The key to power for Hollywood’s unions has always been leadership by the flagship of the industry, the Screen Actors Guild. When SAG leads there is a real chance for actors, writers, directors and crew to make real progress in collective bargaining. Without SAG, those guilds drift.
The best example of the problem was in 2008 when the entire industry thought SAG, under the leadership of the energetic Membership First party, would be critical to a coalition that would include the WGA. But Membership First stumbled badly and the WGA was forced to go it alone, and first, against the studios. Their strike was well organized and popular but fell short of its full potential because of the small size of the Guild.
The hope of Hollywood labor was that the larger SAG, with its recognizable A-list stars hitting the bricks, would pave the way for the smaller guilds. In the wake of that annus horribilis for SAG, the union moved instead towards merger with its smaller sister guild, AFTRA. Long both partner and thorn in the side of SAG, AFTRA has a history of being far more employer friendly. The effect of the merger was to further isolate the Membership First party.
The most recent election results, the first national elections for the newly merged SAG-AFTRA, demonstrate the impact. The two leaders of the pro-merger groups, Roberta Reardon of AFTRA and Ken Howard of SAG, had a falling out, over what exactly is not entirely clear although there are rumors that AFTRA’s financial condition has turned out to be far weaker than was understood prior to the merger. As a result of the falling out, Howard refused to support Reardon for the position of Vice President of the new union as had been long expected. And Reardon lost the support of NY-based SAG members where she lost narrowly to a pre-merger SAG leader for President of the New York local.
But the election results for SAG-AFTRA President indicate that pre-merger AFTRA voters came together with the NY-based SAG moderates to defeat the charismatic and popular Esai Morales who seems to have been the only figure willing to take on the thankless task. This follows the pattern that I predicted prior to the merger – the real goal was to insure that the MF party could never muster sufficient votes to take over leadership of the industry’s key union again.
That only leaves one real problem: a union that was once split in two is now split into three factions. And that means SAG-AFTRA is not likely to find its way to playing the leadership role it must play if talent and crew are to advance. The challenges facing the guilds are heightened by the fact that the industry is under severe challenge from the digital powerhouses in northern California, including Netflix, Google and Apple. Digital delivery undermines the control the industry has long enjoyed over its content. When content creators started to realize the impact of You Tube and other technologies it began to jack up prices and make its libraries less accessible. That means lower quality material on Netflix but it means that those same entities are incentivized to produce their own content, some of it under union agreements but with vast amounts of other material produced union-free.
A coalition of talent and crew guilds united around a strategy for the future of entertainment could break out of its dependence on the studio system and begin dealing directly with the new industrial structure being built in Silicon Valley. That is the only way for unionization to survive in the industry.
The lesson of the music industry and the auto industry and the steel industry should be hanging over the heads of every union member in Hollywood. Labor organizations that do not get ahead of new technology and new industrial forms will find themselves in very serious trouble.