one was an open shop, the other was union, but the respect, pay, and treatment I was given in the union job was heads above the ''open'' shop. From then on, through that and other positive experiences, I've been convinced of the union way of life.

During the 13-week actors' strike in 1980, I was an activist because I thought the strike was appropriate and, even in hindsight, worthwhile (though we didn't get the deal we wanted). It was an education for me, and my dissatisfaction at the outcome helped me to decide to focus my energies closer to home and declare myself for the presidency - that, and the cajoling of friends and fellow actors.

As a general rule, Disraeli once said, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information. As I took office this month, I quickly realized my first task as president - to become a sponge. I need the input of people on my executive board, in the branch offices, and especially the individual members, to absorb and learn their needs and complaints. In all, I see three main objectives I hope to accomplish during my two-year term:

First, the present union is too complicated - there's too much flabbiness, too much hot air and bureaucracy to make it easy for the members to understand their rights and privileges and really have a say in what the union does. I will try to find out what's best for the total membership and get it to them with a minimum of time and confusion.

Second, to accomplish the merger of AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and SAG. We're entering Phase II of the merger, which is set for 1983. The bigger our union, the more we can do for ourselves, the more clout we will have, the more strength at the bargaining table - which ultimately will mean fewer strikes. And, above all, with merger there will be an absence of jurisdictional squabbles.

Third and most important is the general attitude of the public and, unfortunately, the membership itself toward actors and our union image. People tend to regard acting as a frivolity rather than worthwhile work, which makes it difficult to gain respect for actors or their union. In turn, it has made actors feel guilty for enjoying their work or the proceeds therefrom. (SAG is unique among unions in that a great majority of our members do not work steadily - 80 percent of the membership earns less than $10,000 a year. This fact also affects members' morale.)

As a good example of this, the Los Angeles Times reported the SAG election campaign on their entertainment pages under the headline ''Film Notes.'' After our complaints, they finally began giving it the placement any other union would get, and written by their labor writer. We need to instill a dignity in our membership so they, and others outside the union, will give SAG the respect that is due.

I hope when my term is through, I will be thought of as a strong, fair, and productive union leader. My work is just beginning.

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