David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, says he felt terrible when he had to cut a third of his staff at the world’s biggest entertainment union in 2020.
“Laying off 200 colleagues due to the pandemic was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career,’’ Mr. White says.
The 51-year-old attorney has run the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists since a merger created the Los Angeles-based union in 2012. He also is its chief negotiator.
SAG-AFTRA’s roughly 160,000 members aren’t solely actors. They include stunt performers, singers, dancers, radio announcers and even puppeteers.
- Age: 51
- Education: Bachelor’s degrees in political science from Grinnell College and in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University. Law degree from Stanford University.
- Family: Daughter Sophia, age 11
- Fun fact about you: While at Oxford, I worked as a part-time bartender for a local bar. I also learned to play tenor saxophone…(But) I was a terrible saxophonist.
- Worst advice ever got? Don’t start your career doing nonprofit work.
- New WFH hobby since pandemic? Cooking with flair. I’m learning to be creative with sauces, herbs and spices….And naturally, I’m losing weight in the process!
This was not the first recent life challenge for Mr. White, who lost his wife to a brain tumor in 2018. In this latest instance, he sought support from professional contacts and others as he struggled with angst over letting go so many employees. He also tried to help union members idled by their industry’s slowdown. For instance, webinars organized by the union taught some members to set up equipment at home so they could record audiobooks.
About 75% of SAG-AFTRA members were unemployed as of early March. Their sky-high jobless rate will fall below 40% by March 2022 as more movie and TV productions resume, Mr. White predicts. “The industry is so ready to get back to work.”
Raised in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. White began playing football at age ten. He hoped he would be a professional player someday but ultimately decided he wanted to become a public servant instead. He says he drew inspiration from his mother, a local government personnel manager who was highly involved in community groups that served families.
Mr. White majored in political science at Grinnell College. His strong academic record landed him a prestigious Rhodes scholarship following graduation. While studying philosophy at Oxford University, the Rhodes scholar experienced an epiphany about his personal purpose. He concluded that he wanted everything he did “to contribute to the flourishing of human life.”
After Oxford, he led Youth Opportunities Unlimited Inc., a Kansas City, Kan.-based nonprofit, for four years before enrolling in Stanford University Law School in 1997. The newly minted attorney then joined O’Melveny & Myers LLP, where he specialized in labor and employment law. The law firm assigned SAG as one of his initial clients.
Union executives who had been partners at O’Melveny & Myers recruited Mr. White to be SAG’s general counsel in 2002. He left in 2006 to launch an entertainment-industry consultancy.
He returned to the union as its executive director in 2009. He kept his position once SAG and AFTRA combined.
Trusted confidants assist Mr. White in fulfilling his life credo. “My personal board members have taught me how to use my skills and experience strategically so I can contribute more effectively to the world around me,’’ the labor leader explains.
Here are four of Mr. White’s most valued advisers:
Co-founder and former executive director of Coalition for Positive Family Relationships
Ms. Friedmann invited Mr. White to join her coalition of Kansas City-area community organizations after he took command of Youth Opportunities Unlimited in 1993.
She recently had co-founded the coalition to foster ties among leaders of disparate groups—partly by educating them about each other’s priorities. Mr. White says Ms. Friedmann showed him “how to run an effective meeting filled with competitive interests’’—and distrustful people.
Based on her lessons, he still starts every meeting with three ground rules:
*Leave your ego at the door.
*No hidden agendas.
*Everyone gets a chance to speak.
Mr. White’s meeting ground rules prove particularly useful when he bargains with management on behalf of SAG-AFTRA members. Such rules let you “move people toward a common goal,” he suggests.
Dr. Robert F. Austin, Jr.
Head of RJ Austin Consulting, Development and Training
Though decades older than Mr. White, the longtime pediatrician gradually forged a bond with his fellow Grinnell alum when they served together on the university’s board of trustees for many years.
Dr. Austin was one of three Black students who graduated from Grinnell in 1954. “I know I had an easier time entering college and the professional workforce because of the efforts of his generation,’’ said Mr. White, who was just 38 years old when he became the first Black chairman of Grinnell’s board in 2007.
Upon Mr. White’s selection, “I told him to always stay true to his core values and to his role as an advocate for Black people and marginalized groups,’’ Dr. Austin remembers.
Mr. White heeded his words. During Grinnell’s subsequent search for a new president, he says he made sure that trustees considered “an expansive pipeline of candidates with diverse backgrounds.’’ In 2010,
became the college’s first Black president.
Former chairman and chief executive of Warner Bros. Entertainment
When Mr. White rejoined SAG in 2009, Mr. Meyer gave the union executive tips based on his extensive experience with labor-relations issues.
Even when you have maximum leverage, “it was never a good idea to embarrass or humiliate the other side,’’ he recollects telling Mr. White. “These are long-term relationships, and people have long memories.’’
The advice from the entertainment executive “helped me understand how studios saw unions,’’ Mr. White observes. That “allowed me to be more strategic (and) become a better negotiator.’’
More recently, Mr. Meyer persuaded his mentee to join him on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Mr. White won his seat in 2019, the year before Mr. Meyer’s term ended.
“It has been a tremendous opportunity to network with a new and exceptional group of people,’’ Mr. White explains. Equally important, he adds, “we’re having fun while we are doing good.’’
Founder of Alisyo, a charitable project focused on leadership development
The pair have been friends since they met through a mutual acquaintance about a decade ago. Ms. Blumenfield was then the CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation, which emphasizes social justice philanthropy.
Mr. White soon became a member of Liberty Hill’s advisory board. Impressed by his speaking ability, Ms. Blumenfield encouraged him to expand awareness of critical social and economic issues.
Seven years ago, Mr. White and his late wife began to hold wine-and-cheese salons in their home for progressive L.A. professionals from a wide range of industries.
Among other things, he says, “we realized that we could help influence political races.” Salon participants donated money to Black candidates seeking statewide office across the U.S.
In effect, Mr. White continues,“I used my voice with an expanding number of people to inspire them to do things they didn’t believe they could do.’’
Write to Joann S. Lublin at email@example.com
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