Suicide is painless…or is it?


A week off from blogging can help one to gain some perspective, perhaps to see things from a different angle.

Upon my return to Vallywood! I had hoped to be able to provide some optimism perhaps even some evidence that, in fact, the problems I thought the Membership First leadership at SAG had created for themselves had ameliorated and that they had been able to make serious progress in the recent contract talks.
Unfortunately, things have gone from bad to worse. Hence, the title of today’s post: fans of the late 60s and early 70s renaissance in American film will surely recall the song from M.A.S.H.  The relevance to SAG today is unfortunately not nearly so entertaining as the classic film.  
The question of the day is whether the suicide pact between, on the one hand, SAG President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen, and, on the other, the Membership First party that put Rosenberg and Allen in office, will be carried out thus leading the famed union over a cliff on June 30, the day its contract expires and ironically (or tragically) the date of its 75th birthday.  
Or will Rosenberg and Allen turn on their erstwhile MF backers and cut a deal with the producers in line with the pattern put in place in wake of the valiant effort of the striking writers earlier this year.
My money had always been on latter – it made the most sense in light of the previous behavior of Rosenberg and Allen. The two had pulled the plug on an anti-AFTRA referendum earlier this year when they realized it would backfire. And they have shown some willingness in the past to do battle with the MF hardcore when it most made sense.
But in the last week the problems facing the SAG/MF group have mounted and thus the corner in which Rosenberg and Allen find themselves seems a very dark one, indeed.  
The Producers are, right on cue, reportedly about to make a “final and best” offer which, if it is rejected, allows them to legally declare a lock out.  In any other industry they could replace unionized workers with “permanent replacements” (like the NFL tried to do in that 1974 strike with rookies like SAG NED Doug Allen).  But they would probably have about as much success – as the NFL quickly found out it was the Buffalo Bills’ star O.J. Simpson, who strongly backed the Players Union strike, not the rookies, who put the fans in the seats.  
The Producers seem to be prepared, however, to re-schedule production around the first few months of a walkout at least in film if not in TV.  Given the constraints that the studios and likely their parent companies feel financially they may think it is worth the trouble that might be caused with the fall lineup.
And then to add injury to insult, the A-listers who are backing the AFTRA deal look to me to represent a much larger fan base than those who showed up at the anti-AFTRA rally at SAG headquarters.  (By the way, did anyone notice that Alan Rosenberg endorsed “qualified voting” at the rally?  What else to call his attack on news, weather and sports figures right to vote on union contracts in AFTRA?)  
Two names jump out at me, in any case.  
First, of course, is the very visible support from Tom Hanks.  As readers are aware, Hanks’ and George Clooney’s names had been used by Alan Rosenberg in a quite misleading way to suggest, mistakenly, that the two stars supported the anti-AFTRA strategy of Membership First.  Reps of the two actors quickly denied the rumored support and now Hanks, at least, has come out publicly in favor not only of the AFTRA deal but of a renewed effort to merge the two unions. If this is followed up by a new political initiative inside SAG by Hanks and others it could lay the groundwork for some of the important structural and policy changes the Guild needs to make if it is to remain a serious player in the industry after the debacle of 2008.
The other name that stood out for me was Peter Coyote.  Not an A-lister, of course, but Coyote has to be one of the most stalwart on the left in Hollywood (well, Marin County) for many many years.  If MF had hoped to appeal through a strike to the wider liberal and labor community Coyote’s voice would have been a very helpful one to bring to the fore.  The fact that he is backing the AFTRA deal suggests that, in fact, even the left is divided on the question and that will not be very helpful to Rosenberg with his friends on the west side of L.A. and Santa Monica.  
Of course, the leading labor figure in Los Angeles, Maria Elena Durazo, as well as the pro-labor mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, have also come out in support of the AFTRA deal.  These are not the kind of political headwinds one wants to face during a walkout.
What this adds up to, then, is a very weak hand for SAG/MF as it heads down to the wire on contract talks.  That is, of course, quite unfortunate, because it could have been a very different kind of year.  But they must realize now that the AFTRA deal is quite likely to pass by a pretty wide margin.  Only a handful of members are showing up at the info meetings to discuss the deal, suggesting that there is no serious opposition other than in the isolated MF corner.  
And then SAG itself thought its position so threatened by an anonymous, and isolated, post on SAGWatch that criticized its bargaining tactics that it thought it necessary to send a lengthy email defending the seriousness and professionalism of the bargaining team.  That only seemed to do more damage as no one had really questioned the law degrees held by some of the SAG staff but rather the apparent stalling and other tactics the MF team is using as they wait, desperately, for the outcome of the AFTRA vote on July 7.
Of course, that brings up my final point for today: if it was so important for MF to get AFTRA reps off the bargaining committee, then why are they now so mortally dependent on the outcome of the AFTRA vote??  
If the leverage of AFTRA – for 3 shows? – is so crucial to SAG’s success at the table then the LAST thing they should have done was give AFTRA the excuse they needed to go off and cut their own deal!  
For example, let’s just say we take all the nonsense from the stand-in’s doing the anonymous bidding for MF on the various bulletin boards nowadays at their word – assume, in fact, for the sake of argument, that AFTRA is a sellout scab outfit that wants nothing better to do than steal shows and perhaps digital film work from SAG and ruin the lives of everyone who ever works in the industry.  
Go ahead and make those assumptions at the outset of this year’s bargaining and what would you conclude is the very worst option?  That’s easy:  letting a single AFTRA rep ever get out of your site where they can cut a deal on their own with the industry.  That would be the worst possible outcome. The best option would be to keep them in the room with you where you can keep an eye on them and if they misbehave, if they attempt to cut side deals, to blast them publicly in front of their own membership.
But instead, of course, MF bent over backwards to make it easy for AFTRA to break with Phase One and bargain on their own. Even if they had cut a bad deal – which, of course, they have not done – they would have had a natural advantage with the dual cardholders who might be willing to strike if there was some kind of a chance of winning anything significant on top of what the WGA already won for the entire town.  But absent such a reasonable hope the dual holders are more than likely going to say, hey, we did the best we could, let’s go back to work.
And, so, SAG/MF finds out the hard way that you can kick 13 AFTRA reps out of the bargaining process but you can’t kick 44,000 dual cardholders out of the union.
Suicide it seems, is not so painless after all.