Chaos or Consensus: SAG’s Newest Challenge

As the Screen Actors Guild approaches one of its most important meetings in its 75 year history, the unresolved question is whether the entertainment industry’s leading labor organization will achieve a new consensus or descend into chaos.

A step toward chaos was taken today with the circulation of an email by Frances Fisher, a Membership First stalwart, endorsing an effort to vote against MF opponents in the upcoming SAG Awards.
Certain to be on the agenda at Monday’s National Board meeting are efforts by the new majority coalition in SAG made up of NY, the Regions and the new Unite For Strength group, to restructure the negotiating committee and, perhaps most importantly, to push out Doug Allen, the SAG National Executive Director.
The challenge if that succeeds is finding a replacement who can build sufficient consensus to move the organization forward. That requires a strategic perspective for the Guild that promises moderates and hard liners real progress at the bargaining table.
Several months ago I put together a memo that outlined a strategy that could be used by the Guild to break the template that many in the Membership First group feel, with some justification, reins them in. But what might have been feasible in the fall looks quite a bit more difficult today.
The problem is that what the Guild faces is not really a template, it is rather a straight jacket woven artfully by the AMPTP that now has robbed the Guild of its leadership role. The decision by the Guild to “go it alone” in bargaining forced the WGA into an early confrontation with the Producers and the 100 day strike that followed made clear to all the relative weakness of the WGA. That started the down hill slide that now threatens to bury SAG.
While the new majority rightly feels that divisive approach hurt the Guild, it is too simple to say that a merger with AFTRA will solve all the Guild’s problems. It is certainly not a short run solution and with restructuring of all of the AFL-CIO’s affiliates underway – and now likely to accelerate with an expected merger with Change to Win – even a merged SAG-AFTRA will soon face tremendous pressure to be folded into a larger entity such as the CWA, where NABET currently resides.
And of course in the short run, there are those darn contract negotiations, not just with the AMPTP but with the advertisers and cable TV.
Thus, any chance for the Guild to succeed will require new approaches and tactics. No union can succeed when the industry they are in undergoes radical change unless they match that change with their own new perspective and tactics. The lessons of the UAW should not be lost on SAG.
Right now the two theories of how the new world works on offer are insufficient. 
Membership First offers table thumping militancy that is radically inadequate in the complex financial and technological environment they face. 
Witness their disastrous use of the example of Hulu, the online video site. Under the deal with the other guilds, Hulu is actually one of the only pro-union success stories in new media – a challenge to the thoroughly non-union user generated world of YouTube. Of course there are holes in the formula but SAG can hardly complain when it left the WGA out there fighting for the new formula while they started a battle with AFTRA.
Unite For Strength, on the other hand, offers a somewhat utopian proposal that a merger with AFTRA will solve all of the Guild’s problems. Not likely. Union mergers are very problematic. Difficult to negotiate, in both the corporate (where I have done my share) and labor world, as the Guilds have themselves experienced. (I still recall the feeling of disbelief when I learned during my discussions with the Guild in 2006 that the merged entity would not be called SAG. Stupid.)  And in many ways mergers just delay the solution of the real problems.
The real problem is that a union to succeed today must know how their industry is changing and find ways to create leverage against the employers. My own view is that the Guilds find themselves witnessing a three way arms race: traditional studios as divisions of large public corporations are facing off against venture capital backed Silicon Valley startups and each face the threat posed by telecom, cable and satellite giants.
The situation resembles that of the Cold War when the U.S., China and Russia all faced off.  Back then there was a race for the “hearts and minds” of billions.
In some ways that’s true today as well. Thus, SAG itself must become a player in this global entertainment industry arms race.  They, too, need to battle for the hearts and minds – of their own members and potential members (drama schools!), of the wider labor movement and public. And then they have to use that leverage at the bargaining table.
It’s a tall order but the effort must be made or the Guild faces, in my view, not just chaos but, potentially, irrelevance.
A note to my readers: posting here will slow down for the time being as a new semester begins at the law school next week.