Friday, July 11, 2008

Looking at the World Through SAG-Colored Glasses

Day by day, the Screen Actors Guild’s Hollywood leadership stumbles deeper into a morass, dragging behind it a bewildered and divided membership. Yesterday – Thursday – saw the spectacle of SAG insisting that it was still negotiating with the studios, while the latter just as steadfastly maintained that no such thing was happening.

Thus, when the parties’ meeting broke off in the early evening, the studio alliance (the AMPTP) castigated SAG for not accepting its final offer, which includes deal terms already embodied in four other union agreements this year (DGA, WGA, AFTRA daytime and AFTRA primetime). "We made it clear our final is our final and that we're not interested in further counterproposals," said the AMPTP’s spokesman to the Associated Press. For its part, SAG reportedly acceded to some portions of the studio proposal, but not others. That sounds like SAG’s negotiating with itself, not the studios.

Now, one can argue about the fairness of the proposed deal. Indeed, in my view, some of what SAG’s asking for is unreasonable, some of it’s reasonable but unrealistic, and some of it is indeed reasonable and might yet be achievable – if the Guild focuses its wish list.

Unfortunately, a realistic focus is exactly what’s lacking. Instead, for instance, the Guild is still asking for an increase in the DVD residual – which, though well-deserved, is completely unobtainable. The Guild is also still seeking to require union jurisdiction over low-budget made for Internet productions, even when none of the production’s actors are union members. In a world of user generated content and non-union competition, that’s just not realistic – and what SAG’s asking for would break the mold of the compromise accepted in the four other major union deals this year.

Breaking a mold and refusing to compromise can be a sign of strength, but only when backed by real power (and a rational assessment of one’s position). But power is another thing SAG doesn’t have. By pushing AFTRA towards the exit before belatedly realizing the disaster that would result from separate bargaining, and by then itself refusing to bargain early, SAG succeeded only in reducing its own leverage. Added to the strategic miscalculations are an inability to articulate a convincing case for continued delay, and a toxic combination (not of SAG’s making) of strike fatigue and economic recession.

In essence, SAG’s Hollywood leadership has backed itself into a corner, then painted itself into it for good measure. They’ve promised things to the membership – like an increase in DVD residuals and changes in the new media template – that they don’t have the leverage to deliver. Meanwhile, actors and the entire industry suffer from a work slowdown with little prospect of anything to show for it.

The ill-conceived anti-AFTRA adventure finally cut the legs out from under this enterprise, demonstrating that SAG members are highly unlikely to support a strike by the 75% affirmative vote that Guild rules require. At best, the outcome of such a vote is uncertain enough that SAG leadership is unlikely to seek a vote at all for fear of having it fail.

Hovering over all of this is the question of the upcoming (September) SAG elections. Are SAG negotiators simply stalling today so that they can later urge members not to oust board members during the middle of a labor conflict? It’s hard to know, but the absence of any apparent strategy other than continued delay makes the question compelling.

Continued delay and stalemate mean one thing: no contract at all. Under some scenarios, work will continue under the terms of the old deal, which isn’t as good as AFTRA’s. Under other scenarios, the studios might impose the terms of the new deal. Either way, without a signed union contract, there’s no SAG grievance and arbitration procedure, and there’s diminishing relevance for the Guild. Nor are there any surviving no-strike or no-lockout clauses, diminishing the desirability of SAG actors and SAG-covered work.

A no-contract situation could last for months, or even years. Indeed, SAG’s already the only above-the-line union that has no contract with the talent agents. SAG’s franchise agreement expired six years ago, while separate agreements between the agents and the DGA, WGA and AFTRA remain in place. Those agreements provide a measure of protection that SAG members no longer enjoy.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of SAG’s miscalculations is AFTRA, which has now emerged from under the Guild’s shadow. The next few weeks will probably bring news of new television shows being signed to the AFTRA contract – as opposed to the SAG contract, which effectively no longer exists.

As if all this wasn’t enough, we also have the embarrassment of the day before yesterday, when the presidents of SAG (Alan Rosenberg) and AFTRA (Roberta Reardon) got nasty with each other on the public airwaves, lobbing a variety of charges understandable mostly to insiders. Of course, the LA audience probably is mostly insiders, as are you, most likely, if you’ve made it this far. If you didn't catch the show live on KCRW, click the link, and enjoy a lovely half-hour, then keep reading here.

Rather than dissect the show bit by bit, I'll just hit a few notes. As a general matter, it was astonishing how ill-prepared Rosenberg was. He seemed to have no message to deliver, and no particular point to being on the show. He was mostly reactive. I also was surprised when he suggested that SAG leadership had never said a negative word about AFTRA. Very peculiar.

More, I was stunned that Rosenberg tried to characterize qualified voting as a civil rights issue, suggesting in particular that Native American actors would be disenfranchised if voting on SAG contracts and strike authorizations is restricted to members who have worked as actors recently. While racial bias in casting seems indisputable, the fact is that most SAG members – of any race – work little or not at all in any given year as actors. The issue in qualified voting is whether those members, with so little at stake in the business, should have the right to vote on the momentous issues of contracts and strikes. Trying to claim this as a racial issue was disingenuous at best.

It also became clear – not that it wasn’t already – that the commercials contract is going to be a source of further dissension. Reardon said she favored joint negotiation of that contract (which expires in October, a few short months away), but she added that the two unions would need to be represented 50-50 on the negotiating committee. Rosenberg hesitated in response, awkwardly mumbling that he didn’t want to anger Reardon, before finally indicating that he opposed 50-50 representation, since more of the work is done under SAG jurisdiction.

Put it all together, and we may face the possibility of SAG negotiating the commercials contract – jointly or not – while it’s still without a signed film and TV contract. That would be odd. And by the time the commercials contract is signed (assuming that that contract doesn’t devolve into stalemate), Hollywood will have spent the better part of eighteen months struggling with labor unrest. That’s entertainment, apparently.