Dominoes keep falling: AFTRA offers early talks; Clooney pressures SAG

Updated.

A couple of weeks ago I prepared a short essay somewhat pessimistically called The Doomsday Scenario which outlined the potential fallout from the the SAG LA obsession with AFTRA. An almost laser like focus on that issue, of course, is what put the current leadership of SAG in power more than two years ago when the Membership First party led the battle to block a merger between the two organizations (not without some justification) and it has led to the current situation: instead of being the engine that leads the EMI sector labor movement, SAG looks like the caboose that is going to get whipped around by the AMPTP.

While SAG attacked Phase 1 joint bargaining with AFTRA (a 25 year old arrangement that governs joint bargaining by the two groups with the producers), the WGA got pushed into an early job action that, while magnificently organized, dragged on for months without causing the studios and nets serious pain. The producers, in turn, cut a deal with the friendlier DGA that now looks like the template for a deal with the WGA. While SAG President Alan Rosenberg and NED Doug Allen blasted the deal’s apparent terms from a DGA press release that announced the deal, the WGA thought the terms serious enough to re-engage with the Producers.

Now AFTRA has made it clear that it is raring to go into bargaining early, most likely using the DGA/WGA settlement as a template. That opens up the possibility of separate competing dual unions in Hollywood…the last time this kind of potential conflict emerged that I can recall was when the Teamsters and Cesar Chavez’ Farmworkers battled it out for unionization of California’s agro-business sector. California’s farm-workers are still largely non-union and that should be a lesson for all concerned.

And to add to the pressure on SAG, key A-lister George Clooney has weighed in telling Variety (Clooney tells SAG bargain early) that SAG should move now to cut a deal – presumably on terms close to that of the WGA. This can’t sit well with the Membership First leadership which had been trying to put forth a “tough” line with AFTRA and the DGA.

There is enough blame to go around for this turn of events. But the question is how does one begin to solve the problem? One step would be for the AFL-CIO to begin to exercise some on the ground leadership – by establishing an entertainment and media industry labor center in Los Angeles that has resources to provide strategic thinking to all of the unions in the sector. Instead the AFL seems to be interested in tipping its hand in favor of an AFTRA led alliance with the IA (which led unprecedented protests against the WGA strike), the Musicians and the Communications Workers (which now reps behind the camera personnel). Over the weekend, the AFL announced – as was long expected – that AFTRA was being granted its own seat on the AFL executive council separate from the seat that SAG President Alan Rosenberg holds as a representative of the 4A’s (a pre-AFL-CIO alliance of actors’ unions). That suggests that the AFL is backing the anti-Membership First effort of AFTRA. To get a feel of AFL-CIO President Sweeney’s support for AFTRA here is a link to the video of his announcement of AFTRA’s seat on the top body of the AFL: Sweeney sings a sweet tune to AFTRA.

If the AFL is unwilling, then perhaps the competing Change to Win Federation is interested in helping out (the top two staffers of the WGA-West have long-standing ties to key CtW affiliates.) There is one key factor working in favor of such an approach: for all the concern about the impact of new media on the industry, it remains a relatively small part of the business model for the big conglomerates. In other words, while this round of bargaining may be “in the can” with the DGA/WGA template, there is time to look down the road and consider approaches that will re-establish an appropriate balance of power between EMI talent and labor, on the one hand, and the studios and their Wall Street and Silicon Valley partners, on the other.

To let the rancor and division continue approaches the irresponsible.

AFTRA offers early talks – Entertainment News, Labor Issues, Media – Variety