February 24, 2024

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The SAG-AFTRA negotiator was trained as a diplomat.  Can he close the deal?

The SAG-AFTRA negotiator was trained as a diplomat. Can he close the deal?

SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator had never done this before.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland has worked in the union for most of his adult life. By then, he had become a master of detail. He taught himself Spanish to work on an international treaty on intellectual property. He then negotiated with Telemundo, switching between Spanish and English to reach the first American employment contract for telenovela actors.

But until this year, he had never led contract negotiations with major film and television studios. As it turned out, his first year at the helm was also the first year SAG-AFTRA went on strike in 43 years. As a result, Crabtree-Ireland had to grow into a new public role.

He is no longer the advisor who sits behind the negotiators with all the answers. He is now the leader. Across Hollywood, as he considered the final terms of an agreement to end the strike, the question became: “Can he land the plane?”

The strike has lasted longer than anyone expected — 117 days as of Tuesday. But it is by no means the longest or most tedious negotiation in which Crabtree-Ireland has been involved.

Starting from a blank slate, it took 16 months to reach a deal with Telemundo.

The network built a studio in Miami to produce Spanish-language scripted shows, mostly nighttime soap operas. But the actors in those shows had none of the protections that American actors take for granted, such as residual contributions, pensions, and health.

Much of Crabtree-Ireland’s work consisted of listening to representatives on the negotiating committee. One issue they discussed was the lack of standard locker rooms. He then translates these concerns into proposals that can be submitted to Telemundo.

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“He is a very patient man,” said Pablo Azar, who chaired the committee. “We actors heat things up. We’re more emotional. Duncan was never emotional. He would stay calm and explain everything.”

Telemundo resisted many of the actors’ demands, warning that it might move production to Mexico if SAG-AFTRA sought expensive terms.

“It was a very long process,” said Ana Carolina Grajales, another committee member. “Nothing is taken for granted.”

I also remembered that Crabtree University-Ireland had a knack for summarizing complex topics and turning them into understandable language.

“When we were negotiating, he would find a way to express what we wanted,” she said.

She and Crabtree-Ireland now co-host the SAG-AFTRA podcast in Spanish.

At one point, he thought he might be a career diplomat. While an undergraduate at Georgetown University, he studied international relations and was on track to join the US diplomatic service.

But family considerations set him on a different career path. At the time, the government did not provide full spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

“It was a less enlightened time in our country,” Crabtree-Ireland said in an interview.

His husband had to follow him to posts abroad without a work permit or diplomatic passport. If there is an emergency, leakage is not guaranteed.

“This just wasn’t a risk I could ask him to take,” he said.

Instead, he earned a law degree and worked briefly as a prosecutor before joining SAG-AFTRA in 2000. Once there, he quickly rose to the rank of general counsel and threw himself into international affairs. One of his main tasks was to represent the Union in the negotiations of the WIPO Treaty in Beijing, which defines the intellectual property rights of performers.

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John McGuire, a longtime SAG-AFTRA executive, said the job combines a strong ethical component with a “pure intellectual challenge.”

“He was a natural in that area,” McGuire said. “He stood up for the underdog.”

In the interview, Crabtree-Ireland said some of his work at SAG-AFTRA had roots in his previous interest in international affairs.

“Certainly diplomacy and labor negotiations can have some similar elements,” he said. The key to both, he said, is “to help resolve conflicts through negotiation and discussion.”

As for his opponents, who prefer to remain anonymous when talking about sensitive negotiations, they show him grudging respect. One of his key skills was “problem spotting,” one said.

“Duncan is a brilliant advocate,” this person said, noting that he had a knack for digging through dense contract language and uncovering hidden loopholes.

This talent was particularly useful in dealing with the issue of artificial intelligence. Crabtree-Ireland was interested in this topic before it became a hot topic this year, and has been giving lectures on the potential risks – and benefits – of artificial intelligence for a while.

In recent weeks, studio negotiators have become increasingly frustrated as SAG-AFTRA has put forward one hypothesis after another about the issue. From the studio’s perspective, some of the concerns seem a bit far-fetched.

But Gabrielle Carteris, immediate past president of SAG-AFTRA, said Crabtree-Ireland is also adept at coming up with solutions. In 2021, it recommended him to succeed David White as executive director of the union.

“He’s a very compassionate person,” Carteris said. “He’s not someone who holds a position, which makes him a great leader. He’s able to listen to everyone without imposing a way of being. He can hear all sides and come up with a creative proposal that can really help us get to the endgame.”

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The question now is whether he and the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee can reach a deal in the last few meters of the line.

“At the end of the day, it’s the committees that make the decisions,” said Azar, head of Telemundo’s negotiating committee. “We either approve the proposals or we reject them. Duncan comes up with a proposal and the committee says, ‘No, we don’t want that.’ Then they have to create something new for us to approve. That’s happened many times.”

In other words, Crabtree-Ireland can only do so much.

“He’s the head, but there are a lot of people behind him,” Azar said. “He can’t make decisions from his gut.”