Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SAG and the Studios: Post-Prandial Posturing

Open the fridge after Thanksgiving, and leftovers come tumbling out. Open your In box after Thanksgiving, and SAG-related emails come tumbling out (these in addition to a pre-Thanksgiving email as well). Most are just the same old starchy stuffing we’ve been fed for months, albeit dressed up with a salty quote or two.

In the last day, I’ve received a fact sheet, a copy of a trade ad, and three press releases, including one from SAG that’s quaintly-titled “No One Has Our Proxy,” and another from the AMPTP asserting that “SAG’s press release proves that SAG is now officially out of touch with reality.” I happen to believe that SAG’s leadership has been out of touch with reality for quite some time, but it’s a relief to know that the official finding is now in.

If you thought the house was a mess after your Thanksgiving guests got done spilling cranberry sauce on the tablecloth and grinding crumbs into the carpet, consider what December will look like in unionland. The SAG strike authorization ballots are likely to go out within the next few weeks if not days, and we can expect more press releases and emails to follow. The stakes are high. If the union achieves a yes vote of 75% (or more) of those voting, it will have the strike authorization it seeks, and the national board is likely to then vote to go on strike.

What happened to the newly-elected Hollywood “moderates,” Unite for Strength? They (like the hardline Membership First) voted for the October board resolution that brought us to this juncture. They were quite simply outmaneuvered by MF. Now they probably won’t put up a united front against a strike authorization, because they’re concerned with positioning themselves to achieve further gains in next September’s SAG elections. If they publicly oppose a strike authorization, then MF will tar them as Benedict Arnolds who hamstrung their own union’s attempt to fight the AMPTP.

Instead, UFS prefers to take a long view. Remember that their primary platform plank was merger with AFTRA, itself a long-term goal. Of course, how to prevent irreparable damage to the union and the industry in the meantime is a harder question. And if UFS simply goes along with MF, then how does UFS distinguish itself come next September’s elections? They risk becoming an echo of MF in the short term. The hardliners have very strategically boxed in UFS, it seems.

Maybe some leaders in NY and the regions will come out against the strike authorization or a strike — MF has little or no power outside of Hollywood — but even if that were to happen, it may not be enough to sway Hollywood voters, who constitute the bulk of the union. And even the NY and regional board members voted for the October resolution: all but 2 of the 71-member national board did so. That makes it harder for those board members to come out publicly against a strike authorization.

Is it really possible, in this economy, that SAG members will vote to authorize a strike? Yes. Here’s why: (1) As I’ve previously blogged, many SAG members don’t work as actors in any given year, and so have little to lose directly from a strike. (2) Also as I’ve blogged, SAG will conduct a vigorous “educational” campaign in favor of an authorization. The union campaign will be direct and effective. No one else will be able to send email and physical mail directly to all 106,000 paid Guild members, because no one else has the addresses. (3) There’s no “quorum” or minimum number of votes required. If turnout is low or moderate, then a few thousand members could take the entire Guild out on strike. For instance, if only 20,000 members were to vote, then 15,000 yes votes would be enough to pass the authorization. The risk is that some people opposed to a strike authorization might not vote because they, like many people, wouldn’t believe that the union would strike in this economy, and over what are currently mere pennies.

If an authorization is achieved, what then? The studios are unlikely to change their position even when presented with an authorization. On the SAG board, non-hardline board members will come under pressure to vote with the hardliners for a strike. That’s true for two reasons: the September elections (as noted above) and the fact that MF will point to the authorization vote and characterize a strike as the will of the membership. The stage would then be set for a long and bitter strike. How would it end? Not well for anyone.

And what if the authorization vote fails? Then there’s no strike — but also no deal, because the current SAG leadership is simply unwilling to agree to terms that the studios find acceptable. The SAG leadership attempted to derail the AFTRA deal and failed, but they just continued onward, ignoring their defeat. If they fail to achieve an authorization, they’re likely to do the same, until and unless the moderates eventually seek to change the union leadership.

My usual disclaimer: perhaps cooler heads will prevail; and/or perhaps the members will decline to pass an authorization. Maybe. But so far, the only real leadership in the union is coming from a faction that’s driving it towards a strike, not a deal. Twelve months ago, the writers were walking the picket lines. By early or mid January, the actors could be too. Talk about the ghost of Christmas past.


  1. Jonathan, your lack of understanding of what's at stake for the actors this year is absolutely breathtaking.

    Pennies? Not quite, sir. Try tens of billions of dollars over the next two decades as the AMPTP angles to force huge rollbacks on SAG, particularly in new media.

    The moguls are migrating content distribution to the Internet as quickly as they can, and want to set in stone a lower residual structure and a new media non-union exemption for this pipeline with this contract. Any promise of a so-called "sunset claus" rings hollow in light of the history of residual compensation from DVDs and the AMPTP's own language describing the new media framework as "well-established".

    The AMPTP wishes to toss away seven decades of very well-established precedents. This as a recipe of destruction for all of the creative guilds.

    As for the positions of the two factions aligning in relation to these negotiations, has it occurred to you sir that perhaps, once they had access to the room, UFS saw that MF was right about AMPTP intransigence all along, and voted with MF in the best interests of all actors???

    Is it also possible that UFS has put the best interests of all actors over whatever other differences they may (or now may not) have with MF???

    Over the years a strong SAG has benefitted not just actors, but others as well. One example: SAG's turnaround time rules have helped guarantee adequate rest for a range of BTL workers. I am joining an overwhelming majority of actors in voting in favor of a strike authorization not simply for the good of the actors, but the good of the industry as a whole.

  2. mheister, your anger at the AMPTP is understandable, but not all of your information here is correct.

    Your opinion about Unite For Strength suddenly "seeing the light" once they were in the room is popular among Membership First supporters, but it is obviated by the recent emails by UFS members Amy Aquino, Mike Farrell and others. They paint a very different picture of what happened than the MF group does, and we should keep both perspectives in mind before assuming one or the other is correct.

    Your opinion about SAG turnaround helping the crew is partially accurate but forgets the fact that producers routinely put actors on "forced call", meaning that they bring them back in less than the 12 hours. (On some shows, the turnaround hits the bare minimum allowed of 9 1/2 hours, and on "Star Trek" many times it was even less than that.) The actual protection for the crew comes from the Director of Photography and the Camera Operators, who must be given 11 hours off between workdays. It's that turnaround that saves everyone else from the idea of coming back to work in five hours.

    It is possible that your vote to strike may be joined by a majority of your fellow SAG members (including myself). It is also possible that your vote may be in the minority. I wouldn't presume to know in advance what 106,000 people will vote. I'm happy to see what the membership really wants, and if that intention is to strike, then we'll have a long strike. If the intention is not to strike, we'll have to see what the National Board comes up with to deal with this situation.