S.A.G.-Aftra War: Missing the Forest?

Over on the major bulletin boards followed by union activists in the EMI sector, a battle is brewing between S.A.G. and Aftra. In one corner is the Membership First party of the Screen Actors, which argues that Aftra offers broadcasters cut rate contracts that undercut rates long established by the larger Actors Guild. Aftra, on the other hand, argues that its contracts are more flexible and in tune with emerging production structures. See S.A.G. v. Aftra and Watchdog Exclusive: More AFTRA Cutthroat Contracts. * *barf. At stake is a 25 year old arrangement between S.A.G. and Aftra about how to conduct joint negotiations with the producers.

In between seems to be a smaller centrist group around S.A.G.’s embattled president, Alan Rosenberg, and Executive Director Doug Allen. (For the troubles these two are facing, see SAG President blow up and SAG Exec. Director’s former union sued by retired football players.) The Membership First party may back the candidacy of character actor Seymour Cassell against Rosenberg in the upcoming elections after backing Rosenberg two years ago.

I would not want to attempt to take sides in this debate from the outside, but a couple of points seem in order. First, it is not unusual to see one union try to win market share by undercutting other longer established unions. The Teamsters tried that in the late 1960s when the Farmworkers were organizing. I saw similar efforts in the public sector union battles in California in the 1980s when the independent California State Employees Association of which I was an activist and officer took a tougher line with the notoriously anti-union University of California than the AFL-CIO affiliate AFSCME.

But one dimension of this undercutting often goes unnoticed: it actually creates greater awareness among potential members – in this case, actors on basic cable and TV, among other places – of the importance of unions. Debate and argument is all too rare in the labor movement. Competition is even more rare. Too often, the union officialdom is content with quiet deals made over the heads of the membership. So while airing the dirty laundry out in public may be difficult at least it sends a signal to potential members that the unions are not dead bureaucracies. And that same signal goes to the employers who will have to realize that the membership matters. Compare this kind of openness to the closed doors of corporate America where free speech is given up when one enters the workplace.

That said, the problem is that endless wrangling over the differences in pension plans, contract terms, etc., while certainly significant means that the larger issues at stake in the upcoming negotiations may get lost. As this article in today’s Financial Times makes crystal clear, new delivery systems are rewriting the rules of the road in this environment. As the author notes, these systems like Internet Protocol TV “could … disrupt the traditional television broadcasting industry and create a new distribution channel for media companies and content creators big and small.”

It is this kind of sea change in the distribution structure of entertainment that gives the producers the gumption to say that the Guilds should delay dealing with the financial impact of change until a study can be carried out. They have now backed off that demand in negotiations with the Writers Guilds and instead are putting pressure on to put an end to the residuals system. Neither are palatable choices to the Guilds, of course.

So back to the idea of competition between unions – in the long run, the union that has the best arguments about how to win value for actors in the new world will win out. But those arguments are hard to find among any of the various groups. After several decades in the labor movement, I would be the last to minimize the importance of debates about pension benefits or the potential undercutting of contracts. If, however, one takes the technological revolution underway seriously, such debate could have as much value as moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

FT.com Game on