Friday, January 30, 2009

Screen Actors Guild President Calls Actors “Frightened Little Children”

In an extraordinary interview with The Wrap, SAG President Alan Rosenberg said that “actors are frightened little children,” and referred to his opponents—a majority of the SAG board—as “liars and manipulators.”

Rosenberg also said of himself that “my life sucks,” and then, accompanying himself on guitar, actually sung a plaintive folk song of his own devising, whose lyrics included such lines as “Al and Doug and Doug Allen?, they stand up way too hard . . . I will bury them right in my own backyard.” The song is cast in the voice of an ungrateful union member: “I don’t care about nobody. No, I only care about me.” In the interview, Rosenberg notes that he’s not a singer, a guitar player, or “even a songwriter” (all of which is evident), but adds that his first cousin is rock and roll star Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.

The spoken-word portion of the interview also includes a defense of fired national executive director Doug Allen, and the conversation comes just days after an email from Rosenberg to SAG members in which he practically beatified Allen. Describing Allen in the interview as “extraordinary” and “the best thing that’s ever happened to our union,” Rosenberg adds “Here I am—my partner was fired. . . . It’s certainly disappointing.” Taken together, the letter and interview suggest a strong friendship, as well as professional partnership, between Rosenberg and Allen.

Rosenberg’s pain is palpable: “I’m angry. . . . Sad. Disappointed. The last two days I feel sort of isolated. I’m shut out from planning meetings. I feel isolated from the operations of the union.” Let it be said, no one should take any pleasure from Rosenberg’s suffering. Sympathy is a better reaction.

That sympathy, however, can only be mustered with conflicting emotions. After all, this is the man who presided over a 28 hour board meeting at which he suppressed the board’s moderate majority by abusing parliamentary procedure and calling his own lawyers “liars” (apparently a theme with Rosenberg), yet in the interview he cops merely to having done “a little filibustering.”

Rosenberg, whose term as president ends in September, adds that “I’ve seen all my hard work of the past three and a half years amounting to nothing.” It’s hard to empathize, given that both the outgoing Rosenberg and the ousted Allen have left the union with seven contracts that have expired (or nearly so, in one case), as well as having riven the union with conflict.

The last few days, which follow Monday’s firing of Allen just a day after the SAG Awards, seem to have been a time for unusually candid interviews (although none with Allen himself). A series in Back Stage magazine’s Blog Stage blog provides additional examples. For instance, a Rosenberg ally, SAG 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson, acknowledges that she wants to strip the rival AFTRA union of jurisdiction over actors, and all but implies that her and Rosenberg’s Membership First faction would fire newly installed interim National Executive Director David White if they regain power.

The second interview in the Back Stage series features NY board member and Membership First opponent Richard Masur, who says that SAG should accept the new media terms of the AFTRA deal as is. I agree that SAG should abandon as unattainable for this negotiating cycle its demands for an improvement in new media, but I do hope there’s room for bettering the AFTRA deal in other ways, as I intend to discuss in another post.

Finally, Paul Christie, another NY board member and former 2nd national VP, puts forth the sensible idea of merging SAG not just with AFTRA, but with several other entertainment unions as well. He acknowledges, however, that this is a long-term goal: “I don’t think at the present time, with our history, too many people would want to get in bed with us, at least not yet. We’re pretty bizarre suitors at this point.”

“Bizarre” is a good way of summing up the developments of the last 12 months or so. Next up: a two-day meeting Tuesday and Wednesday between SAG’s new negotiators and the AMPTP team (representing the studios). The fact that it’s a two-day get-together suggests that it’s intended as something more than a mere meet-and-greet. Good stuff.

Thus, the union’s new management is off to a fast start, but there’s some real work to do to arrive at a deal. I’m hoping we’ll see an agreement by the end of February or early March. That would be followed by a three-week voting period on ratification.

Because a significant portion of the board—the Membership First faction—is likely to oppose the deal, the ballot materials will include both pro and con statements. As a result, ratification could still be uncertain. The chance of a strike, on the other hand, is close to zero.


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  1. Jonathan Handel writes:

    Although I believe SAG should abandon as unattainable for this negotiating cycle its demands for an improvement in new media, I do hope there’s room for bettering the AFTRA deal in other ways.

    What exactly do you have in mind? It is virtually impossible that SAG will obtain better terms than AFTRA on anything explicitly covered in the AFTRA deal (in other words, something where there is direct overlap). In areas where AFTRA expressly left things open (such as Force Majeure), or in any area where there is no actual overlap (essentially, anything unique to feature films), of course SAG is free to negotiate whatever it can.

    But it's irritating to hear offhand comments like the one you made, especially when there are no specifics attached, and especially where SAG is starting from a position that is so far in the hole. Masur's phrasing was not very felicitous, but he happens to be exactly right: SAG needs to go in and get the best deal it can, but that deal is almost certainly going to look very much like the AFTRA deal in areas of overlap. Just getting that will be an accomplishment at this point, especially if SAG is successful in preserving the same expiration date as AFTRA and in obtaining July 1 timing for each scheduled increase. That would position SAG for a return to Phase I joint negotiation with AFTRA in 2011, which would be an important outcome for SAG and which the AMPTP, for all its bluster, would probably prefer.

    Unless you can point to some specific improvement over AFTRA that SAG ought to seek, and a rationale for the AMPTP to agree to it, I think your comment is just useless armchair quarterbacking. The only area that jumps to mind would be an improvement in terms for background work, which the AMPTP might throw in as a means of picking up that segment of SAG votes. But since SAG is clearly not going to strike in support of any demands, unless the AMPTP does something extraordinarily stupid, how can you seriously argue that it could "better the AFTRA deal" in any material respect? And if it does "better the AFTRA deal," wouldn't that make SAG a more expensive choice, which could work against SAG in any situation where producers have a choice?

    All in all, therefore, it's a thoughtless and unhelpful remark that means nothing and displays very lazy thinking.


  2. Mr. Handel is anything but lazy. He has analyzed the proposed contract in great detail here:

    and here:

  3. You're right -- I kind of overreacted.

    I suppose my real concern is that it's such a miracle that SAG and AFTRA are getting back together at all, I don't want to spoil things by overreaching.


  4. Sorry, Freudian slip.

    I meant to say "SAG and the AMPTP are getting back together again."

    Hopefully it was clear from the context anyway.


  5. Am I the only one who thinks Rosenberg, et al., should be recalled over this, or someone from the NLRB should step in and strip them of their offices? Honestly, filing suit against the Union in which they hold office? Could there be a greater breach of fiduciary responsibility than forcing your beneficiary to expend money defending itself against an action that the trustee filed? As a member of SAG, I'm not only annoyed and shocked, I'm pissed off that these idiots are ruining my Union and running the industry into the ground with their ineptitude. We're in this situation because TWO sides couldn't sit down and work out an agreement. It takes TWO parties to make a contract, and I hold BOTH sides accountable for this mess.