SAG Sends Quickie Labor Deal to Members Despite Opposition

SAG and AFTRA concluded contract negotiations in what is likely a record time this contract round – more than six months prior to the scheduled contract expiration date. Now the leadership is sending the deal out to SAG members for ratification despite objections from a minority opposition group that includes at least one member of the actual team that bargained the deal, according to on line reports (here and here) from SAG activists present at a SAG “informational meeting” in Los Angeles this past Saturday.

To bring readers up to speed, recall that the SAG contract covering more than 100,000 actors with major film studios runs for three years. The current agreement expires on June 30, 2011, a date that the current “moderate” SAG leadership fought for at the end of 2008 over fierce studio opposition, in order to allow SAG to work more closely with other Hollywood guilds to enable a stronger presence at the bargaining table.

That deal also obligated the Guild to engage in good faith negotiations with the studios eight months prior to expiration. At the time, I pointed out that this could be used by the studios to force SAG into early concessions when they would, once again, be in bargaining without the support of the other guilds. In other words, early bargaining undermined the potential value of the 2011 expiration date trumpeted by SAG at the time.

AFTRA joined SAG at the table in this round (largely due to their hope that SAG will agree to merge with the smaller union), but their presence in the film industry is negligible and so is not enough to add real leverage.  Sure enough, SAG not only made concessions (on studio payment for travel, for example) but actually went ahead and inked a deal without waiting to take advantage of potential coordination with the WGA and other guilds.

Despite having prevailed on the expiration date issue then, the same leadership decided to agree to a package more than six months early that contains only modest wage increases (a 2% hike in what are called minimums, the daily rate paid to most actor who are not powerful enough to win larger pay packages like those paid to A-list stars) and little else outside of what most other unions are securing this year.

According to one report, at the informational session held by SAG the SAG National Executive Director David White, who started his legal career as outside counsel to major Hollywood studios, attempted to sell the new contract at the meeting by arguing that 2% was the “new labor norm.”

The unanswered question, then, is why SAG members pay White more than $400,000 a year in order to secure the same wage increases won by auto workers, nurses and teachers. The staff of those unions earn less than half what White does, on average.

Perhaps White himself wishes to be paid the “norm” for other union leaders. The justification for the larger Guild salaries is that the industry is very complex and the opposition employer teams are equipped with sophisticated legal and financial talent. Thus, all of the guilds try to recruit staff that can at least match that talent and that inevitably leads to higher staff salaries. But if SAG views its situation as comparable to other industries it would be understandable if the rank and file membership questioned this use of their dues money.

White apparently provided no explanation at the meeting for the failure of SAG to take advantage of the coordinated expiration date that he himself had fought to establish in 2008-9 or the failure of SAG to make any significant progress on income for actors from new media sources.

White had also fought in 2008-09 for a so-called “sunset” (p. 38) clause on new media that would allow SAG to re-open bargaining on the new media issue. SAG chose not to take advantage of this in any significant way. And, consistent with the decision of the prior Membership First leadership, SAG avoided attacks on DVD revenue which remains a huge cash cow for the employers despite the rapidly increasing revenues being generated by new media players like Netflix.

White led that fight in 2008-09 only after the current moderate leaders of SAG wrested control of the Guild in a series of controversial national board meetings that led to the ouster of the prior NED, former NFLPA staffer Doug Allen. Allen had been hired by the Membership First controlled SAG, though with support from all Guild factions, only to lead the Guild on a disastrous bargaining round that destroyed MF’s credibility in the union.

Although it has not yet been reported in any of the Hollywood media, there was, according to the on line reports by SAG members who attended the meeting, open opposition to the new deal on the SAG bargaining committee itself. David Jolliffe, a controversial and acerbic figure who is a stalwart of the Membership First caucus inside SAG, is said to have advocated a No vote by SAG members and an opposition report was delivered at the meeting by an unnamed SAG member. Jolliffe was a member of the SAG team that negotiated the deal.

It is not clear if the opposition report has been made available to the voting members. While the SAG home page prominently advocates a Yes vote on the contract, there is no evidence of the existence of an opposition statement on the page set aside for “more information” on the deal. On a Membership First website, however, a summary of their opposition can be found here. However, in light of MF’s recent string of electoral defeats, it will not likely be able to mount a successful No campaign.