SAG Chief’s Dramatic Lines Heard ‘Round the World – Los Angeles Times

The pressure on the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild came to a head this week when S.A.G. president Alan Rosenberg used rather intemperate language in an email widely circulated among the union’s membership. The exchange comes in the middle of a joint effort by the Guild and its sister union in the entertainment industry, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), to secure ratification of a 2 year “contract extension” with the advertising industry covering actors’ work in commercials on radio, TV and digital and other “new media.”

Since the substantive issues (as opposed to the personal vitriol) at stake in the exchange between President Rosenberg and former Guild National Vice President Laird Stuart centers squarely on issues of central concern to Vallywood! it makes some sense to give them more serious consideration – something, unfortunately, the L.A. Times decided not to pursue.

Vallywood! readers should keep in mind that assessing collective bargaining negotiations from the outside is a perilous business. The dynamics of every industry and of every negotiation within an industry vary widely and even the most sophisticated and experienced outsiders rarely understand the full details. Thus, what follows must be read in that context.

Of course, a related and important problem is that the rank and file membership of labor unions often is kept in the dark about those same dynamics. When it comes to a decision about whether to ratify a contract negotiated by the union leadership that information vacuum can make a mockery of union democracy. Absent full information about the negotiations, the rank and file can often be relied upon by union officials all too often to just rubber stamp their recommendations. So, whatever the merits of Stuart’s intervention, he is, in my mind, to be commended for attempting to spark a wider debate about these issues of crucial importance to the entire American labor movement.

This problem of assuring a genuinely informed democratic decision about the proposed commercials contract extension is one of the two major issues lying behind the Rosenberg-Stuart exchange.

The second major issue is the impact that dramatic technological and organizational change in the entertainment and media industry is having on the workforce in that industry. Vallywood! is attempting to shine a light on that dynamic as earlier posts about the new “digital map” suggest. At the very heart of that map is the rapid migration of advertising dollars to new forms of distribution such as mobile phones and the Internet. Consider the recent statement of Peter Chernin, CEO of Fox, on CNBC. When asked why Fox was putting a major investment into Jamba, the global provider of ring tones to mobile phone users (noted in Vallywood! last week), he pointed out that there are more than 2 billion cell phone users in the world today – and that number is growing rapidly – more than twice the number of TV owners!

No wonder Madison Avenue is dead set on finding a way into the hands of cell phone users. As the Guild’s Stuart put it in his critique of the contract extension: “the growth of spending on Internet advertising has grown from $2.832 Billion dollars in 1999 to a projected $20 Billion dollars in 2006. That would be a 700% GROWTH SINCE 1999….” (Emphasis in original)

By all appearances, it would seem that the future is here. At least Fox, as well as Viacom and Disney and Apple and Google, among others, certainly think so. TV and DVD’s are now rapidly maturing industrial sectors – though still major sources of revenue to the studios and the nets; while mobile phones and the Internet are taking off at amazing growth rates. Veterans in EMI (my shorthand for “Entertainment and Media Industry”) may recognize the pattern – it looks remarkably like the transition from VHS to DVD in the early 90s. This time digital delivery over wireless and broadband are stealing market share from DVD and traditional television. Since it widely recognized that the EMI unions left billions on the table in the DVD era, the need to tackle the new digitial and wireless environment successfully is that much more important.

This is the major industrial backdrop to the commercials contract negotiations concluded recently by the Guild and AFTRA. And it was with the relatively conservative approach to this industrial change that the Guild’s Laird Stuart took issue, backed by many in the Hollywood Division of the Guild. That led to a request to circulate a minority report along with the joint S.A.G.-AFTRA board decision to endorse ratification to the general membership of both unions. When that request for a dissenting viewpoint failed, Stuart then circulated his own views on the contract to fellow union members. And the Guild’s President, Alan Rosenberg, who was, ironically, elected with the backing of Stuart and many in Hollywood, blew his top in his now infamous email. Even the genuinely conservative Supreme Court of the United States regularly publishes dissenting opinions, so one wonders why the request was apparently rejected so readily by the leadership of the Guild and AFTRA.

Stuart’s full statement can be found here – minority report (mute your computer unless you want the barking dog to wake the kids!). At the heart of the dispute, central I believe among several other issues Stuart raises, is the question of whether the Guild should have delayed confronting the new technological era – as this contract “extension” does with a proposal to “study” the issue jointly with the employers. Stuart wants to reject the contract and take on the issue now. President Rosenberg and his supporters argue that the technology emerging now is too new to be properly understood and thus the need for a study by “academics.”

Of course, as an academic myself I like the idea of money being funneled into universities to “study” interesting problems. But as a veteran of the university environment on two continents and two coasts over several decades, I think it only fair to suggest that the Guild and AFTRA will have to look far and wide to find competent and pro-labor academics! Despite the claim of right wing ideologues like David Horowitz universities are not really bastions of “tenured radicals.” And the radicals that do exist are a rather odd bunch – generally hostile to democratic movements like trade unions with more sympathy for authoritarian figures like Venezuela’s Chavez. Do the powerful EMI unions really want to surrender control over this issue to a study by a professor?

The argument some in the unions raise in defense of the “delay and study” approach is that the technological developments like mobile phone commercials are too new to understand. This is an echo of the very argument used by the employers who have argued that they do not want to be locked into wage rates that stifle new innovations. But the new era is not about the transition to just one technology it is about constant technological change. That is what the power of billions of dollars flowing from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Hollywood means today. Any technology in use today will be long gone in two years!

Thus, the contract extension is a hybrid beast. On the one hand, the employers concede that “New Media” environments like cell phones are union territory – a potentially significant achievement; but the unions backed away from any attempt to negotiate wage rates for that environment! Stuart points out that “the negotiators chose NOT to establish a minimum deal and expect the actor (and/or his agent) to negotiate an amount on his or her own.” (Emphasis in original)

While the unions’ leadership contends that the issue of pay rates will be revisited once the study is completed in two years, in the meantime it allows employers open season on the negotiation of wages with actors on an individual basis. Instead of collective bargaining of pay rates, the extension explicitly allows “free bargaining” on an individual basis between employers and actors. That could easily lead to a race to the bottom rather than establishing a foundation for a race to the top for working actors and opens the door to excluding the unions altogether from wage negotiations!

SAG Chief’s Dramatic Lines Heard ‘Round the World – Los Angeles Times