S.A.G. to debate voting reform

The issues are certainly piling up for the S.A.G. these days.  While jostling with former bargaining partner AFTRA for first dibs to sit down with the producers, there is an internal battle brewing over what some call “qualified voting” and others call “affected voting.” This is a very difficult and complex issue.  The Guild Constitution contains language which states that contracts are to be ratified by a majority vote of the “members affected thereby.”  

As a longtime advocate of union democracy myself, I appreciate the long held and justifiable pride the Guild has in its internal union democracy.  Some 25 years ago (!) when I was just starting out in the labor movement, I was warned by a senior labor movement official who had spent his career as a union staff member that my support for the cause of union democracy would mean a very short career in the labor movement.  My response was short and to the point, and appropriate to being a 20-something upstart at the time: “if that’s the case, then maybe I won’t have a career in the labor movement!”  
I pushed ahead anyway, organizing a west coast conference that year for 300 west coast rank and file trade unionists (many in the construction industry or other tough environments) on behalf of the Association for Union Democracy, a group known to have provided valuable assistance to Guild and IA activists, among others, in the entertainment industry over the years.
Now the question of union democracy has been posed at a critical time for the future of the Guild.  Variety is reporting here that a significant number of Guild members wish to propose that the Guild change the way that its contracts are approved.  Guild President Alan Rosenberg is dead set against the idea.  
There is no doubt, in my mind that the Guild has one of the most active and democratically engaged union memberships that I have ever encountered.  The energy and enthusiasm that actors bring to their craft clearly spills over into the care and concern they have for the future of the Guild.  At the same time, that does not mean that the current internal governance structures necessarily make sense. Enthusiasm that is not organized to carry out an effective strategy can quickly exhaust itself: steam without a turbine means a whole city shivers in the dark. Democracy functions well when it has structures that shape and focus internal membership participation.

One problem, for example, is the huge board of directors of the Guild – more than 70 members.  This makes it more akin to a mini-convention and has probably encouraged the formation of semi-permanent political groupings in the Guild.  Unfortunately, it probably means that far fewer ideas actually get seriously debated in a collegial manner among the Guild’s top leadership; instead there is likely a tendency to use the various political groupings (Membership First, Restore Respect, USAN, etc.) to advocate fixed positions. 

Historically all members of the Guild can vote on all contracts. The basic idea is that since any member of the Guild could, potentially, work under any of the contracts negotiated by the Guild all of the members should be able to vote on those contracts. Proponents of the reform effort, however, argue that the word “affected” in the Constitution is there for a reason and it should be interpreted to mean that only those actors who actually work under a contract should be allowed to vote to ratify it, not all those who could potentially work under it. Apparently, several of the Guild’s sister unions, including the WGA, have some form of similar limits on voting. 

Of course, it is not entirely clear how many “unaffected” members actually vote on contracts that they do not in fact work under. Presumably a certain amount of rational apathy prevails. Most people tend to pay attention to such things when they are, in fact, affected and otherwise default to others who are genuinely impacted. In other words, is it likely that a system of voting limits would change the actual outcome of contract negotiations or ratifications? I am not sure it would be easy to answer that question. 

Interestingly there is some historical precedent for some form of “affected” or “qualified” voting at a key turning point in Guild history.  In 1951 the National Labor Relations Board made an important decision that some have cited as relevant to current debates about new media.  In Television Film Producers Association (93 NLRB 929) the Board heard testimony in a dispute between the Guild and several sister unions in the 4A’s over who should represent actors making films for television exhibition.  Those sister unions had formed the Television Authority, or TVA, which later merged with the American Federation of Radio Artists to form today’s AFTRA, in order to win bargaining rights for film actors whose work appeared on the new medium, television.  Both the Guild and the TVA were members of the AFL at the time (the CIO had split from the AFL in the 1930’s and would not merge with the AFL until 1955) and both claimed the right to represent actors in the new medium.  (Hmm, sounds all too familiar!)
The TVA wanted a separate bargaining unit based solely on actors that produced film for first runs on television: they likely knew they had no chance to win an election in a larger unit that included all actors who made films.  The Board disagreed with the TVA and held that a separate unit was not appropriate because the conditions facing film actors were essentially the same “whatever the medium of release.”  Arguably the same position could be taken today when it comes to production by actors of “film” that is made for initial distribution on the internet or on mobile phones or in an Xbox; i.e., “whatever the medium of release.”

However, that was not the end of the story.  The Board then turned to the question of setting up the election to determine who (TVA or S.A.G.) had the legal right to represent the newly defined bargaining unit of “all actors engaged in the production of motion pictures.” The Board ordered an election to take place but not every actor was allowed to vote on the choice of unions.  Instead the Board held:

“The work of actors in the motion picture industry is occasional and temporary. An actor may work only a day or two a year for a particular producer, and yet the actor may get enough work in the industry throughout the year to give him a vital interest in the selection of a collective bargaining representative. In view of these working conditions, we are of the opinion that, with respect to the multiple-employer units found appropriate, all persons shall be eligible to vote who have had 3 or more days of employment within any such unit during the 9-month period immediately preceding the date of this Decision and Direction of Elections.”

(In a companion decision a few months later reaffirming the TVA right to representation of actors performing on live television and the Guild’s jurisdiction over film actors, the Board upheld a similar approach approved by then NLRB hearing officer Chet Migden who later became a long standing national executive secretary of the Guild.)
For the board, the question was whether an individual actor had a “vital interest” in the issue at stake and this meant at the time a 3 day minimum during a 9 month period (presumably a 4 day minimum if a one year period had been used).  And this approach seems to get to the heart of the matter – when decision makers have a vital interest they tend to pay attention, to get involved.  Arguably, of course, all actors have a “vital interest” in the future of the Guild – enough of an interest to pay serious dues every year, it would seem.  Certainly all factors of this crucial question will be the subject of an important debate at the Guild.  Hopefully, the Guild will share the contents of the debate with the entire labor movement, where in many instances the principles of union democracy are too often ignored and, sadly, on occasion, trampled upon.