Wednesday, October 1, 2008

SAG Apparently Seeking Strike Authorization

Lewis Carroll was a master of bizarre fantasy, willful illogic, and headstrong characters. Not surprisingly, that often makes his shape-shifting prose relevant to present-day concerns. Consider Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole:

The rabbit-hole … dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. …

Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

If we were focused on the broader world, we’d note how woefully applicable this passage is to the current economic crisis — will the fall never come to an end?

Or we might look at the sorry state of politics, and ruminate on how we’ve fallen from a potato(e)-head VP (Dan Quayle) to a frat-boy boob of a president, and now to a VP candidate who was mayor of almost nothing just two years ago. Again — will the fall never come to an end?

Our focus is SAG, however, but the question is still relevant. The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that SAG’s negotiating committee will probably approve a measure today asking the guild membership for a strike authorization. Variety is less sure, referring to “speculation” along these lines. But if the Reporter is accurate, we’re off on a journey deeper into Wonderland.

Now, whether an authorization will pass is unknown: 87% of members responding to a guild survey said the guild should keep negotiating for a “better” and “fair” contract, but that’s not the same as saying they’re willing to strike over it — and, critically, only 10% of the guild’s paid-up members even bothered to return the survey.

The other 90% didn’t care enough to return the survey, and many of them are probably sick of guild politics and may not want a strike. Whether they’ll bother to vote is another question, and thus we face the possibility of the 120,000 member guild striking based on the vote of just a few thousand members. That has a rather Carrollian illogic to it.

Then there’s the matter of the subject of the strike: SAG wants to fill some gaps in the new media template agreed to by the Directors Guild, Writers Guild, and AFTRA (twice). Fair enough, except that there’s little money in new media today, and there’s unlikely to be much for the next few years. Thus, those gaps have little immediate impact — and may never, depending on how new media business models evolve. Why not wait, and strike (or threaten to do so) in three years, when there may be more money at stake? Why now?

That, in turn, brings us to the subject of “now,” and back to the economy. Banks are busy failing, housing prices are deflating, and gas prices, though off a bit, are still quite high. Congress seems more capable of running from the problem than solving it, and economists are debating whether this is the worst crisis in 20 years, or in 75.

Into this nerve-wracking landscape strides SAG, apparently willing to trigger a second Hollywood strike in less than a year — i.e., to risk losing real money, and, no doubt, some people’s homes, for the sake of precedent that could be argued over in three or more years, when it really matters. It’s true that precedent, once installed in Hollywood union agreements, is hard to dislodge, but it still seems illogical — in a sort of Carrollian “verdict first, trial afterward” fashion — to strike over issues as incremental and, to date, speculative, as these.

SAG’s appears to be playing a dangerous game: Seek an authorization and fail to obtain it, and the guild’s leverage collapses. That’s a real risk, because an authorization requires 75% yes vote of those voting. With failure comes the possibility that the studios would withdraw the offer on the table, and substitute an inferior one. That’s glory for you, as Humpty Dumpty once remarked.

Seek an authorization and obtain it, and the next step is a vote of the guild’s national Board — controlled now by the newly-elected moderates (Unite for Strength) and their allies in New York and the regional branches. But they’ve only got a razor thin margin, susceptible to disruption by the hardline Membership First faction. What’s more, it’s unclear if UFS would take a stand and oppose a strike. Their leader, Ned Vaughn, was vague when I asked him about negotiating strategy in August (and he hadn’t returned my call seeking comment by the time I wrote this article). Membership First, in contrast, is quite decisive, and its certitude might carry the day: The Board might indeed call a strike if the members grant it the authority to do so.

But if a strike does happen, then what? The studios are unlikely to back down on the new media template they’ve set. The result is likely to be a long, bitter strike, with the possibility that SAG will end up with a worse deal than it’s being offered now. Of course, SAG might prevail. That’s what the hardliners are betting, in any case.

You may be wondering why UFS would even permit the Negotiating Committee to seek a strike authorization in the first place. Answer — they may not have a choice: Membership First still controls many aspects of the guild, including the Negotiating Committee. Moreover, the first national Board meeting isn’t until the 18th. That’s probably the first time the moderates could take a decisive stand, if they’re inclined to do so. (There’s a Hollywood Division board meeting next Monday, the 6th, but Membership First still controls that board.)

In other words, today’s vote (if it takes place as the Hollywood Reporter predicts), is a preemptive strike by Membership First against the new, moderate majority — yet another symptom of the guild’s bitter divisions. Now we’ve left Alice behind, and entered the world of the Italian Renaissance — in particular, the world of cutthroat political strategist Niccolò Machiavelli — and that of the ancient Greeks, who coined the word “hubris,” a word that surely applies to an attempt to thwart the will of SAG voters. Sometimes a rabbit hole leads to Wonderland, but other times to a place far more dangerous. Will the fall never come to an end?