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Actors and Producers Still Far Apart

On the Prospects for a SAG Strike

by DAVID MACARAY

Despite their tough talk and ominous saber-rattling, everyone expects the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to eventually reach a settlement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), rather than go on strike, as they’ve threatened. 

In fact, everyone is saying that there’s virtually zero chance of a SAG walkout.  Why?  Because, according to conventional wisdom, Hollywood is suffering from serious “strike fatigue” (the recent writers strike lasted a debilitating 100 days) and because the nation’s economy is in no condition to heal itself, much less absorb a major industry shutdown. 

Also, there’s the follow-the-leader or “inertia” argument.  It’s irrational and glib, but the advice SAG has been getting goes something like this:  The writers have settled; the directors have settled; AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) has settled; and now, even though you didn’t get everything you wanted, it’s your turn to step up to the plate and take what the AMPTP has offered.

Simple as it sounds, it’s a little more complicated than that.  What SAG is asking for in these contract negotiations is not only vitally important for building a foundation for future bargains, it’s eminently reasonable.  While actors work in the same industry as writers and directors, the requirements and needs of each guild don’t necessarily coincide. 

Unlike writers and directors (or radio personalities), actors make their living off their images.  Getting paid for the studios’ use of those images makes perfectly good sense; allowing the studios to use those images at their discretion, free of charge, without some structured form of compensation, makes no sense at all. 

The Actors also realize that, despite their denials, the Producers have the extra money to pony up.  The fact that the AMPTP is pretending to be nervous, claiming that it’s too early to know where this so-called New Media market is headed, and is peddling doom and gloom predictions for the entertainment industry, is almost insulting. 

Just because management (in any industry, under any conditions) can always be expected to downplay its profitability during contract negotiations doesn’t make the AMPTP’s poor-mouthing any less annoying.  Global demand for American movies is staggering.  In the last 5 years, going back to 2003, Hollywood has earned more money in foreign markets than it had in the previous 70 years combined, and those markets are continuing to grow exponentially.  The entertainment future is gloriously bright.

But SAG does have a slight problem, one which—because it’s an internal, parliamentary issue—hasn’t drawn much attention.  According to SAG bylaws, a full 75 percent of the membership is required to give strike authorization.  That’s an extraordinary mandate, especially considering that most unions require only a simple majority (50% plus one) for a strike vote.

Getting three-fourths approval for anything is a formidable task . . . from deciding on where to eat dinner to what color carpet to put in the living room.  Think about it.  Most U.S. presidential elections fall into the 55-45 percent range; a 60-40 percent victory (e.g., Reagan’s 61-39 defeat of Mondale) is considered a landslide. 

Accordingly, for Congress to pass a bill, a simple majority is required, and for the Senate to approve a treaty, a two-thirds vote is needed.  The only time a three-fourths mandate is required is when they do something like add an amendment to the Constitution.

 A strike vote is easy to obtain, almost automatic in fact, when the membership sees it, more or less, as a “symbolic” gesture, as a means of provoking the company, of scaring them into sweetening their offer.  When a strike vote is seen as symbolic, it’s not uncommon to get a 90 percent mandate.  But when a vote is perceived as being the prelude to an actual strike (which it will likely appear to SAG members), it’s a whole other deal.

Indeed, it’s that very dynamic that causes management to hope that the union negotiating team takes an inferior final offer back to the membership and has them vote on it, rather than have the guts to call a strike on their own.  Politically, from the union’s point of view, it’s safer to let old-fashioned democracy prevail and place the decision in the hands of membership, even at the risk of them ratifying a patently inferior contract, than to call a strike on their own.

In any event, it’s going to be very interesting to see how SAG negotiations proceed from this point.  The lines have been drawn.  The Alliance is showing no signs of being willing to come off what they’ve called their “last, best and final” offer, and SAG leadership, so far at least, is sticking to its guns, promising to take this thing all the way. 

Ultimately, whether it’s a strike vote or an actual contract presented to them for ratification (with or without the union’s recommendation) it will be up to SAG membership to decide their own fate.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net