No Oscar for SAG

images1As the sun rises on the day of the Oscars, I come to a reluctant conclusion: what is happening inside of the Screen Actors Guild is a textbook case of organizational dysfunction.

Readers will likely be aware that after nearly a year of bargaining, more or less, the 120,000 member Screen Actors Guild has been unable to come to agreement with its major employer group, the AMPTP, on a new labor contract.

Lengthy, tough bargaining is not unusual in labor relations these days but that usually happens in troubled, declining industries like steel, auto, and textiles where there are few good options for either employers or workers.

But the film and entertainment industry is one of the most important and growing industries not only in California but nationally. American entertainment, unlike American economic or foreign policy, is welcomed around the world. It is so much in demand that imitation and piracy run rampant. Under those circumstances, one would have thought that it would be the last place one would find a deeply divided and troubled union like SAG.

But instead of finding creative ways to promote and expand union power in this exceptional industry, SAG has from the outset of this bargaining period tried to find ways to sabotage its own potential success. The first round belonged to the SAG hard liners in Membership First, the party that took control of the Guild several years ago. They were convinced that the Producers were out to bust the unions in Hollywood, as if they had picked up an old script from the 1930s and mistook it for the studios’ bargaining strategy.

Thus, despite clear signals that the Producers were intent on tough and smart but straightforward bargaining, MF decided that they would have to have what they called “their strike” in order to win. When a 100 day strike by the Writers Guild left many of their own members exhausted and in deeper financial trouble, they nonetheless insisted on ramping up a battle with their own sister union, AFTRA, instead of agreeing to the 10% wage increase and the improved new media jurisdiction included in the WGA deal.

That backfired, of course, as their own members voted for the AFTRA deal despite an unprecedented campaign financed by SAG dues to defeat AFTRA’s own deal, also backed by dues paid by actors who are members of both unions!

This led to a shift in political control of the board to a moderate new majority in the fall which finally decided to oust the Guild’s NED, Doug Allen, who had helped engineer the Membership First train wreck.

But for some reason the new majority thought that by simply offering to accept the WGA new media template the Producers would make the contract retroactive back to June of 2008 and thus allow the three year term to expire in the summer of 2011, simultaneously with the expiration of the deals already in the can with the other Guilds. Yet, the Producers had taken retroactivity off the table at the end of last summer, so it appears to have been a major mistake of the new NED and Chief Negotiator hired by the new majority to have thought that this would somehow easily be reversed now, six months later.

Thus, the new staff came into office and instead of attempting to develop additional leverage before re-starting contract talks immediately set up meetings with the AMPTP. Three days of bargaining led, in fact, to movement on some remaining issues, including new media, force majeur and some small items. Of course, SAG did not get anywhere near what it had dreamed of two years before, but without any additional leverage it seemed strange that they would complain that the Producers had dug in their heels on retroactivity and the three year expiration date.

This was all too much for SAG’s new $400,000 man, David White, who declared “this deal sucks” at the National Board meeting. Really? Now, the new majority is proposing a merger with AFTRA as a solution to their problems, yet AFTRA was proud of the deal’s terms. The SAG hard liners hope to work with the WGA to improve bargaining leverage in the future yet the WGA’s members approved this same deal by a vote of 90%.

So, what exactly, “sucks” about the deal? And what exactly should SAG do about it if White is right?

On that score, there are no answers. Only, as SAG activists like to say, “crickets.”

My proposal at this stage?

Since SAG’s leaders, staff and elected, of all political persuasions, have ignored every opportunity over the last two years to consider rational and traditional labor approaches to improving their leverage, it is time to let the membership speak. Send out the AMPTP offer for a ratification vote. Include a separate ballot for a strike authorization conditioned by the ratification vote. If the ratification reaches the required 50% plus one, then that’s it.

If it fails and if the SAV achieves the required 75% threshold, then return to the table to see if that helps move the AMPTP. If both proposals fail, then it should be explained clearly to the membership that that allows the Producers to decide whether or not to impose the terms of their last offer or continue making product under the terms of the now expired contract. At that point, of course, the members may turn their focus to the fall elections when it might be possible to bring new leadership to the National Board.

SAG belongs to the entire membership, as in any union, so it is time to let them decide.