Stossel: SAG Didn't Protect Little Guys

We all like that romantic idea of the union protecting the little guy — but that's not always how it works.

Remember that well-publicized strike in 2000 by the Screen Actors Guild? SAG claimed big corporations were underpaying actors who did TV commercials.

"It's time we receive our fair share of corporate profits and astronomical CEO salaries," said William Daniels, then president of the union.

"The little guy is not going to roll over for corporate America," Susan Sarandon said at a rally in support of her fellow actors.

Her longtime partner Tim Robbins showed his support for the little guys, too. "I'm here to show solidarity with them because I love them," he said.

But if they love the little guy so much, why would SAG come down so hard on Mario Barbieri?

Barbieri is an actor who doesn't even get speaking parts. This fall, SAG expelled Barbieri and two other little-known actors for life because they worked during the strike, crossing the picket line.

Big Celebrities Not Expelled

But did you know that SAG member Tiger Woods also worked during that strike? SAG didn't kick him out. Shaquille O'Neal made a commercial for my employer, Disney — and he wasn't kicked out either.

Nor did SAG expel Elizabeth Hurley, who made money doing a perfume commercial for Estee Lauder.

"I didn't know there was a strike," said Hurley later. "I had no idea I was crossing a picket line when I did the commercial."

She and the other big stars apologized to the union, were reprimanded or fined, and all was forgiven.

But Barbieri didn't know about the strike either. He had only auditioned for a part, and said he didn't know it was forbidden by his union. And when he did learn it, because SAG protesters disrupted his audition, he ran away.

"I refused the job. I never got in front of the camera," said Barbieri. "And for this they throw me out."

Isn't it hypocritical to give slaps on the wrist to stars like Hurley, O'Neal and Woods, while suspending actors like Barbieri for life?

"They figure, 'This guy's not going to give us any noise,'" said Barbieri. "'He's not going to give us any trouble. He's not going to get a lawyer and sue us. So let's get rid of this guy.'"

Hypocrisy at the Top

Now, we don't know how many members agree with the union, but actor George Clooney thought SAG was wrong. He wrote the union a letter saying, "You cannot enforce laws based on celebrity." Clooney offered to pay fines for the expelled actors, in the hope they'd be allowed to go back to work.

No deal, replied the union. "These individuals conveyed a message that was contrary to the goals of the Guild," read a SAG statement. It also said Barbieri received "a full and fair hearing."

SAG wouldn't talk to me about this, though we asked them half a dozen times, nor would they comment on the specifics of Barbieri's case. It's too bad, because I really wanted to ask Melissa Gilbert, the actress who played Half-Pint on Little House on the Prairie, about the union's hypocrisy.

Gilbert grew up to finance and star in an abysmal film called Icehouse. Doing that non-union movie violated the same rule SAG says Barbieri broke! So was Gilbert suspended for life? No, she became the president of SAG.

Give me a break!