Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Push-Poll with No Oomph

Sarah Palin may not know what the Bush Doctrine is, but SAG’s leadership seems to have forgotten what we might call the (Teddy) Roosevelt Doctrine:  speak softly and carry a big stick.  (It’s actually part of a West African proverb, apparently.)  Perhaps the Guild and its governing hard-line faction, Membership First, made a transcription error, because the union’s standard operating procedure over the last several months seems to have involved shouting loudly while carrying a small stick.

The latest example of this surfaced today, as SAG trumpeted the results of its membership survey regarding negotiations with the studios.  To no one’s surprise, an overwhelming majority of respondents to this push-poll – 87% – voted to recommend that SAG continue negotiating with the studios to “secure a fair TV/Theatrical contract for actors with better terms than the [studios’] ‘final offer.’”  Who’d vote against a fair deal, after all?

What was a surprise, however, was the shockingly low response rate:  only 10% of the approximately 103,000 paid-up SAG members bothered to vote – less than half the turnout SAG usually gets for votes on referendums and board elections.  The other 90% threw their ballots in the trash.  Even in Hollywood – where SAG’s hard-liners hold sway – about 50,000 paid-up SAG members didn’t vote.  That’s pretty amazing.

Why the low turnout?  The survey was large (8-1/2 x 11), brightly colored, invitingly designed and well-written.  It dealt with issues of real concern to middle-class actors.  It was urgent and partisan in tone, was attended by a lot of publicity, and came in the middle of an election.  Yet few people bothered to vote. 

Why?  Perhaps disgust with the leadership and endless internecine fighting.  Maybe fear that the bar-coded ballot wouldn’t be kept secret.  Or possibly a simple desire to be left alone and allowed to work in peace.  Probably all of those, coupled with economic worries and fatigue from the Writers Guild strike.

Whatever the reason, the Guild’s inability to get more than 10% of its paid-up members to tear off a postcard and express an opinion doesn’t bode well for it.  How many of the silent 90% would vote to authorize a strike?  Probably not many.  And if there were a strike, how many people who wouldn’t pick up a pencil to vote would nonetheless pick up a picket sign?  Again, probably not many.

Unfortunately, what the poll shows more than anything is that the Guild is in the process of making itself irrelevant.  When 90% of one’s own membership doesn’t bother to vote, that’s not an expression of “resolve” or an indication that members “agree with the strategy of the [union leadership],” to quote SAG’s press release.  On the contrary, it’s a sign of indifference – and an indication that the leadership has failed to organize the membership.

Run those numbers again: 9% of the membership wants a better deal – but surely not all of them would be willing to strike over it (the survey didn’t ask that question).  So, that’s somewhat less than 9% who’d support a strike, at least 1% who wouldn’t, and 90% who care so little that they won’t even vote in favor of seeking a “fair” and “better” deal.  That’s not a union on a strike footing, and without the big stick of a strike threat, SAG’s unlikely to get any improvement in the new media portions of the deal.

Now what?  The studios understand the numbers, and are unlikely to read them as a realistic sign of danger.  Meanwhile, SAG’s leadership is unlikely to call for a strike authorization when the membership seems so uninterested.  Yet, both SAG and the studios are dug in to their positions.  That’s a prescription for more stalemate and no deal.

Up next:  In less than 24 hours, we’ll know the results of the SAG board elections.  Whatever the results, don’t expect a deal with the studios anytime soon. 

An ironic postscript:  I just visited the Hollywood Reporter and Variety websites to read their stories about the survey.  Both of the sites interrupted me with pop-ups that wanted to … sell me something?  No, each of the pop-ups was itself a survey, asking my opinion on the underlying website.  Ugh, no thanks.  I’m done with surveys for the time being.