By Mike Farrell
The Hollywood-centric “Membership First” faction that has controlled the Screen Actors Guild’s national board for most of the last five years chooses tactics—misinformation, tough talk and over-promising—that undermine the union’s credibility. Today, blustering and posturing instead of negotiating have painted us into a corner. One would hope repeated failure might have caused a bit of light to dawn, but no. Today, with the country in the most catastrophic economic condition since 1929 and our entire industry reeling, this faction wants us to vote for a strike.
A strike? Now? Don’t we look foolish enough already?
Do these people think it’s a way to somehow save face?
Here’s what it looks like to me:
After realizing their dream of controlling SAG, the Membership First leaders fired a bright, capable guy who had only recently been hired, insisting there would be no penalty. They were wrong; it cost us a bundle. Then, after searching for months for just the right replacement, they hired an executive director who spoke their language and had no experience in the business.
Their team in place, they set out to realize their agenda, which included bringing the agents back into the franchise agreement, getting a raise in DVD residuals and realizing their long-sought dream of destroying the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA).
Their first step was a highhanded approach to the agents, insisting they could simply “promulgate” SAG’s authority over all actors’ contracts and take legal action if the ATA, the agents’ organization, didn’t toe the line. You may have heard the laughter. Needless to say, SAG leaders didn’t broadcast the humiliating rejection that ensued, but, as you may have noticed, we still have no franchise agreement with the major agencies.
Raising DVD residuals—labeled a “nonstarter” by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)—had to wait until the 2008 contract negotiations, so the next order of business was to Swift-boat AFTRA and get it out of the way. The SAG leaders started by bad-mouthing AFTRA, criticizing its contracts and organizing methods. Then they tried to intimidate AFTRA into becoming the neutered bystander in the ‘08 negotiations with the AMPTP, claiming that the 50/50 deal made between SAG and AFTRA under the Phase One agreement almost 30 years ago was suddenly unfair. Using every trick they could think of, including attempting to muscle the New York and regional branches of SAG into line, they belittled and trash-talked AFTRA, pressing it to knuckle under. To their great surprise, AFTRA’s leaders called their bluff, refusing to accept less than the equal partnership that the long-honored agreement promised. Stunned by this surprisingly firm stand, SAG’s leaders backed down, claiming they hadn’t really meant it after all.
Subsequent disparagement and double-dealing by SAG leaders, however, resulted in AFTRA’s losing patience with the process. Deciding their negotiating partners were not trustworthy, AFTRA broke away and moved to meet with the AMPTP on its own. Caught flat-footed again, SAG quickly claimed the right to negotiate with the AMPTP first. AFTRA agreed.
These talks, however, soon ground to a halt. Despite the facts that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) gave up on DVDs even before the writers’ strike and that the Directors Guild of America (DGA) hadn’t even brought them up, SAG negotiators placed the “nonstarter” DVD raise squarely on the table. If that wasn’t trouble enough, they found themselves facing a complicated formula for new media that both the DGA and the WGA had already accepted. Unwilling to acknowledge the years-long research on new media done by the DGA and agreed to by the WGA, SAG chose to rely on tough talk and strident demands—and fell on its face.
With SAG and the AMPTP at an impasse, AFTRA sat down, worked with the DGA/WGA template and succeeded in negotiating a deal that improved on what SAG had been reaching for before talks exploded, leaving SAG’s leaders with more egg on their faces.
Still unable to see the rapidly fading light, SAG went back to the AMPTP and tried again to demand a deal that would have required the other side to renegotiate the agreements already reached with the DGA, the WGA and now AFTRA. SAG would do anything, it appeared, but realize how wrong its approach had been. Instead, it took the most illogical step available and tried to torpedo acceptance of the AFTRA contract by its members, most of whom hold cards in both unions. This involved spending a reported $150,000 or so of SAG dues money on a failed “educational” effort to interfere with the legitimate action of a sister union. SAG blew it again, the AFTRA contract was ratified, and the SAG leaders succeeded only in making themselves, and by extension all of us, look like bullies and, worse, fools.
Without a contract and looking more desperate all the time, SAG continued to talk tough and settled for a months-long stasis, during which production staggered, awaiting resolution. This past fall, some SAG members who were not supporters of the Members First faction were elected to the SAG national board, which, as the economy began to crash around us, sent a Hail Mary to a federal mediator.
However, with the AMPTP sticking with its “final offer” and the same SAG negotiating team unwilling to move on anything, including the DVD increase, the mediator made a stab, failed, saw the light and quickly headed back to Washington.
So now they want a strike.
A strike when AFTRA, with a contract, is putting its members to work.
A strike when TV shows are already moving to sign with AFTRA.
A strike that will put the few casts and crews now working on SAG projects out on the street with millions of other Americans.
A strike that, by stopping production in the middle of a collapsing economy, would condemn SAG, already a laughingstock, to the halls of infamy.
Why would they even think of a strike?
Could it be because winning that vote, no matter how devastating a strike would be, is the only way they can save face, the only way they can salvage the pretense that they actually knew what they were doing all along?
It appears that we’re now going to be paying for another “education campaign,” this time one that will explain how important it is that this strike vote succeed. Given recent American history, I figure it’ll probably have something to do with the threat from hidden weapons of mass destruction. And I’m sure there will be the admonition that “you’re either with us or with the terrorist AMPTP.”
Well, I, for one, am not anti-union. God knows, as a member for over 40 years, I’m not anti-SAG. But I am anti-idiocy.
I’m voting no.
AP file photo / Reed Saxon
Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg, right, joins Writers Guild of America President Patric Verrone during the recent writers strike.