A Lesson in Solidarity … Not

On Tuesday, June 9, after 17 months of negotiations and nearly a year after their film and TV contract had expired, SAG (Screen Actors Guild) voted to accept the AMPTP’s (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) last, final and best offer.

Despite months of acrimony, with the union having more or less broken into two opposing factions, the vote was not nearly as close as some had predicted.  With 35% of the 110,000 members voting (a fairly high ratio by SAG standards), the final tally was 78% in favor, 22% opposed.

You had the feeling that a great many SAG members were suffering from chronic battle fatigue and just wanted to see this thing end.  Of course, that particular weapon—i.e., stretching the contract negotiations out to the point where the membership’s nerves are frazzled—has always been included in management’s arsenal.

And why not include it?  After all, stalling is an effective, tried and true tactic. An aroused membership goes into a bargain all riled up, having been fed a diet of raw meat and gunpowder; but after a year of bickering, they’re tired, they’re whipped and they’re ready to call it day.  Unlike Napoleon facing the onslaught of the Russian winter, Time is always on management’s side.

If you’re one of those people who roots for conglomerates, the status quo, Corporate America, and Hollywood producers, then you’ll love the SAG agreement.  However, if you’re one who sympathizes with working actors and actresses, those who live off residuals and occasional gigs, rather than $15 million salaries, then you’ll be disappointed.

There were two pieces of relatively good news to come out of the agreement.  First, the union got a modest 3% GWI (general wage increase) the first year, followed by 3.5% the second year.  Obviously, many eyed that combined 6.5% increase as being better than nothing (and certainly a lot better than being asked to take outright cuts, as many unions have).

Second, the new agreement covers two, rather than three years, meaning its expiration date (June 30, 2011) will coincide with that of AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists),  the WGA (Writers Guild of America), and the DGA (Directors Guild of America).

In theory, having all four of these entertainment guilds at the table at the same time will give the unions some added leverage in dealing with the Hollywood money boys, come 2011.  That’s the theory, at least.  But unless the other guilds are willing to step up to the plate the way the WGA did when it went on a 100-day strike, the results could be similar to what SAG just got.

It’s been speculated that the two biggest disadvantages for SAG was the recession and the continued fallout from the Writers’ strike.  It’s accepted in labor circles that lengthy strikes (longer than two months) have one of two effects on union members: they either terrify them—dissuade them from going out on strike themselves—or, conversely, inspire them to join in the insurrection.  No doubt, the Producer’s hearts began racing when they saw that the former was largely the case with SAG.

The two opposing factions during SAG’s negotiations were “Membership First” and “Unite For Strength.”  Simply put, the Membership First group was the faction that declared its willingness to fight for a fair contract, and Unite For Strength was the faction that believed, given the economic climate, that now wasn’t the time for a fight, which was music to AMPTP’s ears.

Membership First supported SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen, and believed that the Alliance was cheating them out of New Media revenue by pretending that either there wasn’t enough revenue there to quibble over, or that it was “too early” to know what the impact of New Media would be.

Because these Membership First folks hadn’t forgotten how badly they were euchred out of cable revenue, then VHS revenue, then DVD revenue, they were committed to taking a stand on the emerging New Media markets.  If SAG’s membership knew what its leadership was fighting for, the vote might have turned out differently.  Instead, the Alliance pretty much got what it wanted.

The Unite For Strength faction consisted of many big-name stars and hyphenates (actor-hyphen-producer), such as George Clooney and Tom Hanks.  And when Messrs. Clooney and Hanks speak, all of Hollywood listens.

Preposterous as it sounds, Unite For Strength actually took out a full-page ad in the trade papers, pleading with Rosenberg and company not to be too hard-nosed in negotiations.  Predictably, that show of capitulation pretty much drove a dagger into the heart of the bargain.  It was downhill from there.

So the SAG battle is over.  The leadership fought a noble fight.  Give the union credit for doing what unions are supposed to do—represent the interests of its members.  Give union members like Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Scott Wilson credit for trying to spread the word

As incomprehensible as it is why so many working-class American workers are vehemently opposed to limiting CEO compensation, it’s equally baffling why so many union members are willing to take management’s side in a bargain.

As the old joke goes, the person is asked, Is it ignorance or is it apathy?  His answer:  “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net


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