With the election of Ned Vaughn as SAG’s First Vice President, the sweep into power of the moderate alliance at the nation’s most important union in the entertainment industry is now complete.
Vaughn replaces the much maligned Anne-Marie Johnson, the stalwart defender of the now vanquished militant faction of the Guild known as Membership First.
Understandably, there is cheering across the Guild among moderates in New York, Seattle, Chicago and, not least, in LA itself where Vaughn lives and where his Unite For Strength group has its base.
But there are two big unanswered questions that the elevation of the UFS leader raises: 1) what is the impact in the short run on the early stage talks with the AMPTP? and 2) what is the meaning of this new dominance of what was, for a very long time, a minority group within the guild for the long term future of actors?
Recall, patient readers, that the commitment to the current early stage talks with the studios was at the insistence of the employers who hoped to evade the impact of near simultaneous expiration of contract dates in June ’11 among the various guilds. The latter has been a long sought after guild goal because it would allow for increased coordination of bargaining, something long needed among entertainment labor.
With early negotiations – obligated to be conducted in good faith – there is an argument that each side has to make some concessions in order to move closer to a deal, though there is no legal requirement that a deal be struck. The only hint of how the talks are going was a very confusing story posted in Variety which suggested that little progress towards a deal had been made. Since the disclosure violated a stated policy by both sides of no leaks and the story said explicitly that the AMPTP was sticking by that policy readers were led to believe the leak came from the SAG side of the table.
Whether it was aimed at lowering expectations or was indicative of some split among the SAG team, which still counts among its members some from the ousted MF faction, is not known. But with fewer than three weeks left in this stage of negotiations it seems less likely a deal will be inked.
With the consolidation of the moderates in power, the producers now know for sure who they will be dealing with at SAG through this bargaining round and most likely the next one as well. That likely makes them feel reassured that they can strike a deal more easily, if not now then next summer. It certainly confirms the trend towards less militancy in the Guild barring some dramatic attempt by the Producers to up end the situation with aggressive demands such as an end to the residuals system.
At the same time, there is little indication that the Guild is looking to reorder the balance of power with the studios either. While the Guild went through their normal preparation process to put together their proposals no other activity was underway when the talks began other than the standard call by the moderates for a merger with sister guild, AFTRA. As the SAG NED David White, a former studio lawyer and SAG general counsel, has no broader experience as a strategic thinker for labor this is not a big surprise.
The latter transaction will take several years to complete, no doubt, and cannot be said to be a game changer in negotiations with the studios. For many decades both guilds have signed on to the very same terms and conditions under the major TV/Theatrical contract so despite the argument that AFTRA can be used to undercut the Guild that is largely not the case.
Where it has become an issue is in areas of work that are not covered by that deal, such as cable and, arguably, digital productions. In cable, AFTRA shocked the industry when it signed up the lion’s share of new shows over the last two years and that was the one issue that would have seemed to make the case for the MF faction to stop the merger and have a continued presence for MF in the Guild’s national leadership. But the membership did not get the message and even Johnson suggests that MF is a dead letter.
So I think the answer to the first question is that the Vaughn election, as the cherry on top of the chocolate sundae, will make the AMPTP breath a sigh of relief. I think this lowers the chance of a deal in the current early stage negotiations but raises the potential for an employer-favored deal next summer, which is what I predicted some months ago. This would mean modest wage increases (2%) but no dent in the DVD revenue sharing model and only modest, if any, improvements in new media.
SAG’s current leaders will likely consider such a result, if achieved without any labor action, a victory because it will allow them to proceed quickly to the merger talks with AFTRA.
So what about the long term? What are the implications of the implosion of Membership First and the consolidation of the moderates’ hold on the Guild?
Well, certainly the potential for a successful conclusion of merger talks, defeated narrowly several years ago, has skyrocketed. Just as with the employers, the absence of a potential militant alternative in the form of MF weakens the Guild’s hand in these negotiations. It reminds me of the quote from Henry Kissinger – it helps sometimes if the other side thinks you are a little crazy.
But the “crazies” – a bit of an exaggeration, I admit – have disappeared, or so it seems. One has to assume that the MF stalwarts remain, out there, thinking about how to regroup. One has to wonder if they will actually try to learn from their mistakes. Once the merger takes place they will likely reemerge inside the new organization. But by then they will be counterbalanced by the addition of thousands of broadcast journalists to the voting base of the union.
The real question is whether they or others will start at least an internal debate about why they failed and how the guild (whether or not merged with AFTRA) can increase actor power in a world that is radically different than the one that MF emerged to deal with more than two decades ago (under other names, of course). The moderates insist, of course, that merger is the critical step to increasing actor power. The concrete explanation for this argument has never been made, publicly at least. Instead there are vague slogans like “a new union for a new world,” AFTRA’s current favorite.
Soon enough the moderates will realize that while merger may allow some cost savings on staff and transaction costs related to the pension and health care plan, the impact of changes in industry structure driven by technological change and globalization (consider the battle of The Hobbit) remain. Perhaps the MF crowd will begin to understand that mindless militancy is no more useful as a tactic than the bureaucratic tactics of the merger advocates.
If the sanest in both camps come together and realize the important turning point the Guilds now find themselves at, there is immense potential still extant in the unions that are so critical to one of the country’s most important industries.
There is, in the words of Upton Sinclair (or John Conroy), a “world to win.”