Walking the S.A.G. tightrope

The tightrope that Doug Allen, S.A.G. NED, and Alan Rosenberg, S.A.G. President, are walking now is a dangerous one. The calculation seems to be that if they try to limit the influence of AFTRA over negotiations then they will be able to take a tougher stand at the bargaining table and win larger gains for the membership. Given some (perhaps not credible) evidence of a softer approach in the past by AFTRA combined with some (perhaps more credible) evidence of (shall we say) shortsighted bargaining tactics by the previous administration it is perhaps understandable why so many in the membership believe that this tougher approach is the way to go.

The potential flaw in this thinking, however, is the assumption that the risk of alienating both the leadership of AFTRA and the dual cardholders is worth taking in face of the potential gains. That alienation has now gone so deep that Hollywood S.A.G. activists should consider the possibility that the AFL-CIO will back a breakaway by S.A.G. NY to join up with AFTRA and the IA in a new “super-union” in the entertainment industry, leaving S.A.G. Hollywood to go its own way. I have seen some argue that the fifty year old jurisdictional arrangements that have defined the boundaries between the two organizations can be defended in the digital era. On paper, there may in fact be a legally defensible argument to such an approach.

BUT – and this is the big BUT that some either are unaware of or choose to ignore – such jurisdictional lines have been trampled by affiliates of both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in the last decade with ease, even with glee as highly paid elected officials and staff have been more than willing to redraw organizational lines in place for almost a century to defend their power. One of the leading architects of this process inside SEIU was John Sweeney, now President of the AFL-CIO; and his protege, Andy Stern, has taken such bureaucratic maneuvers to an altogether higher level of artistry and manipulation – fomenting recently a rebellion in his ranks led by Sal Roselli of United Health Workers here in California. Thus, no one should underestimate the willingness of the AFL, or CtW, to consider imposing from above numerous organizational alternatives to the current landscape. The willingness to give AFTRA an unconditional seat on the AFL EC is an example of the thinking.

(This is not to say that the American labor movement does not have to take drastic action to defend itself against the assault underway by employers and Wall Street over the last decade or more. But the manner has all too often been destructive of internal union democracy.)

Thus, the question that ought to be asked is – can S.A.G. go into these negotiations divided internally and in its relationship with AFTRA? The WGA was not similarly divided and yet a three month strike yielded relatively modest gains. That suggests that a “strike” oriented approach – the only real card played by the WGA – in this industry does not have the same weight that it might have in another era. The studio/independent producer structure has created a level of flexibility that when combined with new technology and more sophisticated financial means allows the industry to organize itself around traditional job actions. The current leadership and staff of many AFL and CtW unions are not trained or prepared to deal with this kind of environment.

(As one example, the WGA did not even come close to utilizing the potential pressure it could have put on the industry during the strike – never considered, for example, a one day boycott of DVD sales at WalMart (perhaps with the eager support of the UFCW which has both been trying to organize WMT for years and also owes the entertainment guilds a favor in light of their support for the southern California grocery strike) or a “financial picket line” against Wall Street backers of the industry.)

To make serious long term inroads into the balance of power in the entertainment industry (which is growing in size and profitability on a global basis every day) will require a very different approach.

Despite that serious strategic weakness, the WGA and the DGA nonetheless chalked up some important gains and also banked some very valuable political capital that S.A.G. and AFTRA can now spend – as evidenced in the public surveys showing strong support for the Writers. They therefore need to find the means to work together and bring that political capital to bear at the bargaining table now in order to solidify what the Writers and Directors began. 2008 more likely than not represents a year of critical if incremental gains that can lay the groundwork for longer term more significant changes. But if the current conflict deteriorates it could be anything goes and when the dust clears, the power of organized talent could have been seriously weakened.