As the details of SAG’s recent contract terms with the major Hollywood studios become public, the price SAG’s new majority paid to cut a deal are becoming clear. While some are congratulating the Guild’s new majority for closing a deal with both the advertising industry on commercials and the studios on TV and Film, it may have meant sacrificing as much as 50 to 60 million dollars in monies owed to some 500 SAG members.
SAG’s TV/Film contract contains a so-called “force majeure” provision which mandates that actors are paid a percentage of their wages when a film production is cut short due to external causes. Arguably, the WGA strike last year was one such cause. Hundreds of actors claim that as much as 60 million in penalty fees are owed to them (and there are some claims circulating that the total owed is far higher). In theory the Producers are able to force these disputes into arbitration. SAG had hoped to use its collective bargaining power to force a general settlement of the claims.
In fact, that is what the Guild’s new leadership did but they only secured an agreement that each individual studio could, at its option, pay off the asserted actor claims at 33 cents on the dollar. In the alternative, the studio can opt for arbitration of the dispute where they might win a total reprieve or might be forced to pay 100 cents on the dollar.
Apparently, the Guild leadership felt that this compromise was required in order to win an agreement that the current contract will expire in two years time, instead of the ordinary three year period, so that its expiration is approximately coordinate with the expiration date of contracts negotiated by the WGA and AFTRA.
While I originally considered this to be a useful gain, it is not guaranteed that it advances the Guild’s cause.
First, it needs to be pointed out that having to give up on real money claims in order to secure some future and largely uncertain political advantage is risky for a union. There are many uncertainties about the terrain in the intervening two years.
Second, it is also not a good sign that the new majority put in place a new senior staff to replace the controversial Doug Allen and that new staff misjudged the seriousness of the Producers when they told the Guild that the Producers would indeed push for a 3 year deal when negotiations resumed. SAG National Board members appeared rocked on their heels by this demand but the Producers had made their intentions clear and such a demand could have easily been predicted given the long delay after the expiration of the previous contract last summer.
Third, what is to guarantee that in just two years SAG will somehow rebuild its shattered relationship with the rest of Hollywood labor and finally figure out how to apply long standing trade union tactics and principles to rebuild entertainment industry labor power? Frankly, the chances seem slim given the internal divisions that continue to rack the organization. Presumably the new majority understands this and in fact does not expect SAG to find some new basis for internal unity and cross-union solidarity.
Instead they likely believe that the close timing of contract expiration between SAG and AFTRA in the spring of 2011 will motivate the revival of Phase One – the long standing joint bargaining agreement between the two guilds that SAG under Membership First tore up – or perhaps more aggressively help push for actual merger between the two organizations.
This is likely to be viewed by Membership First in their typical paranoid style as an attempt to once again lash the larger and, arguably, potentially more powerful SAG to the AFTRA mast. Of course, even paranoids have enemies and, in this case, given the alacrity with which the new majority handed control of the bargaining process to their new senior staff (including a clear constitutional violation in the silencing of nationally elected Guild President Alan Rosenberg) instead of involving the membership itself, and the speed with which those staff engineered a costly compromise, the Membership First critics will not be without some justification for their alarm.