Pandora’s Box

All bets are off now that AFTRA has suspended its participation in Phase One.  On the one hand, it gives Membership First – the party that has controlled SAG for several years and hired its chief negotiator, Doug Allen, a chance to roll out their bargaining strategy which has presumably been in the works for the last year or so.  Publicly that strategy seems to have consisted of attempting to push aside AFTRA so that SAG can take a harder line at the table with the producers.

Certainly Phase One was due for some change – like moving to Phase Two?  That was the plan back in 1981 when P1 was put in place by the leadership of the two unions.  The assumption was that by tying the hands of both unions it would prevent discord temporarily while a plan for merger was worked out.  Two, three, ten years go by and no merger!  What looked like a temporary fix begins to take on the weight of a permanent institution.  
Meanwhile the industry itself was changing.  Power was shifting from the studios to new global publicly traded conglomerates.  The cinematic revolution of the late 60s and early 70s (the era of my favorite film of all time, The Wild Bunch) gave way to entertainment as a product that could be marketed with the same predictability as toothpaste.  That is not always a bad thing – there have been some pretty impressive films in recent years and the ability to predict how filmgoers might respond to them opens up the possibility of far more niche films.  
But this meant a shift in the bargaining power of talent, too.  Most actors will agree that a single union of all actors is required to provide the leverage they need against the Rupert Murdoch’s of the world.  Hence, the pressure to move out of Phase One and towards merger.  But on what terms?  Last time around, the merger proponents seriously misjudged the nature of the potential opposition in Hollywood to merger and so the vote fell just short of the necessary 60% of SAG members.  
One big mistake?  Not keeping the “SAG” name on the top of the letterhead – a silly and shortsighted underestimate of the value of the most recognized union name in the country (well, other than the Teamsters of Jimmy Hoffa’s day – but that has other unfortunate connotations).  And why NOT call a new union “SAG”?  One of the most important and militant unions in Great Britain is the “GMB” – noone ever called or calls it anything else – it used to stand for the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union – but the savvy Brits recognized the brand value of the widely used “GMB” tag and that is now the name of the union.  Within the GMB are various divisions that represent particular skills and it could be the same in a new SAG – a film division, a television division, etc.
But now, sadly, all bets are off. Why? Because now a power play between the two unions is underway for organizing the new media world.  Some in Membership First have suggested to me that they can rely on several 1951 decisions of the NLRB to defend their turf in film.  Thus, they can risk the break up of a three decade alliance with AFTRA because AFTRA “can’t touch” film.  
Anyone who peddles that ought to know better and anyone who falls for it just hasn’t had the time or inclination to consider what has been going on in the American labor movement over the last ten years.  Jurisdictional lines in the labor movement mean almost nothing anymore.  In fact, the concept itself is considered rather quaint!  Right now there is nothing legally or politically that prevents AFTRA, SAG or any other labor organization from coming forward and attempting to organize any one employed to produce content for new media.  A fifty year old NLRB decision will not stop that reality.  In fact, that was what the WGA strike was all about – if they could have just waved an old NLRB decision in the face of Nick Counter and counted on a federal judge to enforce it then they could have avoided a three month strike or used their political capital to fight for increased DVD revenues.  But that was not the reality. And by the way check out the ideological bent of recent federal judge appointments and NLRB members – after eight years of Republicans in office it is not exactly a union friendly crowd, even if that union has a strong Republican membership and calls itself a Guild.
And the idea that there is any political support inside the labor movement for preventing one union from crossing into territory that another union claims but has not yet successfully organized is equally untenable.  Anyone who suggests the opposite should talk to the WGA – ask them who now represents writers on America’s Next Top Model?  Answer?  Tommy Short!  That’s right the IA reps those writers and that is entirely in keeping with how American labor unions function today – just ask the nurses who belong to the Teachers Union or the store clerks that belong to the Steelworkers or the graduate teaching assistants who belong to the Auto Workers!  The membership crisis is so bad for most unions that they are willing to sign anyone who can hold their pen to paper.
And you can bet that is exactly the model that AFTRA is considering today in the wake of its preemptive break up with SAG.  After all, AFTRA surely knew about the decertification campaign underway on soaps long before this weekend.  Yet, they wait until the last possible moment to break off P1 and rush over to the Producers to begin bargaining.  Why?  Because there is a world to be won in new media and they want to be first to stake a claim.
Now, SAG can try to beat them to the punch – but there are two problems with that approach. 
First, the MF leadership has done all that it can to DELAY negotiations as part of its “get tough” strategy.  So to run to the Producers now looks a bit unseemly.  In fact, despite being warned, the SAG leadership did everything possible to slow down negotiations, to look and play tough.  Thus, the shouting matches with the A-listers, the blow-ups with sympathetic members like Sally Fields and the unproductive sit downs with the CEO’s.  
And second, AFTRA is already there!  The AMPTP – lickety split – announced it welcomed negotiations with AFTRA as soon as the ink was dry on the AFTRA announcement.
So now the very problem that P1 and the expected follow on merger was supposed to solve is coming to pass – a possible race to the bottom in new media with little chance for a race to the top because the unions in the industry have no unified leadership or strategy.  No wonder the WGA went out on strike instead of waiting for SAG!