DAVID WHITE WAS ONLY 33 AND A JUNIOR ASSOCIATE AT O’MELVENY & MYERS LLP WHEN HE BECAME GENERAL COUNSEL FOR WHAT WOULD BECOME the world’s largest entertainment union. • “I think you’re smoking something,” he told Mark Steinberg, the former general counsel of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), who tapped him for the job in 2002. “I just got out of law school.” • “No worries, you’ll learn entertainment law,” Steinberg said. What SAG needed was someone to run the guild and manage its intense politics. • White, JD ’00, had done human resources work for some of O’Melveny’s nonprofit clients including SAG, then in the midst of a large internal reorganization.
As it happened, White knew lots about organizational politics, having led a fractious nonprofit earlier in his career. And if he didn’t know much about entertainment law, he knew he liked running organizations and was good at it.
So good that, after four years as SAG’s general counsel and then a stint heading an entertainment consulting firm, White returned to the union in 2009 as its national executive director and chief negotiator. He is one of its youngest directors and the first African-American. In an industry now in the throes of seismic technological change and famous for towering, clashing egos, White has achieved remarkable longevity.
“There were six of me in an eight-year period prior to my taking the job,” the 49-year-old says.
“You’ve gotta have rhino skin, pure and simple. Some of the heat from this position is real, but a lot of it is political gamesmanship.”
––David White, JD ’00
He credits Stanford Law along with his time as a community organizer for his success—by emboldening him to “push back” against “policies that get in the way of progress and have a harmful effect on people” and for teaching him the skills and judgment to achieve positive change.
Two separate and sometimes feuding unions—SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)—had historically represented different groups of performers whose priorities and interests clashed as often as they meshed. As a result, “the studios could play us off against one another” in contract negotiations, White says.
SAG-AFTRA’s 2012 merger into one union after past efforts had failed has given performers more bargaining heft.
“David got these two unions to merge, after they had talked about this for 25 years. That’s a big deal,” says Anthony Segall, general counsel for the Writers Guild of America West, who has known White for several years.
Headquartered in Los Angeles, today SAG-AFTRA represents 160,000 performers internationally, including actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers and editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, and voiceover artists.
The often-bitter internal politics of labor organizations frequently get in the way of achieving their larger goals, says White. SAG-AFTRA is “one of the most successful, expanding organizations in the world that protects professionals working in a gig economy and my job is to stay focused on that.”
But that focus can get intense. Just this summer, White and his team went to the brink with challenging negotiations, narrowly averting the first major actors’ strike against the film and TV industry since 1980. And White was most recently concerned with the year-long strike against video game producers by performers who sought higher compensation along with safer conditions on sets. That strike ended in late September with an agreement that White said gave guild members what they wanted. He is also among the voices prodding the entertainment industry toward greater diversity in front of and behind the camera and microphone.
Although White is part of a SAG-AFTRA team of negotiators, in the end, as chief negotiator, “it’s my call,” he says. But he keeps his cool by trying to remember his mission is to “protect artists in a changing environment” and by relying on his instincts and his team. White feels he has grown in his ability to “tease out the right conversation for that group to reach consensus” and, at the same time, to recognize when his “chief lieutenants are right and I’m wrong,” he says.
White acknowledges that it helps to mentally step back, out of the frame, and write the novel in your head about what’s happening around you. He says, “That process helps me to absorb all this to make a decision.” That and a good glass of wine periodically.
Was this the job White expected when he entered law school? “No way,” he laughs. “I thought writer, public official, community developer, entrepreneur—in that order.”
SLS classmate Kate Frucher, JD ’00, hopes he will try for elective office. “I’ve been working on him for a while,” she says. “There is a deep public spiritedness in David—he understands the experiences of a wide swath of our society.”
The two bonded early at Stanford and still talk regularly. “I could look to David for a perspective I could trust, a groundedness,” says Frucher, who has founded and run a number of tech startups. “He has a scalpel-like mind and could tell what was real and what was worth shaking off.”
“There is a deep public spiritedness in David—he understands the experiences of a wide swath of our society.”
––Kate Frucher, JD ’00
Those qualities help him survive in Hollywood. “I try to practice ‘ego-less’ leadership. It doesn’t mean I have no ego, but I don’t have to walk through the world having my ego as my armor,” he says. White likens his job to that of a public official: “You’ve gotta have rhino skin, pure and simple. Some of the heat from this position is real, but a lot of it is political gamesmanship.” So he tries to remember, “This isn’t about me.”
White honed that ability early in his career working with Youth Opportunities Unlimited. The group, which no longer exists, worked with poor teens in a neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, that he likens to East Palo Alto. Barb Friedmann, who then ran another, similar organization, recalls that White succeeded because “he has a tremendous amount of respect for ideas, young people, and their opinions.” That sounds like an obvious requirement for a director, she says, yet “that wasn’t the way organizations were put together then.”
Now married and with a daughter, White enjoys travel with his family and is active in progressive politics. So, is he thinking about elective office? “I don’t currently have a desire to serve in that way.” Long pause. Chuckling softly, he adds, “But I’m open.” SL
Molly Selvin, a legal historian and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.