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Hollywood Gives SAG the Brush Off

There’s an unwritten rule in baseball that says a pitcher should never throw back-to-back change-ups to the same batter.  One of these pitches is enough to put the batter off stride.  But two in a row gives him the opportunity to readjust his timing, and clobber the pitch.

In labor circles there’s a similar unwritten rule:  Don’t expect the membership to go on strike in back-to-back contract disputes.  Because they probably won’t do it.  A strike (particularly a long and arduous one) is an emotionally and financially draining experience.  Making it through one of these things is tough enough; going through two in a row takes too much out of the membership, no matter how loyal and committed they are.  In fact, asking them to go on strike a second time is not only unrealistic, it’s unfair.

And there’s a corollary to this rule:  Don’t expect the membership of one union to go on strike when they’ve recently witnessed a debilitating strike by another union in the same or related industry.  Specifically, don’t expect the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which is currently negotiating a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), to vote for a strike.

No matter how disappointing the final offer is, the Alliance is counting on SAG members to recall with horror the fallout of the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) 100-day shutdown, which ended just a few months ago (and cost $2.5 billion in lost wages and production).  They are counting on them to be sobered by it, to be spooked by it.  And it’s this corollary that has triggered the AMPTP’s recent snub of SAG.

Believing that SAG’s 120,000 members have no stomach for a strike, the Alliance, on Tuesday, abruptly broke off talks with SAG negotiators and walked away from the table—ostensibly to begin bargaining with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), who had generously postponed (twice) their own start time to allow the AMPTP and SAG an opportunity to reach an agreement.

It was reported that SAG leadership formally requested that negotiations continue, but the Producers refused.  They broke it off unilaterally, informing SAG negotiators that they’d be willing to resume talking on May 28.  As of Thursday morning, SAG hadn’t responded.

According to sources close to the bargain, while progress has been made in several areas, there are four or five critical issues still in dispute.  Among them:  The types of “new media” programming that would be covered by the agreement; the amount paid to actors who appear in on-line “streamed” programs; higher pay for guest stars and marginal performers; and an increase in the actors’ residuals from the sales of DVDs.  In other words, many of the same concerns the Writers had.

For tactical reasons, the AMPTP was thrilled to break off these negotiations, all but salivating at the prospect of reaching a quick settlement with the smaller and less “radical” AFTRA group, in the hope that a signed contract will pressure SAG to back down.  It’s the same tactic they used during the WGA’s strike, when they reached a quick deal with the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

Because industry contracts tend to be “symmetrical,” the Alliance believed the DGA’s signature on a contract would pry the Writers off their agenda.  It didn’t work.  The Writers stuck to their guns and ultimately signed a contract that was superior to the one the Directors got.

Not to flog this conceit to death but there’s another corollary to the rule, and it runs counter to the previous ones:  Like street riots and reality TV shows, labor strikes tend to be contagious; the more of them there are, the more they incite.  This corollary states that instead of being intimidated and cowed by the effects of a big-time strike, the opposite occurs.  A membership rises up, energized and provoked by a brother union, inspired to play their part in what they see as a “labor revolt.”  It happens.

The AMPTP needs to tread carefully here.  The belief that they have SAG over a barrel, that its membership is snake-bitten and, therefore, too timid and cautious to hit the bricks, could backfire on them.  Admittedly, given the circumstances, a strike by SAG would be a longshot; but you can never read the rank-and-file with certainty.  Much will depend on how the union’s leadership presents the issue.

In any event, the AMPTP also needs to remember that the post-strike contract they and the WGA finally agreed to was fairly close to what the WGA asked for in its original agenda.  The Producers need to consider the grief, recriminations and monumental financial loss that could have been avoided had they simply been a little less greedy and a little more humble.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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