All eyes turn to SAG…

With signs pointing to a settlement between the WGA and the Producers, it is fitting on the weekend of the SAG Awards to begin considering whether SAG will be able to improve on whatever the Directors and Writers settle on.

The early signs are not good.

The Membership First party is already declaring the DGA deal, even though the details are not entirely clear, a possible “sellout” – as in this post on the pro-Membership First SAG Watchdog site: Did the DGA sellout writers and actors… This kind of inflammatory language seems not only premature but potentially very damaging to relationships between SAG and its sister guilds. Given the need for unity and coalition building in the EMI sector such an approach seem short sighted at best.

That does not mean, of course, that the DGA deal is deserving of a standing ovation – perhaps “two cheers for the DGA” is the right approach if the early reports of the details are right. For example, the deal apparently sets a fixed rate for certain Web content at around $1200 per show compared to a comparable rate of $20,000 for a TV re-run. (Of course, some would argue this is apples and oranges – a half hour cable re-run pays only $1900.) If that is read as fixing online residuals at a predictable (and abominally low) number, it could unleash a flood of new online content. The technology and the money is there to build the infrastructure and all that may be needed is the reassurance that the producers can get the lion’s share of the revenues before they put in place some mega-deals with the hi-tech, cable, satellite and telecom companies.

In fact, another Membership First activist, Justine Bateman, made this very point in a post recently, stating:

If any variation of this deal is accepted by the WGA and (GOD forbid, SAG), you will see the laying of fiber-optics by the communications companies incredibly escalated. You will see BILLIONS of dollars spent on speeding up the hi-speed connections into people’s homes. The corporations will want EVERYBODY in the country to get the highest speed internet ASAP so the corporations, themselves, can cancel out broadcast TV in order to show EVERYTHING on the internet ONLY and NEVER PAY ANY OF US RESIDUALS AS WE KNOW IT AGAIN. We will cancel out every single residual stride that was sacrificed for in the 60’s in one swoop. I think it’s shameful.

There may be some truth to this, though predicting technological revolutions is a dangerous business. But assume some variation of this IS true. What does that mean for SAG?

Notice the bind that the current process puts the biggest of the guilds in: the Producers stalled in their negotiations with the WGA and the WGA was pretty much forced to go out on strike. It has been very well organized and has garnered lots of public support. But it is far less clear that the strike has caused the Producers any serious pain – some seemed even relieved as it gave them an excuse to tear up some costly deals using force majeur clauses. With the strike dragging on, the Producers were able to cut a deal with the DGA – long considered the most producer-friendly of the guilds. And it is hard to call the deal a “sellout” – in fact, across the industry many argued it was the basis of a deal with the more militant WGA.

So how can SAG expect to do any better? The Producers appear to have engineered a pattern that allows them to “fix” the split of Internet revenues and hope that the guilds will not have the energy to mount another labor action in three years. Meanwhile, SAG – led now by the Membership First party – has decided to focus on restructuring its relationship with its sister union, Aftra.

Why? They are protesting the equal weight that Aftra has in the joint SAG/AFTRA bargaining committee in place since 1981. While for many years this system has been stable and productive for the two unions, helping to maintain a common set of contract terms for members of both unions, now SAG is angling to re-order the relationship. The kernel of truth in the SAG argument is that their members earn the vast majority of revenues under the contracts with the Producers. That would seem to justify greater weight in the bargaining committee.

As critics of the Membership First party point out (over at SAGWatch.net) it is not widely understood that SAG and Aftra are not signatories to the same contract but to two separate contracts, each covering the respective bargaining units repped by each of the two unions. For more than 25 years, joint bargaining has meant a common set of working conditions applies. If SAG, in fact, pulls out of joint bargaining that could lead to a dangerous gap in the two contracts as the producers tempt one of the unions with slightly better conditions. A dangerous downward spiral of tension between the unions could follow.

But why consume so much time and energy on this issue in the middle of what is as close to war one gets in labor relations in the U.S.?? Is there any real evidence that the Aftra reps on the committee would not understand the issues all actors face in this bargaining round? Most Aftra members are also SAG members! Far more useful would be to pay attention to the changing industrial environment that is giving the Producers and their friends in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street renewed leverage. Months have been wasted while Rome has been burning. And now, if the WGA settles, SAG will stand alone, with no discernable strategy – assuming instead, it would appear, that if they could only get those pesky Aftra reps out of the room, they could somehow pound their fist on the table and get a better deal out of the Producers than the DGA or WGA or the IA!

In fact, I think they COULD get a better deal, perhaps a much better deal, but that would require a thorough ANALYSIS of the industry and the value that SAG members contribute in the new environment, then a sustained and persuasive ARGUMENT to their members and their public (the fans!) about that contribution, then PRESSURE on the Producers (and their friends in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street) to make clear that the Guild is serious about being compensated for the value they create and, finally, if necessary, the administration of the “PAIN” (in the words of the LA Times) necessary to bring the Producers around should they not be persuaded by the argument and pressure. Unfortunately, the current leadership team at SAG seems to have other things on its mind.