Friday, May 22, 2009

SAG-AFTRA Ratify Advertising Agreement; SAG Townhall Features Fireworks

SAG and AFTRA announced yesterday that their combined paid-up membership, about 132,000 members, overwhelmingly ratified the contracts between the unions and the advertising industry. The result was expected, as there was no organized opposition. About 28% returned their ballots, about typical. Of those voting, about 94% voted yes. The deals expire March 31, 2012.

The news from the TV/theatrical side is nowhere near as placid. The ballots went out a few days ago—they’re due back June 9—and SAG’s conducting a series of town hall meetings across the country. The first was last night in Hollywood, and the fur flew. About 600 people attended according to a staff count; although the crowd was reportedly 70% composed of hardline Membership First partisans, they didn’t manage to fill the room. That’s a bit surprising. I’d expected an overflow crowd, given their (apparent?) strength in Hollywood.

What they slightly lacked in numbers, they made up in volume and conviction, according to sources inside the room. Fellow MF-ers like SAG President Alan Rosenberg were applauded for their statements against ratification, while pro-contract voices such as SAG interim National Executive Director David White were booed. The approximately three-hour confab kicked off with statements from the dais, and was mostly taken up by member questions and comments, which were described as overwhelmingly anti-ratification.

That dais, by the way, included SAG Secretary/Treasurer Connie Stevens, chief negotiator John McGuire, White, SAG 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson (who chaired the meeting), Unite for Strength leader Ned Vaughn, UFS-er Stacey Travis, Deputy NED Ray Rodriguez, and Rosenberg. General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland responded to questions from time to time.

According to Vaughn, Rosenberg was asked at the meeting what he proposed the union do if it voted down the deal. Rosenberg apparently replied that the union should get a strike authorization and then, if necessary, strike. How he expects to conjure up the necessary 75% vote for a strike authorization is unclear. In contrast to that high hurdle, it only takes 50% + 1 (a simple majority) to ratify the deal.

More colorful speakers at the meeting were Ed Asner and Seymour Cassel. Asner compared the contract’s effect on actors to “taking the Jews out and shooting them,” leading one audience member to comment that he hadn’t expected Holocaust metaphors at a SAG meeting. Well, why not? SAG politics seem to know no bounds.

Cassel, for his part, spotted former SAG president Melissa Gilbert, a moderate, and, standing at the mic, referred to her dismissively. Cassel later responded to one of David White's comments by saying “bullshit.” This was understandably too much for Johnson, as chair of the meeting, and she ordered Cassel to leave. Out in the hallway, Cassel told me that “I tend to speak my mind, perhaps too candidly.” That certainly seems true.

Another notable out in the hall was Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original Star Trek. We chatted briefly about the Star Trek movie, not SAG politics, let alone Trekian essays about SAG politics. There was also a Jack Nicholson lookalike, wearing a snappy suit, white shoes, and tinted eyeglasses. Maybe it was Jack Nicholson, but somehow I wouldn’t expect to see him aimlessly wandering the halls at a SAG meeting and using the hotel ATM.

David White chatted for a bit after the meeting, and explained the contrast between his reaction to the studios’ February offer (it “sucks,” he said at the time) and the current one (“a good deal with solid gains,” he told me yesterday, and, in the context of the economy and the dragged out negotiating process, even a “fantastic” one). The key difference is the contract expiration date, which in the current deal is synchronized with the WGA, AFTRA and DGA (mid-2011). In the February deal, it wasn’t, and the significance is that synchronicity allows at least some of the unions to make common cause and present a united front when the contract is up.

White previously predicted the deal would pass, so this time I asked whether he thought it would pass in Hollywood. (That’s not necessary for passage, but it would give some signal of a reduction in divisiveness within the union.) He predicted it would, citing the strong messages of support he was receiving from Hollywood members (though not at the meeting), but noting judiciously that “members will vote their conscience.”

Ned Vaughn also told me the deal would pass, both in Hollywood and nationally. He pointed to the importance of consolidating gains and negotiating in solidarity with other unions, especially AFTRA, in 2011. I asked if he thought SAG and AFTRA would be merged by 2011, and he replied that he “would love it if they were.”

A contrasting post-meeting voice was MF stalwart and SAG board member Clancy Brown, who explained his opposition to the deal in more measured terms than Asner and Cassel had used. He argued that “there’s a better deal out there to be had,” and cited “the paltry Internet move over residual” and the “larcenous” force majeure settlement as reasons.

The day before, I spoke with 2nd VP Sam Freed, who is president of the New York board, and separately with board member Mike Pniewski of Atlanta, both supporters of ratification. The latter predicted the deal will pass, and commented that the guild “got the best deal we can.” He cited a variety of positive aspects of the deal, and underlined the need for “stability in the marketplace” for labor.

Freed pointed to the estimated $105 million value of the deal, and said it addresses “the plight of the middle class actor.” He emphasized that the level of concern MF expresses over new media was not supported by current figures: of $1.3 billion in SAG earnings in 2008, Freed told me only 0.05% came from new media. (That’s one-twentieth of one percent, not 5%.) Alluding to the opposition, he quipped “There’s a guy who would be complaining if it was raining vegetable soup and he only had a fork in his hand.”

In other union news, Variety reports that 85 year-old actor Theodore Bikel “has been re-elected to an 11th two-year term as president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.” The 4-A’s, as it’s known, is in turn a unit of the AFL-CIO. Its affiliates are AFTRA, SAG, Actors’ Equity and several smaller performers unions: American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), and the Guild of Italian American Actors. AFTRA has a direct charter with the AFL-CIO, awarded last year. The other unions are chartered with the 4-A’s, as far as I know, and derive their AFL-CIO affiliation that way (as did AFTRA prior to 2008).

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  1. Thanks your your report, Jonathan. As someone pointed out to me...for years SAG meetings in Hollywood, whether they be Hollywood Division meetings, National Membership meetings or Town Halls, the overwhelming crowd has always been Membership First. No different was expected this time, and the Vote Yes members didn't want to come out this time, so to avoid the yelling and screams of MF. It is a shame, however, that the hard work of past president Gilbert, of David White and John McGuire should be so attacked by the likes of Seymour Cassell....and Ed Asner. It is as apparant now as it was 18 motnhs ago the Alan Rosenberg and his motley cult have been focused on getting stike, as a opposed to getting results. In doing so the Guil and it's members have suffered. I do hope that those who have had enough not only Vote YEs but call upon all their SAG friends to do the same.

  2. As someone who once voted for Membership Firsts slate, and voted Unite for Strength in the last election, I might be a rather typical member. I went to one of these town hall meetings before Christmas and was beyond embarassed at how Rosenberg and Johnson spoke and behaved, and the ravings of Ed Asner just made me sad.

    To me, it's simple. We got synchronicity, and if we need to strike we'll do it in concert with our sister unions. We get pay raises and finally (FINALLY) the town will be up and running again and able to take advantage of the fact that the entertainment business has always done well in times of economic strife.

    I'm voting yes.

  3. Voting Yes on this Contract gets some immediate raises for the WEALTHIEST members of the Union, and causes CATASTROPHIC LOSSES to the Elderly Members who will be DESTROYED by it financially, as well as the DESTRUCTION of the income and CAREERS of EVERYONE below star level. SHAME ON rich, wealthy Actor/PRODUCERS who are trying to Trick poor SAG members into a bad deal on "new media" FOR THE THIRD TIME. We will be stuck with whatever we sign off on in this contract PERMANENTLY. This is a HISTORICAL FACT in the Contract dealings with the AMPTP and SAG. Remember when VHS and DVD was "new"? They said "trust us, we'll re-evaluate the percentages for you later if we discover we can make any money on this stuff, we're just not sure". The members lost BILLIONS of dollars. This will be the THIRD time. That is deplorable. They are trying to kick the elderly members of this union to the curb like garbage, eliminating their pre 71 and pre 1974 residuals altogether. How do people like this sleep at night? So they can get some immediate pay raises RIGHT NOW, they are willing to DESTROY THE LIVES AND CAREERS OF THE MOST HELPLESS PEOPLE IN THE EQUATION. The people who, might I remind you, helped make your greedy a ss famous to begin with. VOTE NO if you have a conscience in your body. This is the worst deal in the history of the Union--and David White himself was even quoted as saying so. Vote NO for your FUTURE, all you little guys out there who are tired of being mistreated by spoiled, rich celebrities. NO NO NO

  4. I can't believe this is happening. What has happened to this country itself, that we think this kind of disgusting, callous, mercenary attitude in business is "fine". It seems these people would sell their own mothers down the river for some quick cash.

    People with integrity and honor are ALL VOTING A RESOUNDING NO!

  5. next time you "report" on a meeting it might be helpful to have ATTENDED it. This "report" is all hear-say and not telling at all about what happend at the meeting.

    VOTE NO!

  6. First off, it's David White's job to blow sunshine up our butts about this. Or whistle while walking through the graveyard. And I don't blame him for this. He wants to earn his pay and serve the folks who fired Doug Allen and hired him.

    Secondly, the conclusion you draw based on the attendance level at the meeting betrays a bias. How about this instead - a whole lot of Hollywood Division SAG members couldn't be bothered to attend the meeting because they couldn't stomach sitting through David White and Ned Vaughn trying desperately to shill a steaming pile....

    Based on the paltry facts at hand, my conclusion is just as logical as yours. We can spin all day.

    Nobody's predictions about how the vote will actually go down hold any weight. Not Rosenberg's. Not White's. Not Vaughn's. Not mine - even though I think it's a serious uphill climb to get the members to ratify this turkey.

    What matters is the actual vote. Everything else is just spin. And like I said, this contract sucks and Vaughn & his comprades know it because they hired a crisis management PR firm to try to bamboozle us into voting for it.

    Oh wait, that's just more spin. Maybe they hired Saylor because he offered a discount. Or David White clipped a coupon out of the Pennysaver. Or maybe Saylor's Craigslist ad finally paid off.

    Nikki Finke over at DHD did some good reporting. You could source her. Or since you weren't in the room you could also source my my live-Tweeting. It's at

  7. Not one fact posted by any of the NO-voters.
    All smoke & mirrors & foul-mouthed generalities.
    Nikki Finke wasn't in the room.
    She gets her info from the same people she allows on her site,
    while censoring those who don't share her views.

  8. The 'No' vote scenario is a disaster. Let's say the agreement comes back 'No' and after some board meetings, somehow an SAV passes, and we get the AMPTP back to the table, and we get the LBFO, and there's a standoff, and we rally the troops, build a strike fund and call a strike.

    That's at least 3 months from now, August. Now, how long does the strike last against these multinational conglomerations who have a TV/New Media deal already sitting on thier desks? Let's say 3 more months. Now it's late December. And that's a conservative estimate.

    Meanwhile, AFTRA has been filling it's coffers, adding to it's P&H and improving its gains in TV, while SAG loses millions more.

    And now the miracle happens; SAG gets the improved provisions that we all want in TV and New Media! Brilliant. What producer in his or her right mind would use a more expensive contract when they've gotten use to using AFTRA's cheaper contract for the past 9 months? (Hint: No one.)

    Not only that, but now SAG's contract cycle is out of sync with AFTRA's the WGA's. It's December of '09 and AFTRA goes back to the table in 15 months, while SAG has to wait nearly 3 years.

    That is the future of 'No'- a further diminution of our power as a union. Vote 'Yes' and we get those raises, we get coverage in New Media, albeit spotty, we stay synced with the other unions, and more importantly, we begin to get our power back. Vote Yes to work.