The Great Debate

Lincoln-Douglas this was not. Maybe a bit more like the Scopes Monkey Trial…with one side appearing to engage in defense of a position that defies reality.  We are talking, of course, about yesterday’s verbal fisticuffs on KCRW between the two presidents of the sister entertainment industry unions, SAG’s Alan Rosenberg and AFTRA’s Roberta Reardon.
AFTRA of course is sitting pretty right now having signed and ratified a 3 year deal with the Producers (AMPTP) that is based on the gains achieved in the 109 day writers strike, when many AFTRA (and SAG) members stood together with writers in the cold and heat, rain and snow, to win union jurisdiction in new media and a 10% wage hike over three years.
One wonders what goes on in the heads of PR firm consultants when their clients go off script (pun intended).  I am assuming, at least, that the handlers for SAG President Rosenberg politely, even firmly, suggested, do not try to come off as a bully.  But there was nothing holding Rosenberg back once he got going. The use of race-baiting by Rosenberg to attack supporters of “affected” voting reforms for contract ratification votes (but not, of course, union elections) was a particularly low moment in the discussion.  
Rosenberg attempted to argue that limiting voting on collective bargaining agreements (a given in most unions) to those who work those contracts would disenfranchise women and minority groups.  Of course, those members still would elect their union representatives and those representatives have a fiduciary obligation to make sure their interests are protected no matter where the union is active. This does not mean the proposed voting reform is the right way to go for SAG but to attempt to stigmatize its supporters was a low blow.
Unfortunately, AFTRA’s President Reardon occasionally rose to Rosenberg’s bait.
One would think that with no progress towards improving the terms on offer in negotiations with the Producers and with a solid defeat in the AFTRA ratification vote, President Rosenberg would have far more important things to be doing than engaging in a pissing match with his fellow AFL-CIO union president.  
SAG wants to increase DVD residuals by 15% (after initially demanding a 100% increase), lower the financial budget trigger for union coverage of new media productions as well as make changes in product placement, force majeur provisions and consent for clip use.  Noone quarrels with the justness of these bargaining goals.  But SAG’s two year long strategy implemented by President Rosenberg and NED Doug Allen was to “go it alone” in bargaining and now they are “last in line” with little leverage to make serious gains over the deals already in place for the WGA, DGA and AFTRA.
So why risk this kind of media disaster? Is there a rational explanation for such irrational behavior?
One possible explanation is that for President Rosenberg it’s all politics, and all politics is local. President Rosenberg lives and dies depending on his relationship with the LA-based SAG members who are in the Membership First party. 
That hard core turned out to vote No on the AFTRA deal even though everyone acknowledged that the turnout would not be high enough to block the deal or to suggest that the wider SAG membership would back a strike. 
The vote served as more of a warning across the bow to Rosenberg that if he signs the deal on offer he will be in trouble in the September elections.  It recalls Thatcher’s warning to Bush in 1991 when Hussein invaded Kuwait: Don’t go wet on me now, George.
It was only a year ago that the MF party ran Seymour Cassel against Rosenberg. Cassel barely lifted a finger during the campaign yet he almost defeated Rosenberg who at the time was seen as more sympathetic to the wider national SAG membership’s views.
In the current situation Rosenberg knows he has no more leverage now with Producers than he had months ago, probably less.  Thus, the chances that he can improve on the deal won by the WGA strike are low.
His solution?  Distract people’s attention by blaming AFTRA which is merely guilty of negotiating a deal built on the solid gains of the WGA strike.  And then drag out negotiations until the fall election campaign is underway so that no new opposition movement has a chance to threaten his and Membership First’s hold on power.
Of course, there is a fly in the ointment: federal labor law requires both the union and the employers to engage in good faith bargaining.  If one side balks – as arguably the union is now doing – the employer can declare an impasse and impose the terms of its final offer.  That is what the Producers appear to be ready to do.  SAG can pretend it is engaged in talks but if there is no real movement at the table there is little they can do to stop the imposition of terms by the AMPTP.
That could lead to a situation where production resumes under terms that the SAG leadership objects to but is powerless to stop.  Hardly something to write home about and thus the attempt by Rosenberg yesterday to throw down a smoke screen.  President Reardon did her best but I would not count on a repeat engagement any time soon.
A rational reaction in the current situation would be to restructure the bargaining team at the table, bringing on board high profile members who represent all factions in order to signal to the employers that you are serious about a deal. It would also undermine any argument that you are, in fact, using the collective bargaining process as a means to hold on to power.
If President Rosenberg were to do this it might in fact signal the beginning of a sea change inside SAG itself that could lead to more rational coordination with fellow unions down the road.
We’ll see.

A Conversation with the Presidents of SAG and AFTRA

KCRW