I often tell potential clients who look to law school faculty for free legal advice that you get what you pay for.
And I feel pretty certain that the activists within SAG on all sides of the current internal disputes are getting all sorts of free advice these days.
But it occurred to me that two steps are critical for the organization, so what the heck, here goes:
First, in the very short term SAG must figure out how to secure a TV/Theatrical contract with the AMPTP. The Membership First party argued that without a Strike Authorization Vote they had no more leverage to exercise.
Of course, as is widely recognized – if not by some of the more intransigent MF members – the MF strategy to go it alone sure enough left SAG last in line with little leverage to start with. Ironically they have forced actors under SAG contracts to work as the low cost providers denying the membership millions of dollars in increased minimums and residuals that are now going to actors, writers and directors in the other guilds under the new contracts.
Like a poorly managed boxer, SAG under Doug Allen and Alan Rosenberg came out swinging last year and by the second or third round the union had burned itself out. Anyone who has been following Vallywood over the last year has read enough detail on the mistakes made by the current leadership that we don’t have to kick that dead horse.
But that does not mean that MF is wrong about the reality of the immediate situation.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day!
Make no mistake, formally rescinding the planned SAV – as some evidence indicates might happen at next week’s National Board meeting – indeed would remove any remaining leverage the Guild had. There would be absolutely no incentive on the part of the AMPTP to offer any change to the deal. Perhaps if they were in a really friendly mood they might throw in some concession on, let’s say, “french hours” so that the Guild could “save face” and sign the deal.
But that’s about it and some on the new negotiating committee might feel a certain embarrassment if they try to sell that kind of deal.
Think about the current situation from the AMPTP viewpoint.
Assume the new board majority succeeds, as it apparently plans, in replacing the current negotiating team, including Doug Allen, the SAG NED. Assume they put in Allen’s place, as I have heard they plan to do, someone who is in LA and has solid entertainment law credentials, is familiar with the contracts and has been at SAG in the past. In other words, a safe and credible choice who might be unpopular with some but a known figure who will likely restore some balance to the organization. (Since I cannot confirm the name with anyone on the record, I am not going to speculate on who that person might be.)
Does that make the AMPTP feel better in the morning? If SAG’s troubles start to clear up is that an improvement for them? Not necessarily. A dysfunctional union – as SAG very much is at this point – is a dying union. And there are no doubt some very strong arguments inside the AMPTP going on about whether they should attempt to let SAG fall apart to be replaced by some other structure (and not necessarily AFTRA).
So a healthier better managed SAG may be viewed by some in the AMPTP as more of a threat than that sometimes comical pseudo-militancy of Membership First.
Thus, the likelihood that they are going to make significant changes to what they have for six months told everyone in the world is, indeed, their “last best and final” offer without some added pressure is very unlikely.
Is there any possible source of pressure that SAG can bring to bear? My memo, How to Break the Template, offered SAG a late stage strategy to increase their leverage. But what was possible several months ago is no longer possible today.
Nonetheless, I think there is one key step the union can take.
The SAV was delayed (and not yet rescinded) as a result of a decision by the Membership First-controlled negotiating committee (at least they were the ones with legal control of the SAV) after a letter signed by prominent, so-called A-List, SAG members emerged opposing a strike.
Those A-Listers must now take responsibility for their action.
They crystallized the opposition to a possible strike. Without the intervention of Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Sally Field, Susan Sarandon and hundreds of others, make no mistake, the SAV would be out there right now. It may or may not have passed, but it was thought to have had a chance, at least, of getting the 75% needed. I thought it was a desperate hail mary move by a leadership trying to rescue its failed strategy but it would have nonetheless given them something to work with.
Certainly the new centrist slate, Unite For Strength, had no intention of trying to stop the vote. They opposed it, no doubt, but they were too anxious about the impact outright opposition would have on their upcoming chances in the fall election to gain more board seats and possibly the SAG presidency.
But when Hanks, Clooney, Field, et al, legitimated the opposition and unleashed a groundswell, Unite For Strength, which holds key swing votes on the National Board, made their opposition clear as well and following a meeting between their leaders Adam Arkin and Ned Vaughn with Rosenberg and Allen, the SAV delay was announced.
So now what should happen, imho, is that
- the SAV should be formally suspended, but not rescinded; and
- a delegation of the A-Listers that signed the anti-strike letter must join the new negotiating team.
Those A-Listers must come forward at a press conference side by side with the new leadership and make a statement to the industry that the only reason for suspending the SAV is that they think it is worth attempting another, final, round at the table.
They must sit face to face across from Nick Counter – or, better yet, Peter Chernin and co. – to experience for themselves what, until now, SAG MF’ers have claimed has been an intransigent management.
And then, if, indeed, the AMPTP is willing to make real progress to get a reasonable deal done, it will get done. But if not, the A-Listers themselves must walk out of the meeting and say that they will be the first to hoist a picket sign and walk out.
Well, that should certainly be enough to chew over for one day. But I can’t help but throw in a second, longer term, consideration. When the dust clears in the next couple of months it’s critical to consider what got SAG into this terrible hole. Yes, of course, it is not wrong to blame the thuggish style and tactics of Doug Allen and some in the Membership First team. I have been the victim of some of their smear campaign efforts as has anyone who attempts to raise concerns about SAG’s direction.
But what is it about SAG that causes these kinds of deep internal conflicts, not just once but over and over again? I have heard many people say, well, they’re actors, what do you expect? And that comes from SAG members! But I really don’t know what that is supposed to mean.
Yes, they’re actors – so what? Emotional, yes. Creative, yes. Volatile, sometimes.
But also highly trained, well educated, intelligent, hard working, dedicated to their profession. And whatever you might say about the food fights that sometimes break out in SAG, there are many unions across the country that are thankful that any one even shows up for union meetings.
I think the problem lies in Guild governance.
In essence a system has emerged over the last twenty years or so that allows some to exercise power without responsibility while others are forced to take on responsibility without power. That is a recipe for disaster.
The most obvious manifestation of this divide between power and responsibility is reflected in the odd relationship between the union’s elected leadership and its professional staff. The National Board has the power but little personal individual responsibility. But the staff has a huge amount of responsibility but little power.
Unlike most unions, SAG’s staff is not made up of its own former members. Occasionally in their history a card holder has migrated to the staff but when they do they give up their union card. In most unions it works just the opposite. The entirety of the top staff, with the exception perhaps of lawyers and economists, is made up former rank and file workers. In fact, in some unions, like the IBEW where I was on the professional staff for three years, even staff members like me who came from outside the industry became dues paying card holders while on the staff.
The advantage of this system is that it insures that the staff really does understand the nature of the work of rank and file members. And it sends a signal to the members that the staff is still a part of the workforce. But there are disadvantages since usually in most of these kinds of unions leaving rank and file work for what was referred to recently as a “cushy union job” can lead to a separation of interests between union officials and the rank and file. Some go so far as to blame this for the entire set of ills that have beset the American labor movement.
But SAG has always maintained a fire wall between its staff and the working members. That makes a lot of sense for SAG since it is certainly more likely that actors would prefer to stay actors than to become union bureaucrats!
But SAG has created another problem. Its National Board has now 71 members, and even that is slimmed down from what it used to be. While there is the smaller but relatively ineffective National Executive Committee and the President and Vice President structure, the Board retains power over most major decisions, such as hiring an NED and sending out a strike vote.
A board of that size and with that much power means that power is diffuse and not easily understood by the members or by the staff. It is, in a word, undemocratic and subject to manipulation, despite appearing to be more democratic.
And that undemocratic character has allowed factions to emerge to fight for power. In turn, the staff is left without clear direction. To compensate staff play politics. And in the current situation people widely feel that Doug Allen has become the NED of Membership First not of the Screen Actors Guild. That is a problem.
Thus a longer term (and I mean six months not six years) reform must be to change the governance structure.
My suggestion is a 10-15 person board, no alternates allowed, that meets monthly or quarterly, with the NED as an ex officio member. Board members would be elected each year at an annual meeting of the membership just as in public corporations. The board should follow what are now best practices for non profit corporations and form an appropriate committee structure including an audit committee, a nominating committee, etc. that would link up to the NED and CFO and other top staff.
The board would also implement much greater transparency so that the membership can understand what is going on in the organization. That means clearer reporting again based on the kinds of practice that are now standard at large non profit entities.
One simple way of achieving this would be to revise the National Executive Committee into a board and maintain the membership on the National Board but make it an advisory board that meets twice a year or as needed to seek input from the wider membership.
In my view, this would lead to a healthier democratic life inside SAG and would greatly strengthen its ability to function effectively.
No doubt there are some who will argue that there is no need since there are plans afoot for merger with AFTRA. A discussion of that topic is certainly best left for another day, but as I have said when asked by SAG members, mergers are complicated and unpredictable and always take much longer than one thinks.
In any case, since the two unions now share more than 40,000 members, the problems of SAG, unless addressed now, will almost certainly become the problems of any merged entity.