Conflict of Interest, Hollywood-Style

I recently had lunch with David Clennon, the movie and television actor (Being There, The Thing, The Right Stuff, Syriana, Ghost Whisperer, thirtysomething, Saved, Boston Legal, etc.), at a coffee shop in Santa Monica.  We were there to share a meal and discuss some union issues.  In addition to being a distinguished actor, Dave Clennon is also a committed political and labor activist.

How committed?  He once turned down a role on the hit television series, “24,” because he felt the show’s depiction of torture indirectly contributed to the U.S. government’s use of torture as a legitimate form of interrogation, and, accordingly, to the public’s acquiescence or tacit approval of it.  In the real world, turning down a paying gig because of political principles is rare; in Tinsel Town, it’s practically unheard of.

As for the labor scene, what made the last couple of Screen Actors Guild (SAG) negotiations so frustrating and disappointing to Clennon and other SAG activists is the glaring conflict of interest that exists within the movie industry.  Indeed, when you hear it explained, it seems truly bizarre.

The group with whom SAG (with 120,000 members) negotiates its contracts is the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), the people who more or less run the movie business.  On one side of the table you have the rank-and-file actors, looking for a larger slice of the pie, and on the other side you have the producers, looking to retain the whole pie.  At first glance this “actors vs. producers” scenario seems like any other labor vs. management scrimmage.

However, what makes this SAG scenario so different is that some of the union’s most influential members happen to be producers themselves.  It’s a concept that’s hard to wrap your mind around.  Recalling my days as a negotiator, Clennon asked, “How would you feel about having the CEO of the company you’re negotiating with also being an influential member of your union?”

And of all the successful hyphenates (actor-producers) in Hollywood, none is more successful or more formidable than Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan), who owns Playtone, his own production company.  Not only does Hanks earn more as a producer than as a performer (and he’s very well paid as a performer), it’s been said that Playtone consistently employs more actors each year than any studio in town.

Given his executive profile, his acting whiskers, and his unique role in the union, to say that Tom Hanks wields considerable clout is a gross understatement.  In truth, he is arguably the single most influential human being in Hollywood.

Of course, the problem with having union members like Hanks (and Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, et al) is immediately apparent.  As successful producers or multi-millionaire actors (or both), their needs don’t coincide with the needs of SAG’s rank-and-file members who rely on such things as TV residuals and DVD sales to make their living.

While George Clooney no longer has to worry about residuals from “ER,” or his cut from future DVD sales, the majority of SAG’s membership still do.   Residuals and DVD sales are vital to them.  And, as happens at every negotiation with the AMPTP, the producers are reluctant to part with their money.  It’s always been a battle.  Which is why it’s so alarming to have as your union spokesmen people who, to put it bluntly, not only don’t need the money as much as you do, but may have an entirely different agenda.

In February of 2008, a “secret,” invitation-only meeting was held to discuss the upcoming SAG negotiations.  Hanks, Clooney, James Cromwell, Mike Farrell, and Melissa Gilbert (former SAG president), among others, were in attendance.  They represented a group of SAG members called “Unite for Strength,” who were opposed within SAG by another group, a more activist faction, known as “MembershipFirst,” of which then-president Alan Rosenberg was a member.

Hanks and his supporters were worried that Rosenberg and company were going to enter the upcoming negotiations with a giant chip on their shoulder, that they were going to be overly aggressive in pursuing a new contract, particularly after concluding that the Alliance had screwed them out of money and benefits in previous negotiations.  The rumor circulating among the cognoscenti was that the MembershipFirst crew was looking for payback.

The fact that the WGA (Writers Guild of America) were already on strike (they would stay out 100 days), was another burr under Unite for Strength’s saddle.  Clearly, the writers taking so militant a stand—and being out for so long a period—had put the fear of God into the moderates.  Unite for Strength was worried that Rosenberg, who’d been reported to be hanging out with Patrick Verrone, president of the striking WGA, was going to follow the writers’ lead and force the Actors Guild into a strike.

Normally, in the run-up to a negotiation, a rumor like this would be gold, a cause for jubilation.  Every union in America prays for the leverage provided by this kind of pre-negotiation notoriety, where you’re perceived as already being in full-blown strike mode—especially these days, when so few unions actually pull the plug.  Typically, when unions engage in saber-rattling displays, nobody (including their own membership) believes them, which is why management is so willing to call their bluff.

But this was different; this threat was perceived as real.  Having the producers genuinely fearful that the bargain could wind up in a ditch was manna from Heaven.  Unfortunately, instead of parlaying this perception into dollars and cents, Hanks and others moved to squelch the opportunity.  They moved to squelch it because they were well-heeled company men who had absolutely no interest in rocking the boat.

On February 14, 2008, Unite for Strength took out full-page ads in the trade papers, urging the parties (SAG and AMPTP) to sit down together and “just talk,” ostensibly as a means of averting any hostility.  The damage that such a reckless tactical blunder can do in the run-up to a contract negotiation—publicly circumventing the elected leadership—is incalculable.

Then, the next day, February 15, Hanks and Clooney took it a step further.  At what was presumed to be Hanks’ urging, they co-authored a letter to the editor that appeared prominently in the Los Angeles Times, in which they cautioned the actors to approach the negotiations in a rational, open-minded fashion.

What this amateurish, sad-sack plea did was effectively strip Rosenberg of the only trump card a union has—i.e., evidence of unwavering membership solidarity.  Basically, the only thing that Hanks and Clooney’s letter succeeded in doing was to announce to the world that SAG was riddled with dissension.  Well done, boys.

Of course, what happened next was predictable.  The Alliance exploited the dissension, the subsequent contract offer was ratified, the MembershipFirst slate was soundly defeated in the next SAG Board of Directors election, and the “moderates” took charge of the Guild.

So the question that Dave Clennon and others have raised remains unanswered.  And it’s a good question.  Indeed, it’s the same fundamental question that was made famous by the 1930s Florence Reece labor song of the same name:  Which Side Are You On?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. 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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