Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SAG and the Studios: Post-Prandial Posturing

Open the fridge after Thanksgiving, and leftovers come tumbling out. Open your In box after Thanksgiving, and SAG-related emails come tumbling out (these in addition to a pre-Thanksgiving email as well). Most are just the same old starchy stuffing we’ve been fed for months, albeit dressed up with a salty quote or two.

In the last day, I’ve received a fact sheet, a copy of a trade ad, and three press releases, including one from SAG that’s quaintly-titled “No One Has Our Proxy,” and another from the AMPTP asserting that “SAG’s press release proves that SAG is now officially out of touch with reality.” I happen to believe that SAG’s leadership has been out of touch with reality for quite some time, but it’s a relief to know that the official finding is now in.

If you thought the house was a mess after your Thanksgiving guests got done spilling cranberry sauce on the tablecloth and grinding crumbs into the carpet, consider what December will look like in unionland. The SAG strike authorization ballots are likely to go out within the next few weeks if not days, and we can expect more press releases and emails to follow. The stakes are high. If the union achieves a yes vote of 75% (or more) of those voting, it will have the strike authorization it seeks, and the national board is likely to then vote to go on strike.

What happened to the newly-elected Hollywood “moderates,” Unite for Strength? They (like the hardline Membership First) voted for the October board resolution that brought us to this juncture. They were quite simply outmaneuvered by MF. Now they probably won’t put up a united front against a strike authorization, because they’re concerned with positioning themselves to achieve further gains in next September’s SAG elections. If they publicly oppose a strike authorization, then MF will tar them as Benedict Arnolds who hamstrung their own union’s attempt to fight the AMPTP.

Instead, UFS prefers to take a long view. Remember that their primary platform plank was merger with AFTRA, itself a long-term goal. Of course, how to prevent irreparable damage to the union and the industry in the meantime is a harder question. And if UFS simply goes along with MF, then how does UFS distinguish itself come next September’s elections? They risk becoming an echo of MF in the short term. The hardliners have very strategically boxed in UFS, it seems.

Maybe some leaders in NY and the regions will come out against the strike authorization or a strike — MF has little or no power outside of Hollywood — but even if that were to happen, it may not be enough to sway Hollywood voters, who constitute the bulk of the union. And even the NY and regional board members voted for the October resolution: all but 2 of the 71-member national board did so. That makes it harder for those board members to come out publicly against a strike authorization.

Is it really possible, in this economy, that SAG members will vote to authorize a strike? Yes. Here’s why: (1) As I’ve previously blogged, many SAG members don’t work as actors in any given year, and so have little to lose directly from a strike. (2) Also as I’ve blogged, SAG will conduct a vigorous “educational” campaign in favor of an authorization. The union campaign will be direct and effective. No one else will be able to send email and physical mail directly to all 106,000 paid Guild members, because no one else has the addresses. (3) There’s no “quorum” or minimum number of votes required. If turnout is low or moderate, then a few thousand members could take the entire Guild out on strike. For instance, if only 20,000 members were to vote, then 15,000 yes votes would be enough to pass the authorization. The risk is that some people opposed to a strike authorization might not vote because they, like many people, wouldn’t believe that the union would strike in this economy, and over what are currently mere pennies.

If an authorization is achieved, what then? The studios are unlikely to change their position even when presented with an authorization. On the SAG board, non-hardline board members will come under pressure to vote with the hardliners for a strike. That’s true for two reasons: the September elections (as noted above) and the fact that MF will point to the authorization vote and characterize a strike as the will of the membership. The stage would then be set for a long and bitter strike. How would it end? Not well for anyone.

And what if the authorization vote fails? Then there’s no strike — but also no deal, because the current SAG leadership is simply unwilling to agree to terms that the studios find acceptable. The SAG leadership attempted to derail the AFTRA deal and failed, but they just continued onward, ignoring their defeat. If they fail to achieve an authorization, they’re likely to do the same, until and unless the moderates eventually seek to change the union leadership.

My usual disclaimer: perhaps cooler heads will prevail; and/or perhaps the members will decline to pass an authorization. Maybe. But so far, the only real leadership in the union is coming from a faction that’s driving it towards a strike, not a deal. Twelve months ago, the writers were walking the picket lines. By early or mid January, the actors could be too. Talk about the ghost of Christmas past.