And the envelope please….UPDATE: SAG Contract Ratified 78%-22%

The long running drama of SAG’s dragged out contract talks with Hollywood Producers more than likely comes to an end tomorrow when ballots are counted for and against ratification of the union’s central collective bargaining agreement.

UPDATE: As the New York Times reported here, SAG members have indeed ratified the TV/Theatrical Contract in a very solid victory for the new board majority over the No campaign run by the now out of power Membership First group. The results exceeded my private projection of a Yes vote of about 70%. Although I told the Times that the internal divide within the Guild will resurface shortly, this will likely make prominent supporters of MF like Martin Sheen think twice about whether a run for the presidency is worth it this fall.

The deal in front of members is in essence the same as that already agreed to by the Writers’ and Directors’ guilds and as well by AFTRA, SAG’s sister union.  Since SAG and AFTRA members overlap significantly and AFTRA secured a strong majority for ratification, SAG is more than likely headed for ratification as well.

While this means an end to the rancor around this particular deal it really will mean simply a short breather for SAG’s internal politics. Already the leaders of both major SAG factions are gearing up for the fall national elections.

The NY/Unite For Strength/Regional Board group known as the “new majority” currently has the upper hand as they have a one seat majority on the National Board and thus control the hiring of key union staff. The only seats up for a contest this fall are those already held by the out of power Membership First group, at least in LA.  That means MF must hold on to all those seats in the face of opposition from Unite For Strength as well as elect at least one person sympathetic to them or an actual supporter in NY or the Regional Division.

There will be a contest for the SAG presidency as well but it is not clear who is likely to run.  Current SAG President Alan Rosenberg has not said whether he will or will not run for a third term.  Two terms is likely to have seemed to many SAG members as one too many but Rosenberg is cagey on his plans.  

If he steps aside MF stalwart Anne-Marie Johnson is likely to step into the breach.  But AMJ, as she is known, is a polarizing figure even inside her own MF party. This is unfortunate as she is one of the most articulate and charismatic of SAG’s top leaders. Somewhere along the line she has picked up a style of internal leadership that is very problematic. This is, of course, a problem at its core with MF as a whole as they use almost comically manipulative measures to gain and hold union power.

This is probably best understood as filling a vacuum – that caused by their lack of substantive ideas about what an effective SAG strategy could be in the current environment. Even now, several years after they took power their only explanation for the alternative to the current contract is a strike vote or an actual strike. Neither are realistic and in fact are simply tactical steps that unions use as part of an effective strategy.

On the other side of the union there are two problems. Many of the key leaders of the new majority hale from NY and thus have a limit on their ability to lead a union that has a majority of its members in Los Angeles. In LA, Unite For Strength has brought a new younger generation of activists to the fore but they are largely new to the bitter and brutal internal politics of the guild. (In a recent all too typical blog post one MF activist called the leader of Unite For Strength and his colleagues, among other things, a lemming, Judas, “sap,” and, seriously, “a head of lettuce”.)

Under these circumstances, currently the new majority has ceded a good deal of power to the new “Interim” National Executive Director David White and the new Chief Negotiator John McGuire. White is a former SAG general counsel who was brought into SAG under the controversial NED, Bob Pisano, from Pisano’s and White’s old law firm, O’Melveny and Myers. O’Melveny is a top tier white shoe corporate law firm that represents the studios. Ironcially Pisano was hired when SAG was headed by MF founder Bill Daniels – the thinking was a guy like Pisano would know how the other side operated. Unfortunately, Pisano was still, in a way, playing with the other side – he was on the board of Netflix which was doing its own deals with the studios to carve up critical DVD revenues.

Thus, White to many carries with him the legacy of the Pisano era. Unfortunately in his first outing as SAG NED he and McGuire made a bad tactical mistake in not taking seriously Producer threats to demand a three year contract term. When the AMPTP, the Producers’ bargaining arm, made that demand official it cost SAG a real money item (giving up on a collective payment by the studios of force majeur penalties to SAG members put out of work during the 100 day WGA strike) to recover a two year contract expiration so that the SAG contract expires at approximately the same time as that of the WGA in the spring of 2011.

That points to the larger strategic picture and raises some tough and unanswered questions for SAG. Since the WGA was unwilling to delay its negotiations in 2008 for SAG what makes the new majority confident that a serious strategic relationship can be formed with the WGA, much less the DGA and IATSE next time around? And on what terms and to what ends? Since SAG has no strategic plan structuring such a relationship will remain very difficult unless SAG resolves its internal differences.

The New Majority seems intent on using its current momentum – likely to be improved as a result of tomorrow’s ratification – to eat further into MF’s hold on the Hollywood Division and then move quickly to negotiate a merger with AFTRA.  While that would create some cost savings by eliminating the need for administrative staff in some circumstances, the longer run impact on union power is less clear. There is not much substance behind the demand for merger and it, too, seems like an attempt to fill the vacuum created by a lack of strategic planning.

Thus, one is tempted to conclude that tomorrow’s vote will represent the kind of change celebrated satirically by the French writer Alphonse Karr in the wake of the aborted Revolution of 1848: the more things change, the more they remain the same.