On Thursday, July 10, SAG (Screen Actors Guild) rejected what the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) called their “last, best and final offer,” setting the stage for either more negotiations between the parties or the union’s reluctant acceptance of the terms.
In truth, there’s virtually no chance of the third option—a strike. And the Alliance knows it. For a strike vote to gain traction, it has to be perceived as more than an exercise in saber-rattling; the threat of an actual shutdown has to be feasible. And, tragically, too much is stacked up against SAG to make the threat of an Actors’ work stoppage a viable tactic.
SAG members are understandably skittish. This is not to suggest that the rank-and-file is demoralized or unwilling to fight, or that they couldn’t surprise everyone and declare war on the Alliance, which would be magnificent. It’s just that contract bargaining is largely about timing, and right now the timing is unfavorable.
The Directors have already settled with the AMPTP; the Writers have already settled (after their debilitating 100-day strike, the effects of which are still being felt); and, most recently, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) settled, after bickering publicly with SAG over a jurisdictional matter, which, unfortunately, made the unions appear even less “unified.”
Of course, the AMPTP is taking maximum advantage of these unique circumstances, not only presenting themselves as willing to hold off as long as it takes, but pretending that they can’t afford to make concessions in the all-important area of residuals on DVD sales. Hollywood management is wallowing in money. To pretend that they can’t afford to part with a few extra pennies of DVD revenue is absurd, an insult to the Actors. But a contract negotiation isn’t about fairness or equality. It’s about muscle and leverage.
Still, the problem with describing a company offer as “inadequate and frightening” (which is how SAG president Alan Rosenberg described the AMPTP’s most recent offer) is that as much as that characterization puts management on the defensive and gets the membership all fired up and ready to do battle, it’s also risky.
The union has to tread with caution. That same “frightening” offer might turn out to be the package you’re forced to take, which can be awkward. Asking the membership to ratify a contract you’ve portrayed as unacceptable is reminiscent of that old joke where the person complains about a particular restaurant, saying that the food tastes bad and is poor quality . . . and the portions are too small.
On the other hand, when you’re getting down to the short strokes, you have no choice but to continue fighting, otherwise you’re sunk. You can’t say to the company, “Okay, what you have on the table is acceptable, but we’d prefer that you sweeten it a bit.” As programmatic as it sounds, you have to stick to the script. You have to continue pushing for more.
It’s astonishing how similar all union negotiations are. No matter what the industry or union, the dynamics of the bargaining are almost identical. For example, the company is almost always going to describe a late offer as their “final” offer. It makes little sense to do otherwise. What are they going to say? “While we hope you agree to this, it isn’t all we have. We have more in reserve”?
Accordingly, when management does eventually move, even incrementally, off its so-called “final” offer, all that does is reinforce the union’s dismissal of any talk of “final this” or “final that” in future negotiations. It’s a vicious cycle. Yet, experienced negotiating teams understand the intricacies of the process. It’s only when you have inexperienced or arrogant management negotiators at the table that things fall apart.
But the same logic applies, more or less, to the threat of a strike. What is the union supposed to say about going on strike, even when—for whatever reason—a strike is untenable? In this regard, every union is in the same boat, whether it’s SAG, the UAW (United Auto Workers) or my old union the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers).
You can’t go into a bargain and say to the management team, “We’re going to yell and scream and call you names, but we promise that, under no circumstances, will we do the one thing you fear most.” You can’t go into a gunfight carrying a knife, and you can’t go into a bargain without wielding the threat of pulling the plug. It’s as simple as that. Not if you have any hope of getting a decent contract.
As for the membership, the same rules apply. Some years ago, a woman approached the union bargaining team, in private, and asked if the strike vote we were about to take was being done to “send a message” to the company, or was being done because we were actually prepared to shut down the plant if necessary.
Even though the Local had gone on a 54-day strike just a few years earlier, and the union bargaining team knew in their hearts that what was already on the table was enough to preclude a shutdown, we were forced to maintain a defiant posture.
Because we couldn’t have word leak out that the bargaining board had admitted to using the strike vote as a mere bluff, we told her that, yes, we were prepared to go nuclear if it came to that. We needed this information to get back to the company. I still recall her response. “In that case,” she said, “I’m voting No.”
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org