While American labor unions are having their usual rough time of it (not to mention the additional burden of having weathered eight brutal years of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is facing not only potential defeat in the form of getting jammed with an inferior contract, but stands to be dealt a bitter humiliation. And the entity applying that humiliation isn’t its long-time adversary, the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). It’s SAG’s own membership.
Typically (and understandably), a union membership wants it all. That’s the standard dynamic. The members want a first-rate union contract, with all the goodies; but, because of the dangers involved, they want it to come all neatly wrapped up, without any risks. There’s a baseball analogy. The manager goes out to the mound and glibly instructs the pitcher on how to pitch to a dangerous batter: “Don’t walk him, but don’t give him anything to hit.”
What SAG’s rank-and-file wants from its leadership is much the same thing. Bring us back a good contract, a substantial contract, an improved contract, but don’t ask us to join you in a battle or otherwise sacrifice anything important to get it. Above all, don’t ask us to get tough.
Granted, this isn’t true of everyone. There are many defiant SAG members willing to stand up to the AMPTP and fight for what they feel they deserve. But there are many (too many) more who’ve lowered their expectations. Because they are so spooked by the prospect of a strike, they’ve abandoned any hope of a decent contract and now simply want to come out of this thing with signatures on a 3-year agreement—any agreement.
To avoid the trauma of a possible strike, they’re willing to settle for crap. Despite SAG president Allen Rosenberg’s pleas to stay united and focused, in order to help the union’s negotiating team obtain a fair share of revenue created by digital technology (SAG feels it got cheated on revenue from previous technological innovations, such as VHS and DVDs), the membership has chosen open rebellion.
There are simply too many things out there that scare them, too many things that prevent them from falling in line behind their union. The Alliance scares them; the recession scares them; the recent WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike scares them; Bernie Madoff scares them; and, most of all, the union’s strident militancy scares them.
Unfortunately, because SAG has been unable to keep its internal bickering a private matter (when you take out a newspaper ad, you’ve pretty much tipped your hand), the AMPTP has been watching this whole, shameful burlesque from the sidelines, and is licking its chops in anticipation of profiting from it. In truth, as greedy and dissembling as the Alliance is, who can blame them for wanting to take advantage of so easy a mark?
A union in such a state of disarray—with the membership running a newspaper advertisement pleading with its own executive board to “lighten up,” and its own board members trying to get their chief negotiator fired because he’s “too mean,”—deserves every bad thing that happens to it. (That sound you hear in the background is Jimmy Hoffa spinning in his grave.)
On Tuesday, January 13, a group of self-proclaimed “moderates” on SAG’s executive board tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a resolution to get executive director/chief negotiator Doug Allen removed from his job. It was only by means of some slick parliamentary maneuvering (i.e., stalling) that Rosenberg and his cohorts were able to deflect the motion. But it was a horrendous blow to the union, even with Allen managing to hang on to his job.
Based on what’s been widely reported, Doug Allen, SAG’s point man, seems to be one tough bird. A former official of the NFL’s Players Association (as well as a former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills), Allen probably falls into that category of negotiator labeled “difficult.” He fights hard, he fights to win, he isn’t easily intimidated. In other words, exactly the sort of negotiator management dreads and a union needs.
If SAG’s 120,000 members really wanted to come out of this thing with a good contract they would have done the opposite of what they’re doing now. Instead of wetting their pants, they would have come out publicly and defiantly in support of Rosenberg and Allen’s leadership—no matter what their personal feelings—and put the fear of God into the AMPTP.
When you reach this point in a bargain it’s absolutely imperative that you show solidarity. When you reach this point, you need to demonstrate publicly your support of the leadership. You’re on stage now, and everyone is watching. What management fears more than anything—more than rhetoric, more than threats of lawsuits—is evidence that the members overwhelmingly support their leaders. Union solidarity is a scary thing.
Taking out a splashy newspaper ad that’s critical of your own leadership—an ad for all the world to see (particularly the opportunistic Alliance)—is tantamount to economic treason. Even given Hollywood’s storied reputation for bombastic egos and towering self-aggrandizement, what could have motivated someone to pull a bone-headed stunt like that?
If you’re a longshoreman, steelworker or paperworker, and you take out a newspaper ad like that, you’re likely to be picking up your teeth off the floor or finding your car on fire. In “real” unions, you do you’re bitching at the union hall, not in the media. You want to be an “independent,” fine, go it alone. But if you’re a union member, you stay united.
Of course, the fact that A-list actors like Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Alec Baldwin support the rebellion and were the ones who instigated the ad means that no one’s going to make their lives miserable. They’re too big; in fact, they’re bigger than the union. And, frankly, this kind of foppish behavior is precisely why many hardcore labor people view SAG as a “boutique” union.
All that Rosenberg and Allen are asking for is strike authorization. They need something to prove to the AMPTP that they still believe their contract demands are reasonable and that the membership is serious about getting them. No one is promising to shut down Hollywood. A strike vote isn’t the same thing as a strike. Strike authorization is simply a way (arguably, the only way) of raising the sperm count.
But with all that’s already happened, it might be too late for Rosenberg and company to regroup and put together a decent offensive. Unless things change quickly and radically, it will be close to impossible for SAG’s e-board to get strike authorization, assuming they’re still considering taking a vote. A 75% mandate is required, and getting it will be a tall order.
SAG membership had a chance to assist their negotiating team; they had a chance to help move the AMPTP off the dime. By publicly and enthusiastically supporting SAG’s e-board, they could have altered the course of the bargain. Instead, they capitulated. That decision is likely to haunt them for years to come.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Borneo Bob”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com