President Reagan's inaugural committee, dodging a barrage of abuse from several labor unions, today blamed a California producer for an ill-fated attempt to recruit nonunion, "clean-cut all-American" singers and dancers for the inaugural.
John Buckley, spokesman for the presidential inaugural committee, said producer Robert Jani failed to check with committee officials before placing the offending advertisement in the trade publication Backstage.
Inaugural officials were simply trying to find high school- and college-age performers for the inaugural parade and some other shows, Buckley said, and had no intention of barring union members. Deputy White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes, making his first comment on the controversy, quickly agreed: "In our opinion, the ad should have been phrased differently."
Entertainment union leaders called for anti-Reagan demonstrations in Washington on or before the inauguration if the president's committee does not agree to pay performers recruited by the ad. The ad said the committee would only pay expenses. Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of the Actors Equity Association, said committee chairman Ronald H. Walker apologized to him today for the "nonunion" request, but refused to pay more than the advertised expenses of the performers.
About 200 singers and dancers, mostly of ethnic minorities, attended the Saturday New York audition announced in the ad and 63 of them were "earmarked" as possible inaugural participants, Buckley said. But the controversy has forced committee officials to reconsider whether they should be invited to perform at all, he said.
Sanford Wolff, national executive secretary of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said his union would file a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department for advertising for work that did not pay he required minimum wage.
"To me it's like hiring a lot of kids to work the assembly line in a candy factory and telling them their pay is whatever they can eat," Wolff said.
Buckley said, "I don't know how the communication slip happened" between the committee and Jani, who has worked with several well-publicized events such as the "Tall Ships" celebration of the 1976 bicentennial. An employe of Robert F. Jani Productions, reached at its Los Angeles office, said Jani was in meetings and could not be reached for comment. She referred reporters to Buckley.
Ed Asner, president of the Screen Actors Guild once headed by President Reagan, told the Associated Press, "I think it's scandalous that representatives of his Reagan's would act with such stupidity and callousness . . . And since the buck stops at the White House, it's up to him to do something about it."
Reagan did not comment on the charges during a brief press appearance this morning, but Speakes later told reporters the president "is proud of his union membership and his work as president of the Screen Actors Guild." He headed that union from 1947 to 1952 and from 1959 to 1960, before he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Murray Seeger, spokesman for the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said "our lawyers are rather dubious" about the chance of a successful lawsuit on the issue, particularly when "nobody has been hired so far."
Inaugural officials have argued that inauguration parades and performances have used unpaid high school and college performers for decades without objection. This inaugural, both Buckley and Speakes said, would have more paid union members, including band musicians and stagehands, than any in history.
Union leaders, however, said they remained disturbed by the language of the New York audition advertisement. It said applicants "all must be attractive, clean-cut all-American types."
Inaugural officials, while disclaiming the "nonunion" label, today defended the rest of the ad's language. "The clean-cut aspect is not problematic," Buckley said. The committee, he explained, was looking for pleasant, outgoing people and the fact that a large portion of those selected were minorities shows no discrimination was intended.
The council of Actors Equity voted today to condemn that part of the ad in particular, Eisenberg said, and called for other unions to join in demonstrating in Washington if the recruited performers are not paid.
Wolff said he still abhors the "clean-cut all-American" requirement. "I have two children I don't think would qualify, but I have an adopted child with Norwegian blood who might. I resent that."