SAG plays politics with peace

Rival factions could let impasse stagger into guild's next election cycle

Hollywood soon might find itself looking forward to September, and it has nothing to do with football season.

With SAG's TV/theatrical contract negotiations stuck in neutral, there is growing concern that the guild's leadership is preparing to coast until its next election cycle, which would keep the industry in a state of uncertainty throughout the summer. Or, worse, fears are surfacing that a resolution could be years away.

Because neither of the major opposing factions within the guild seems to be able to push through its agenda, each could be focusing longer term on national board elections in September (the month is not yet official but likely). Each side of the internal debate would hope to pick up a few seats and gain enough additional leverage to implement its aims with regard to the stalemate with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Moderate forces that include reps from the New York and regional boards have made up a slight majority of the national board's 71 seats since they picked up a few key spots in last year's election. The Hollywood-based MembershipFirst advocates a strike-authorization vote, while Unite for Strength and its allies have denounced that action as unworkable in the current economic climate.

But the previous contract has been expired for more than eight months, since June 30, so are guild leaders willing to drag this out another six months at the expense of the gains written into the current offer from the AMPTP?

Given that 75% of the national board rejected that offer out of hand Feb. 21, the answer is: Why not? The AMPTP had delivered its "last, best and final offer" Feb. 18, and while SAG's negotiating task force theoretically had agreed to the contract's new-media terms, the expiration date of the new deal became an intractable roadblock. The AMPTP wants a date of June 30, 2012, while SAG wants it to expire a year earlier so it ends in sync with other major union deals with the WGA, DGA and AFTRA.

The moderate forces on the board also rejected a motion by MembershipFirst to send out a strike-authorization vote to punctuate their displeasure with the deal. The studios and networks, meanwhile, aren't overly put out by the stalling because it means that they're paying less to SAG than they would if the offer — roundly slammed by all SAG partisans — had been accepted.

A running tally on the AMPTP Web site puts the wage increases lost by working under the expired contract at $59 million.

Even as A-list actors Tom Hanks and George Clooney foster back-channel talks between SAG national executive director David White and chief negotiator John McGuire and various studio execs, it's questionable whether a compromise on the expiration date issue, if one could be reached, would be enough currency to buy the ratification votes from the SAG membership necessary to accept the offer.

If the self-described moderates' position is that it is in the guild's best interests to accept an unacceptable deal now and live to fight those battles again during the next round, then allowing the expiration date to separate them from their potential collective bargaining power would vastly minimize the effectiveness of that argument. On the other hand, they fear that sending out the current offer could lead to ratification of a deal with all its unfavorable terms and a split-off end date.

MembershipFirst partisans on the Hollywood Division board passed an advisory motion during its meeting last week for the national board to send out the AMPTP's LBFO to the membership for a ratification vote with no board recommendation. The theory is that a "no" vote either would push the AMPTP to sweeten the offer so the guild's rank and file would approve it or slide a strike-authorization vote back onto SAG's front burner.

Without either the threat of a strike or the proof of a deal that's been voted down by the membership, hard-line partisans see no way to force improvements in the offer.

Unite for Strength leaders and other anti-strike forces who hold a majority of the national board seats are refusing to send out the offer because it would mean doing so without a positive recommendation to ratify, a circumstance it never has embraced.

But beyond that, White has said only that he is waiting to see how negotiations on the guild's new commercial contract will shake out before committing to any course of action. Those discussions, which SAG is engaging in jointly with AFTRA, were in recess last week and resume today in New York.

White also refused a MembershipFirst request to call a national board meeting to discuss the ratification issue. There already is a national board meeting scheduled for April 18-19.

April 19 happens to be the date on which the 60-day offer can be rescinded or implemented unilaterally by the AMPTP. It also can choose to implement portions of the agreement.

While the stalemate benefits the studios and networks in that they don't have to pay out on the 3.3% raise built into the new offer, they might be hesitant to stick the actors with the controversial current offer as a whole.

"It's not in their best interests to implement something that's going to cause so much furor among the actors that they might be successful in a strike-authorization vote," said David Smith, an associate professor of economics at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. "Right now, it's questionable how many actors would actually authorize the vote. But if the studios decided to impose terms that were not favorable, then that might swing the other way. And that's bad for both parties."

Anti-AMPTP-offer rallies have been held at Fox and Warner Bros. in the past two weeks, mostly by MembershipFirst supporters. Another is planned for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, by pushing for a strike-authorization and/or a ratification vote on the offer, MembershipFirst could be laying groundwork for a campaign theme in the fall elections: i.e. MembershipFirst wanted the rank-and-file to have a voice, and the moderates kept preventing that.

"That's likely what's going on behind the scenes here," Smith said. "It's a political move on their part to potentially place them in a better situation once the elections come up."

In the absence of any explicit plan articulated by the SAG leadership, the charge is likely to stick. But given the possibility that commercials negotiations could go just as south as those for TV/theatrical, SAG decision-makers might be biding their time in case those same tactics are needed on the advertising front.

But even as studios slowly push films back into production, no longer seeing the threat of a strike on the immediate horizon, the Hollywood economy is bound to continue lagging until the SAG fracas is settled.

"Anytime that you live in a time of uncertainty, it does cause more unnecessary noise in the economics of the media industry," Smith said. "So there are probably going to be fewer productions, fewer blockbusters. They are moving forward, but at the same time, both parties get hurt."
comments powered by Disqus