Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Curtain Call

“We are not done yet!” shouted Screen Actors Guild leader Doug Allen three times at the guild’s anti-AFTRA rally last week. Evidently not, but Hollywood is beyond well-done and beginning to burn. It’s time for SAG to put its full efforts into crafting the best deal it can get, rather than try to derail the AFTRA primetime deal.

Why? Several reasons. For one thing, attempting to defeat the AFTRA deal is a futile exercise. The members of AFTRA – the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, SAG’s smaller rival – approved a similar daytime deal by an affirmative vote of 93% of those voting. It’s almost impossible to believe that SAG can cut that percentage to 49% – i.e., virtually in half – which is what would be necessary to nullify the deal.

For another thing, even if the incredible were to happen, SAG’s stated goal of persuading AFTRA to then return to the bargaining table jointly with SAG is Pollyannaish. There’s little but bad blood between the unions at this point. Indeed, given that SAG and AFTRA are both headquartered in the same office building, it’s hard to imagine what shared elevator rides must be like. Do people retreat to opposite corners like cold-war prizefighters, or do they simply turn their backs on each other?

The other reason that SAG’s mission in quixotic at best is that some (though not all) of the positions it’s taking are just non-starters. For instance, on clip consent – the issue of whether actors should have the right to veto studios’ online use of excerpts from movie and TV shows – SAG is taking positions at odds with the AFTRA deal and even with what SAG itself apparently originally proposed. That’s a quick road to nowhere.

Another example: SAG is seeking revisions in the new media template already enshrined in the Directors Guild, WGA, AFTRA daytime, and AFTRA primetime deals. That’s largely an uphill battle. SAG’s also not going to get any improvement in the DVD residual, no matter how fair such an increase may be (and I do think an increase would be fair). That’s another pointless venture: None of those four earlier deals contains a DVD increase, and it’s a fair bet that IATSE (representing technical and craft workers) won’t be looking for one either when it recommences its negotiations.

That makes five other contracts that don’t or won’t have an increase. With SAG in last position among the above the line unions (i.e., all but IATSE), it has virtually no leverage to revise the 24 year-old deal that established what the WGA called “the hated DVD formula.” Ironically, SAG put itself in this position. It could have negotiated jointly with AFTRA were it not for a series of decisions that angered the smaller union and gave it an excuse to sever a 1981 joint bargaining agreement. And even after that arrangement collapsed, SAG could have had an extended period of negotiations prior to AFTRA entering the field, had the guild not refused for weeks to set a date to start negotiations. AFTRA’s, and management’s, reactions should have been easy to predict. SAG overplayed a weak hand, allowing management to play one union off against the other, and now the guild finds itself buried under a landslide of precedent.

That’s unfortunate, because the probable result is that SAG will still be sidelined in negotiations – or maybe on the picket lines – while AFTRA begins signing up new TV shows starting sometime after July 7, the date that ratification ballots are due back from the membership. No doubt the smaller union will be vigorous in seeking new signatories and enlarging its reach. After all, AFTRA didn’t negotiate its deal simply to put it up on a shelf and admire it. A weakened SAG will be the consequence. Already, SAG’s own leadership is bitterly divided on tactics and on the inter-union rivalry.

More regrettable is what SAG’s maneuvers are doing to the industry. Feature production is already down significantly, and that trend will only get worse once the SAG deal expires. Whether or not SAG strikes, the town will enter a near-complete work stoppage come June 30. That’s a blow the battered industry and depressed local economy can ill-afford. Let’s be done with labor negotiations, at least until the guild’s commercials contract comes up for renewal this fall, when new media will once again be likely to present difficult challenges and frustrate all concerned. It’s time for SAG to finish its scene, take a graceful bow, and depart the stage.

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