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To Strike or Not to Strike

SAG’s Terrible Dilemma

by DAVID MACARAY

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is still without a contract, which, even in the best of times and for the most opportunistic of unions, is a tricky and precarious situation.  But according to what’s being reported in mainstream and trade media, SAG—led by its fiery, beleaguered president, Alan Rosenberg—is close to slipping into your classic “no-win” status. 

Not to get sucked into Hollywood-style melodrama here, but given what’s happened so far, and what looms ominously on the horizon, it can be argued that SAG is in the worst position a union can find itself.  With bad externals and equally bad internals, things look pretty damned bleak.

Consider the formidable array of obstacles lined up against it.

First, there’s the economy.  The condition of the national economy has been described, variously, as “bad,” as “very bad,” even as “scary bad.”  In any case, things are as disturbing as they’ve been since the Great Depression, with the prospect of getting worse before they get better.  Not exactly the ideal climate for hunkering down to a tough negotiation.

Second, SAG membership, led by a splinter group of big-name actors, including Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Alex Baldwin and Cameron Diaz, have publicly opposed SAG’s executive board’s decision to seek a strike vote, arguing that this is no time for saber-rattling and putting people in jeopardy of losing their jobs.  Succumbing to pressure, SAG leadership announced on December 23 that the proposed strike vote, originally set to begin on January 2, would be moved back to January 14, “at the earliest.” 

On the flip side you have a group of other “name” actors, including Mel Gibson, Holly Hunter, Martin Sheen and Sandra Oh.  This group is less sanguine.  They believe that the issues facing SAG are simply too vital and timely to abandon without a fight, no matter how shaky the economy or how nervous the membership.  With Tom and Mel squared off like this, the theater marquee would read: “Forrest Gump vs. Braveheart.” 

Third, there’s the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), SAG’s adversary at the bargaining table.  Predictably, the Alliance is playing this up for all its worth, poor-mouthing its financial position and pretending that it’s already gone the extra mile to get a deal when, in fact, it’s barely moved an inch and has no intention of budging another millimeter.  When Hollywood producers can get cast as the meek, sympathetic victims, baby, you know you’re behind a million-pound eight-ball. 

Fourth, the New York branch of the 120,000-member SAG union is, reportedly, engaged in a nasty, internecine battle with Rosenberg and company, taking management’s view that SAG-West is being reckless and irrational.  It’s bad enough having management on your back; just imagine what it must feel like when it’s your own union brethren doing the clawing.

Fifth, there’s been a considerable amount of negative public opinion.  Talk radio, letters to the editor, op-ed commentaries, industry blogs—most of it has been critical of SAG, accusing it of the traditional, garden-variety union stuff, plus railing against its leaders for not being man enough to simply admit when they’re whipped. 

And sixth, there’s the pressure being exerted by “negotiation momentum.”  With the DGA (Directors Guild of America), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and the WGA (Writers Guild of America) having already signed similar contracts, SAG comes off as militant, greedy, selfish, and isolated (“Hey, why can’t you guys be team players?”).  It’s a grim picture.

But here’s the irony:  Despite a sick economy, negative public perception, and a potential membership rebellion, the guys running the show at SAG—the same guys who are being portrayed in the media as “cowboys” and “ego-maniacs”—are absolutely, dead-on correct in their assessment of the playing field and in what they’re seeking.

The critical issues in this bargain involve the broad question of residuals for New Media ventures, technological areas which are still largely untapped and unpredictable, but potentially wildly lucrative.  The Alliance desperately wants to keep these goodies locked up for themselves, resisting any attempts to further divvy up with the hired help.  It’s not complicated and it’s not surprising.  It’s Business 101.

Forget it’s Hollywood for a moment.  Treat this SAG vs. AMPTP deal like any other union vs. management negotiation.  It’s been a time-honored management practice to use a weak economy as their main argument for not sweetening the pot, even when they’re not being hurt by it.  (Note:  Worldwide movie revenues continue to climb.) 

Of course, anyone who’s ever sat at a bargaining table knows there are two problems with this macro-economic scenario.  One is that management never, ever allows the union to take the converse approach—to ask for a decent raise on the grounds that the economy is chugging along on all eight cylinders. 

Indeed, when the union tries to help itself by pointing out that the country is wallowing in one of the greatest economic boons in history, it’s told that the condition of the national economy is irrelevant, that they’re not there to talk the Big Picture, that they’re there to talk specific industry-related or company-related matters.  It’s a one-way street.    

The other problem is that a union can never dig itself out of a hole once they’re in it.  When you capitulate because the overall economy is weak (even when the company or industry in question is strong), you will struggle forever to make that up, even when things turn prosperous.  In truth, you never catch up; you stay behind forever.

Which is exactly what AMPTP wants.  They want a 3-year contract that will give them an insurmountable headstart in New Media.  The producers regard this innovative technology as a potential bonanza, viewing New Media the way John D. Rockefeller viewed a new oil field.  Why share it, when you can keep it all for yourself—especially if you can use a convenient recession as your weapon?

This brings us, finally, to the little matter of the strike vote itself.  And that can be summed up in one sentence:  If you ask for strike authorization, you damned well better get it.  Period. 

To that end, SAG has set itself a formidable task.  Unlike many unions, which require only a simple majority, SAG by-laws require a 75% mandate to authorize a strike.  Given SAG’s public dissension, even the most optimistic handicappers believe that getting three-quarters of the membership to vote Yes will be a long-shot.

Make no mistake:  Nothing kills bargaining leverage quicker than having a strike vote fail.  That’s why union leaders usually won’t risk a strike vote if they think it will fail.  Not asking your members for strike authorization always leaves the lingering doubt that you may have gotten it, even when—like now, with SAG—it looks dubious.  Without proof, neither side can know for certain.

But a membership voting down strike authorization not only erases all doubt, it tells management two things:  The members have no stomach for a fight and no confidence in their own executive board.  In which case, the union may as well take a shovel and bury any hopes it had of getting a decent contract.       

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net