New SAG Prez Howard MIA in LA Today?

There is a report out of Hollywood this afternoon that SAG’s newly elected president Ken Howard will skip the first national board meeting of the union held since his election. The national board is the key decision making body of the guild and is said by SAG activists to set the direction and strategy of the organization.

As SAG agreed earlier this year to early contract bargaining with Hollywood studios – set to begin a year from now – every board meeting is considered critical to re-building Guild internal unity and sense of solidarity, both of which have been hard to discern in the organization of late.

The absence of the new Guild President comes after Howard told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week that a major contribution he intended to make to the union was to chair the Guild’s meetings “fairly” and to “listen” at meetings.

This move would seem to give some credence to the arguments of critics of the new leadership that the power behind the throne is really former SAG President Richard Masur and the new Secretary Treasurer Amy Aquino.  Masur had been among those who were strong advocates late last year of replacing the controversial SAG chief exec Doug Allen with former SAG General Counsel David White and then signing the deal on the table in front of SAG from the Producers.

While that got SAG out of the corner that Allen’s faulty strategy painted the union into, it has now locked SAG into early bargaining long before the other entertainment industry guilds begin their negotiations.  Since that bargaining must be in “good faith” it will require concessions, or movement, on key issues by both parties.  That means SAG will be setting the tone of bargaining but will not have any meaningful backing at that point of the other Guilds (i.e. no viable general strike threat that could genuinely make the studios fearful of the unions).

The other decision that is being floated for Board consideration today is to make the currently “Interim” executive director White a two year offer without going through any open search process. At a minimum a search would have allowed the board to hear from some top professionals their alternative strategies and approaches and it would have forced White to defend his strategy. It borders on bizarre that the new SAG President would not be present for the debate about this critical decision.

Clearly, then, the new majority led by Howard et al thinks White’s strategy is a winner. But what is his strategy? If it exists, it remains a secret.

Here is my prediction: there is no new strategy, and so after much sturm and drang in the spring of 2010 SAG will sign a new three year deal with the Producers with wage hikes of 2-3% p.a. or something similar broadly consistent with the changes in cost of living, there will be only modest extensions of union coverage into new media and there will be no inroads into what remains a huge cash cow for the studios, namely, DVDs.

Meanwhile, the consumer’s entertainment dollar will continue to spread into new non-union settings. In other words, SAG will continue its slow slide down hill in relevance and power.

Well, at least that’s arguably no worse than the rest of the American labor movement.