Monday, October 20, 2008

SAG Steps Toward Strike

The SAG national board passed a resolution yesterday on what to do regarding contract negotiations with the studios.  My take:  Membership First outmaneuvered the newly-elected Unite for Strength faction and its NY and regional allies and is taking the union down a path that may well lead to a strike.  I’m not optimistic.

The vote was almost 97% in favor, meaning that the resolution was a compromise between all concerned.  Yet it gives MF much of what it wanted.  The vote was taken right near the end of the meeting on Sunday (even though it was supposed to have been addressed Saturday), with Membership First knowing that the meeting had to end at 1:00 p.m. so that the NY and regional board members could catch their planes.  (This weekend’s meeting was conducted in person in LA.)

I think UFS acted to protect their chances of gaining additional board seats in next September’s elections.  Yes, those elections are almost a year from now, but politicos, even non-pros, think ahead.

Here’s the step by step process SAG authorized, and my analysis and comments.  Following this are the SAG and AMPTP press releases.

1.                  Request appointment of a federal mediator.

Comment:  Useless.  The parties are far apart on at least two of the three major issues – union jurisdiction in new media from dollar one, and residuals for all new media when played in new media for an extended period.  On a third of SAG’s major issues – force majeure – there’s probably room for compromise of some sort, or the studio’s might even abandon their hardline position if SAG give on other issues – but I’d anticipate no movement on this or other issues if SAG doesn’t abandon its efforts to change the new media template regarding the first two issues. 

Also, remember that appointment of a mediator in the WGA negotiations accomplished nothing.  A negotiator, having never worked in the entertainment industry, will struggle to gain credibility in the room and the understand the issues in detail. 

Moreover, the studios may threaten SAG and the mediator that they’ll roll back parts of the offer on the table.  This might particularly be true regarding the increase in minimums – i.e., the AMPTP will allude to 3.0% or even 2.5% rather than the 3.5% that AFTRA got.  Their justification would be the weakened economy.

Note that the resolution doesn’t say when a mediator would be requested, though I’d expect the next couple of days.

Of course, all this is assuming the studios agree to mediate at all.  They don’t have to, although refusal to do so would presumably trigger mailing of a strike authorization ballot (see paragraph 2).  Their apparently undecided as of this point.  The AMPTP press release doesn’t address the issue.  I’m told that the studios will be discussing the question over the next several days.

2.                  If and when the negotiating committee determines that mediation has failed, the negotiating committee is to send SAG members a strike authorization ballot and “educational information.”

Comment:  So the national board tossed this hot potato back to the negotiating committee – a possibility I wrote about several weeks ago – after the negotiating committee had tossed it to the board.  In any case, note that the resolution doesn’t say how long mediation would have to continue before being declared a failure.  However, I expect that if mediation occurs at all, it won’t last more than 2 weeks or so.  That takes us into early or mid-November.

3.                  Comment:  It takes a yes vote from 75% of those members voting in order to authorize a strike.  However, it doesn’t matter how few members vote – there’s no quorum. 

The “educational material” to be sent to members will, of course, assure the members that a strike authorization is a necessary tool for negotiation, and that it doesn’t mean there will be a strike.  Although that’s literally true, I think it’s misleading.  If the members authorize a strike, the national board will almost certainly vote to initiate one.

And, there will probably be no organized voices arguing for a no vote, other than the studios and, perhaps, the A-listers if they decide at long last to get involved.  Unite for Strength and its allies, by voting for the resolution, would be hard-pressed to argue for a no vote.  Also, if they did, they’d be branded traitors by Membership First, on the grounds that they were pushing to deprive the negotiating committee of a necessary tool. 

For these reasons, there’s a good chance that the membership will vote to authorize a strike.  This is particularly true if the turnout is low.  As a result, 8,000-10,000 members could take a 120,000 member union out on strike.

The voting process takes about 30 days, taking us into early to mid-December.

4.                  Comment:  If the strike authorization passes, then the national board could call a strike by a majority vote.  They might urge the studios one last time to recommence negotiations, but I doubt the studios will be willing to “reward” SAG for its hardline approach.  Thus, in mid-December, if this scenario plays out, the SAG leadership may call a special meeting of the board for early January, just after the holidays.  And at that meeting, UFS would be hard-pressed to argue against a strike, and the board would probably initiate a strike at that time.

5.                  Comment:  If there is indeed a strike, I think it will be long and bitter.  The studios will take the current offer off the table and, by the time the strike ends, SAG would probably not get more than what it could have gotten three months ago (if that).  Come next September, Membership First will blame AFTRA for having done a deal that undercut SAG’s leverage, and will blame Unite for Strength for its pro-merger platform.

6.                  The resolution also “adds four new members to the National Negotiating Committee, two from the Hollywood Division, one from the New York Division and one from the Regional Branch Division.” 

Comment:  This would changes the balance of power from the existing 9 Hollywood (all Membership First) v. 4 NY and regional to 9 Hollywood Membership First v. 2 Hollywood but not necessarily Membership First v. 6 NY and regional.  I.e., Membership First would have at least a 9 to 8 majority no matter what.

Also, although the resolution doesn’t say so, I’m told by sources close to the process that the new appointees will be alternates, not full members.  If this is the case, then MF would preserve its existing 9-4 majority.  In any case, as noted above, I think the negotiating committee will end up deciding to send out a strike authorization vote to the membership.

7.                  Comment:  Two topics apparently didn’t come up at the board meeting:  (1) Firing Doug Allen or removing him as chief negotiator; and (2) dissolving the negotiating committee and retrieving its power for the board itself.  With the current National Executive Director aka chief negotiator (Doug Allen), president (Alan Rosenberg) and negotiating committee chair (David Jolliffe) in the room, the likelihood of a successful mediation with the studios is low indeed.


Here’s SAG’s press release:


Los Angeles (October 19, 2008) – The Screen Actors Guild National Board of Directors today passed the following resolution at its quarterly plenary in Los Angeles:

“In hopes of moving the Theatrical and TV negotiations forward, the national board hereby takes the following actions:

SAG will formally request a federal mediator be brought into the negotiations.

The Board adds four new members to the National Negotiating Committee, two from the Hollywood Division, one from the New York Division and one from the Regional Branch Division.

The Board authorizes a referendum and accompanying educational information be sent to the members requesting their authorization for the National Board to call a strike in the Theatrical and TV Contract, at such time as the Negotiating Committee determines in its sole discretion that the mediation process has failed.”

Adopted 96.72% to 3.28%

Approval of the strike authorization would require 75 percent approval of members who vote.

“We hope mediation will help move this process forward. This action by the board demonstrates our commitment to bargain with the strength of our unified membership behind us. Economic times are tough for all Americans, but we must take a stand for what is fair,” said Screen Actors Guild National President Alan Rosenberg.

“Our number one goal remains securing a good contract without a strike,” said SAG National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Doug Allen. “I am pleased by the board’s strong show of support for the national negotiating committee and look forward to meeting with the federal mediator and the AMPTP committee as soon as possible.”

Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) negotiating committees met for 44 days of formal negotiations and have not yet reached a successor agreement to the TV/Theatrical Agreement that expired June 30, 2008.

The board further resolved to add four new members to the negotiation committee, two from the Hollywood Division, one from the New York Division and one from the Regional Branch Division.


Here’s the AMPTP’s press release:

The AMPTP has successfully negotiated four major labor pacts with Hollywood Guilds this year, and we would like to close a fifth with SAG.  That said, there is simply no justification for SAG to expect a deal that is in excess of what the other Guilds negotiated in better economic times. No matter what SAG does - whether it be authorizing a strike or following a different approach - it will not change the harsh reality that currently confronts our industry.