SAG makes its Ned, will it lie in it?

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.”

2 thoughts on “SAG makes its Ned, will it lie in it?”

  1. “I’m committed to moving forward and to engaging in a public and transparent process that will foster buy-in across our memberships.” Ken Howard, President of SAG Oct 22, 2010

    44k of 65k in AFTRA are also SAG actors. 67%

    Of the remaining 19k, I’d guess less than 2k are AFTRA-actors only

    Astonishing. Really, if you just step back and look at those numbers.

    The American Federation of TELEVISION and RADIO Artists.

    And that television is supposed to be TV “performed in a live manner” aka “live TV.”

    So, when you remove all the heat and all the preconceptions and all the rancid history, just as a rational person, what would be the common sense move here?

    If SAG consolidated all TV and movie actors under one roof and moved to decertify AFTRA, leaving them with “live TV” which is their only TV jurisdiction anyway, and they have no movie jurisdiction, why is that not the thing to do to solve the undercutting, the jurisdictional wars, the poaching, etc.

    Why has SAG tolerated this for so long? SAG didn’t want to hurt Roberta Reardon’s feelings? Or her various predecessors?

    It can’t be that, right?

    SAG felt it would HURT actors more than HELP them? I simply don’t think that’s a case that can be made without defying reality and looking extremely foolish, given the facts.

    So, why? Why are we doing this? And exactly what is in it for the rabid proponents of it?

    SAG is not prone to strikes. Unions HAVE to strike sometimes, or else they’re not, by definition, unions. But the last TV/Theatrical was 30 years ago, by far our biggest contract. Commercial? 2000? And it’s now, what 750 million in revenue instead of 600 and change, pre-strike?

    What is in this for say, Roberta Reardon? or Kim Hedgpeth? Or David White? Or Duncan Crabtree Ireland? Ken Howard – I don’t include because I don’t think he, not so much, covets the Presidency of the “New Union for a New World,” I just think he’s… not ambitious to run the thing, even as a simply titular head. He’s lazy and kind of bored – now. He falls asleep in the negotiations going on now.

    So, say for Richard Masur, or Sam Freed, or Mike Hodge, or David Hartley-Margolin, or any other regional heads.

    They don’t want the possibility of ANY strikes? Ever?

    Well, in a lot of the regions, that wouldn’t really matter anyway. Work would stop? What work? Seriously, in most of the regions it’s a rare occurrence (work) and very, very few of these people make an actual living as actors in TV and movies.

    They want the pay-off, given that SAG IS AFTRA, as far as actors already, of… what?

    Winning? Winning what? Money? Who gets the money? Power? O.K., let’s pretend this is NOT about being producer-compliant, but really IS about being indivisible and stronger.

    So… whoever is picked as the new leadership in the “New Union for a New World.” is going to be… tougher in negotiations… which will result in severe push-back from the AMPTP, which will result in… strikes?

    Or, if it IS about producer compliance, saying “yes” to basically everything the AMPTP wants, what does ANYBODY in a leadership position get out of that? Except the wrath of the membership and public humiliation?

    Am I missing something? I’m serious. This is at the heart of my total incomprehension of why we are where we are.

    If you actually look at what would be “best for actors” given the numbers, it would be to consolidate all actors under SAG and decertify AFTRA, leaving them with their original jurisdiction: Radio, they have broadcasters (those that work union anyway – AFTRA doesn’t seem to care that many work non-union, but are AFTRA members), they have recording artists, and they’d have actors who work live TV.

    So, is SAG unwilling to do the clearly logical thing because moderate SAG (and progressive SAG by the way – they let it go on and on and on) feels sorry for AFTRA?

    Obviously, the right thing to do is consolidate and decertify, right? The TV that’s gone to AFTRA? It’s been allowed to wander away without ANY push-back from current SAG leadership, but could be reclaimed by a Unit Clarification Claim with the NLRB.

    If Brian Hamilton’s claim succeeds, which is on appeal right now in DC, that’s what will happen despite the union itself (SAG) being unwilling to do it, but leaving it for an individual member to do.

    So, somebody tell me. No glib answers. A bunch of people, in SAG or AFTRA, or both, have to be getting something HUGE out of this to go through all this, right?

    So, WHO is getting WHAT in terms of money and power?

  2. Thanks for your words on SAG and AFTRA, Steve. Let me assure you that “cheering” is not the primary activity going on re the latest victory of the rational over the crazy. What we see before us now is the true “heavy lifting,” if you will, that it will take to bind performers in front of cameras and microphones into an effective united whole.

    One must never mistake militancy as being the purview of only the drama queens. Militancy also abounds in the ranks of the level-headed leadership newly come into power at SAG.

    Thirdly, I doubt you can point to any ways in which Anne-Marie Johnson was “much maligned.” She has elicited strong sentiment against herself through her own personality, style, and choice of words and actions. She was given many chances and great latitude by myself and many others who had to deal with her in SAG governance. May she set herself free into a life for which she is more suited. Nil nisi bonum.

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