The Wall Street Journal is proud that its foreign policy columnist Bret Stephens has won a Pulitzer for his columns. I am, too, as it would appear my writing helped shape Mr. Stephens writing style. Or maybe not. You can be the judge by reviewing the case here.
You had to be sharp tonight to see through the provocateur antics of Fox News “reporter” Steven Crowder. Crowder went to Lansing to “report” on the labor demonstration against the new right to work legislation. But his real purpose was to raise a “ruckus” as he himself tweeted several hours earlier: “All aboard the ruckus wagon.”
Crowder had no visible identity card indicating that he was media. And as he himself admitted on Hannity he engaged in action to “defend” anti-union protestors. In other words, he went beyond reporting the demonstration and became the story, which is arguably a violation of his obligation as a reporter.
He got into the ruckus he went looking for and in the process a protestor falls or is pushed to his knees and only then takes a swing at Crowder, understandably.
The right wing blogosphere went nuts. But Crowder posted a doctored video that cut out the picture of the union man down on his knees. Instead his doctored clip makes it look like the union guy came out of nowhere to take a punch at Crowder. At least Hannity posted the full tape and it clearly showed the union man on all fours, seconds after Crowder approached him with his hands raised.
Update Wed afternoon: Crowder himself was asked this afternoon on Twitter (@scrowder) how Union guy ended up on his knees at feet of Crowder and Crowder said he had pulled the man away from the tent.
Update Wed. PM: On Hannity tonight one guest said he watched entire footage of event and said it showed Crowder throwing Union guy to ground. In response, Crowder screamed, in so many words, “he was pulling on the tent and he went down.”
Update: The Times catches up late last night here.
Crowder’s doctored version is here.
The full version showing union guy (in black cap) on all fours is here. Key moments start around 1:20.
Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post has put his finger on the elephant that is Obama’s foreign policy and declared it, well, something, if not exactly an elephant. Instead of “leading from behind” he suggests that Obama actually shares the longstanding bipartisan commitment to global leadership that has informed U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. The difference, Diehl argues, is that Obama thinks he can maintain that leadership position with a “light footprint.”
Diehl is right to suggest that it is Obama’s doctrine, not the decisions of lower level bureaucrats, that lies behind the emerging crisis in the MENA region but he does not quite get to the point. Why has Obama implemented this “light footprint”? Is he a peacenik who is trying to recreate U.S. isolationism? Or is it something else?
Once one poses the question it becomes clear that what Diehl says is Obama’s doctrine is in fact just a strategy not a doctrine. It is the method of implementing his doctrine. And what is that doctrine? It is “relativism” – a world view that suggests that other countries’ ideologies and political systems including Islamic fundamentalism, Latin American “21st century socialism” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” are all legitimate expressions of those nations’ political will. This is what I have suggested here before explains Obama’s original 2008 campaign commitment to “engagement” without preconditions with authoritarian regimes like that of Syria, Iran, Venezuela and China.
This relativist world view emerged as a distinct ideology in the late 1960s when the radical milieu that Obama later joined in the 1980s came to the conclusion that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” For many this meant that the United States should simply not intervene as aggressively as it had in the past to change the path of political developments abroad.
For many others, though, it became the basis for a more aggressive turn to “third worldism,” meaning the actual advocacy of the political victory of authoritarian regimes in the developing world. Thus, mentors and allies of Obama like Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, Carl Davidson, Bernardine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky became (and remain) advocates of the stalinist regimes of Cuba, China, North Vietnam and Algeria. This same milieu later supported neo-stalinist movements in Nicaragua, South Africa and El Salvador, even in the presence of democratic alternatives. It was during this later phase of relativism that Obama “crossed paths” with this milieu, in the memorably misleading phrase of Scott Shane in The New York Times. Their relativist approach to international issues is echoed in their domestic advocacy of divisive forms of multiculturalism, diversity and racialism in arenas like education policy. One example of a modern day expression of this approach can be found in an essay in the left wing newspaper In These Times which views Obama as a modern and rebellious “Friday,” a “post-colonial” President.
The problem of course is that neither the relativism of Obama nor the aggression of the neo-conservatives provides a rational framework for dealing with current global realities. What is at the core of that reality? It is the impact of the end of the Cold War. We underestimated the rough form of “stability” that era provided in the developing world. That is not to endorse it, of course, but only to recognize its impact. Both the Soviet Union and the United States used forms of authoritarianism to shepherd the largely agricultural peasant economies of that part of the world towards modern capitalist economic institutions.
Since the early 1990s the USSR gave up its role in controlling their share of that environment, backing out of Afghanistan for example and of course dropping their financial support for countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. The United States, too, reduced its backing of its allies in the developing world. In one key example, the west dropped its price support for coffee beans. The impact on many agricultural countries was devastating. In Rwanda, the price declines hurt export earnings and triggered a deep economic crisis that played a significant role in the genocide of 1994.
It took the first 9/11 to bring home to Americans how pathological politics had turned in the developing world. The vacuum left by the Cold War retreat of the two superpowers was now being filled by rogue forces. And the United States has spent the last decade swinging between the neo-con and relativist pole in response. The neo-con approach of the Bush era, for example, led to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, while the relativist approach undergirded Obama’s decision to ignore the Iranian Green movement as well as an opportunity to help the nascent democracy movement in Syria. Now Iraq is home to al Qaeda again, Iran crushed the Greens and moves steadily to a nuclear weapons capability, and Syria has descended into a sectarian civil war.
A new approach must be developed. The left has spent too little time debating these issues. That has allowed the relativist/neo-stalinist approach of people like Ayers, Dohrn, Davidson, Klonsky and Hayden to fill the gap. Thus, the movement organized in 2003 against the Iraq war was led by an authoritarian neo-stalinist group called “ANSWER” alongside of many others who adopted the simplistic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” world view. Obama was a part of this movement and is now implementing a version of it in his so-called “light footprint” approach.
No independent movement has emerged that articulates a democratic as opposed to relativist approach to U.S. foreign policy. Such an approach, I believe, must start by recognizing that the United States has an immense array of resources it can apply in the international arena. This power, though, must be used in a responsible, transparent and accountable manner linked to promotion of the values we believe are genuinely American. That would, of course, require a thorough debate and discussion here in the United States. Certainly a starting point must be a reassertion of the long lost fact that America was once a revolutionary democratic society. It was born through a revolution and it matured through a civil war (in the 1860s) and a social war (in the 1930s) to establish the kind of democratic civic space that we now almost take for granted. In my view, a commitment to freedom of speech and association would be key, as would a commitment to the rule of law (which the socialist historian E.P. Thompson rightly called an “unqualified human good”). If a new values consensus, at least among the left, can be reached, then there must be a commitment built to stand in solidarity with those in other countries who are attempting to support these values.
I think a concept of solidarity can be a critical cornerstone of a new approach. Call it a “Solidarity Doctrine” if you will. This does not mean that we are always willing, or able, to intervene physically in other countries. In fact, that is far more often likely to be problematic because it can provide political excuses to the opponents of freedom to clamp down on those very people we are trying to support. But it does mean that we will look across the array of resources we have and use them every way we can to help those attempting to bolster democracy and freedom in their own societies. Too often we have made such a commitment only to withdraw when it no longer served our narrower economic or domestic political interests. The withdrawal of coffee price support is one example. More recently, I am told, U.S. unions have sometimes engaged in cross-border efforts to support other nation’s union organizing campaigns only to withdraw from that effort when the domestic U.S. target of the campaign reached an agreement with U.S. unions. This leaves the much weaker resourced foreign unions in a perilous position.
The larger context here is that the global economy continues to drive billions of people off the land into mega-cities. But it is no longer succeeding, as it did in a fashion during the Cold War, in integrating these masses into the global capitalist economy. This is a problem, though on a far larger scale, similar to the deindustrialization of western Europe and North America. This problem provides the raw material for Mexican drug gangs, African child armies, and fundamentalist movements like Al Qaeda just as deindustrialization feeds into Chicago’s drug-related gun violence as much as it does to stimulate middle class movements like Occupy Wall Street.
We have the technological and economic resources to solve these problems and build healthier alternatives. We know the institutional framework – democracy and freedom – that must be in place for those resources to be effective. Instead of developing a foreign policy that matches our resources with that institutional framework, we have instead used the crude tools of neo-conservative intervention or the dangerously naive relativism of spent late-60s ideology. A “Solidarity Doctrine” offers a new approach.
One of the key campaign themes this year is that President Obama is responsible for saving General Motors. VP Biden is well known for his slogan: “Osama Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.”
Of course, Bin Laden is gone and very few people in the world regret this. (See my assessment of that event in the context of Obama’s strange approach to foreign policy here, here and here.) But the value of his passing for Obama is limited as it is now very clear that his death did not mean the end of Al Qaeda. The brave and articulate journalist Lara Logan made clear that even in Afghanistan the terror group remains a significant force. And as recent events indicate, it has also spread to many other areas of the world.
So that leaves the other half of the Administration’s slogan, that GM is alive. How valid is this claim?
I have been following the auto industry, and the UAW and GM in particular, for many years. I have advised UAW members as far back as the closing of the GM plant in Fremont, California, in the mid-80s. (See my letter then in the New York Times here.) More recently, I advised UAW members impacted by the concessions demanded in 2008 by GM, including petitioning the Securities and Exchange Commission on their behalf to try to prevent the massive cuts in pay and benefits these workers have suffered over the years.
The bottom line is that General Motors is, to this day, being kept afloat by massive financial support from the UAW and the government. Without that support its stock price would likely collapse, its cost of borrowing would skyrocket and its employees would suffer further cuts in wages and benefits.
How do I know this is the case? It is a (relatively) simple matter of following the money, or, in business school terms, analyzing the capital structure of the company.
The starting point of this analysis is 2008 when the UAW gave in to demands from GM to convert the GM health care plan into a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA. I have analyzed this in detail here and here. But the long and short of the VEBA is that it did GM a huge favor by forcing the UAW to take over responsibility for funding health care for all current and future GM retirees.
GM was supposed to fund this VEBA with $30 billion in assets and cash. But that never happened. Only part of the cash ever turned up. Instead, GM went through a White House supervised bankruptcy (and here Governor Romney is right) that was little different in the end than a normal bankruptcy under the well established, and socially progressive, federal law that was put in place by FDR. The White House claims that they intervened in order to protect the GM workforce but in fact they intervened to impose further cuts in pay and benefits and to further weaken the VEBA. I outlined alternative progressive approaches in Dissent and on the Real News Network here, here and here.
Out of this White House bankruptcy proceeding came a new GM reorganized with the financial support of the United States Treasury and the UAW VEBA. The Treasury owned more than 60% of GM’s shares and the VEBA 17.5%. (The UST now owns 30% after the IPO and the VEBA 10%.) Instead of the cash and diversified asset base it should have the VEBA was forced to accept a massive chunk of stock in GM. That left the VEBA dangerously over invested in GM, a violation of every conceivable fiduciary principle.
New GM then conducted an IPO in 2010 which was supposed to allow the VEBA and the Treasury to sell their stakes in the company at a profit. But the IPO never got to the needed break even price of $53 per share and likely never will. (I analyzed the risky IPO here in 2010.) One recent assessment by Reuters says GM stock is “struggling” as European demand remains weak and the transition to new more competitive models has been slow.
According to The Detroit News, “The Treasury Department says in a new report the government expects to lose more than $25 billion on the $85 billion auto bailout. That’s 15 percent higher than its previous forecast.” Forbes thinks GM could be headed back into bankruptcy, noting that more competitive companies like VW “are eating GM’s lunch.”
While some in the auto industry are critical of the Forbes analysis, they nonetheless admit that the success of GM is dependent on moving outside the US to places like China. In other words, President Obama saved GM for the 1% not for the 99%.
Treasury invested approximately $50 billion in GM, sold shares worth half that amount in the IPO and has watched the value of the remainder sink to slightly more than half its original value. They are sitting on an unrealized loss of $16 billion. GM’s stock has never regained its IPO price, which suggests, of course, that it was over-hyped.
Today, GM is trading at $24.50 per share. The Treasury sold a piece of its holdings in 2011 further reducing its stake to 30%. Despite pressure from GM management, which wants to shake off government oversight, to sell the remaining stake, the Treasury has held on to its 500 million remaining shares. This is likely for political reasons because a final sale would mean a final tally of the Obama strategy of throwing away taxpayer money on a company whose core strategy is to shift production to China, Russia and Mexico.
A stock sale of that magnitude, by either Treasury or the UAW’s VEBA, would create tremendous downward price pressure. And, of course, it would rob Joe Biden of the second half of his slogan, just as the recent “Tet Offensive” by Al Qaeda in the middle east and North Africa destroyed the first half.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the Occupy movement, which in general I supported, was its use of certain undemocratic tactics like “Mic Check” which is a way of shutting down genuine debate among activists. When the “socialist” Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jesse Sharkey, tried to impose this same authoritarian tactic on the members of an actual union the result was hilarious: CTU.
Press reports suggest that University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was given the option to resign by Board Chair (“Rector”) Helen Dragas and told if she refused she would be fired. This is a very common approach for boards to take when they want to give a CEO a face saving exit.
But that kind of option is not one for single board member, even a chairman of the board, to offer. Boards only have authority to act collectively. A single board member has no power except that which is expressly delegated to him or her by the board (as in the case where a board member is given a task or responsibility by the board).
The full record of meetings of the board is not available as far as I know and so the question about the process that should be answered can’t be yet: did Dragas indeed have the authority of the board to give Sullivan the choice she was given? The source of that authority (which should have been indeed a decision by the full board) should be made clear.
The other aspect of transparency is the substance behind the process. It might be preferable for boards of major institutions to hold discussions of proposed personnel changes in public, but it doesn’t work that way now and there is nothing unusual therefore in the way the BOV at UVA handled this.
Of course, they clearly were not prepared to be transparent with a clear explanation AFTER they announced the decision and for that there is no excuse. It suggests that they had not really thought this process through. And that in turn undermines their credibility when speaking about the overall change in direction they think the university ought to make.
One is left thinking of the exchange between the Dustin Hoffman character and his father played by Bill Daniels in The Graduate: Gee, son, this all sounds a little half-baked (referring to his son’s idea of marrying the Katherine Ross character); to which Hoffman deadpans, “No, Dad, it’s completely baked.”
Given the importance of the issues in higher education – one might say the crisis in higher education – the way that the BOV handled this will likely make rational debate about this situation much more difficult to undertake.
My union, the AAUP, has issued a statement of support for Sullivan. But Sullivan is not really the issue. The issue is the future of higher education in the US. We need to be thinking creatively and openly about that problem. The AAUP should articulate a new and democratic model of higher education that can serve as an alternative to the neo-corporatism of what is called the RCM model (apparently advocated by the (erstwhile?) left liberal Sullivan as well as her former U. Texas colleague and now UC President Mark Yudof) as well as what might be called the hyper-capitalist “Stanford/MIT” model pushed however inarticulately by the UVA BOV.
One step the AAUP could support would be to reform the governance model now so common on university campuses in order to broaden the debate about how to solve the real problems of the institution. The current AAUP statement when matched against the UVA events and the pace of change washing over the university environment is dated and weak.
Instead of boards of trustees that are made up for the most part of large donors or potential donors, a constituency model should be considered similar to that of organizations like Cal-PERS, the large public sector pension plan. Its board has representatives from the Governor’s office, the legislature and current and future retirees. They work together to articulate a strategy to invest and protect in a socially responsible manner the retirement assets of public employees in California.
There is no reason, for example, that university boards should not include rank and file faculty representatives (including tenure and non-tenure track) as well as staff. Had the UVA BOV had such individuals engaged in the internal debate about the future of a school that is properly lauded as our country’s “public Ivy” this crisis within a crisis might have been avoided.
The declaration of actuarial expert Patrick Byrnes on behalf of Martin Sheen et. al was posted online late today here. A closer read indicates important new details that were not included earlier today in The Hollywood Reporter article by Jonathan Handel.
First, as was reported by THR, Byrnes declares that it would be “prudent” of the pension fund trustees to meet BEFORE the merger vote to consider the implications of the potential merger. He states it is “normal” to analyze the implications before the merger takes place. (The Byrnes declaration only reviews the pension plan issue not the health plan.)
Second, as was reported earlier today in THR, Byrnes recommends that in conducting the analysis several different merger designs be considered.
But THR did not report Byrnes’ conclusion that “if SAG and AFTRA seek to merge the [pension] plans without this level of due diligence, they may create serious impact issues which would be very difficult, if not impossible to correct.”
And THR did not report that Byrnes also noted that the lawyer Feasibility Report that was provided by SAG in its disclosure “does not provide any basis to conclude what will happen when you merge the plans including that future SAG benefits will be safe.” Of course, merging the plans is required to solve the split earnings problem that SAG merger proponents says is a key goal of the merger.
A court hearing on the effort to block the merger vote pending fuller disclosure is scheduled to take place at the end of the month in federal court.
When one steps back from the bitter debate now engulfing the Screen Actors Guild over whether to ratify a proposed merger with sister guild AFTRA, it becomes clear that the motivations for the merger are not necessarily linked to the future success of unions in Hollywood.
SAG members have rejected merger in the past, albeit by narrow margins, and many thought the idea off the table for the time being. But the failed collective bargaining strategy implemented by Membership First led to a reaction by a new generation of actors, many based in Los Angeles, long the stronghold of Membership First. Among them were successful actors like Amy Brenneman, Ned Vaughn, Assaf Cohen and Amy Aquino who had become fed up with they saw, not inaccurately, as the mindlessly militant tactics of long time SAG activists such as Alan Rosenberg, Anne-Marie Johnson, David Joliffe and Kent McCord.
That fissure in the Los Angeles arm of SAG led to a new union leadership elected explicitly to execute a merger with AFTRA. But being right about the problem in SAG – that Membership First’s approach did not work – is not the same as being right about the proposed solution, i.e., this merger.
There can of course be good reasons to merge unions, particularly in the entertainment industry: it can lead to the end of dual union dues and unnecessary duplicate expenses associated with union staff and the administration of benefits plans.
These are the kinds of “efficiencies” that have often motivated mergers in the private sector as well as the union and non-profit environment. It turns out, however, that such cost savings are harder to achieve than is often thought when a merger is first dreamed up.
And, in fact, the proposed merger will not dramatically reduce dues, it will not at the outset lead to a cut in union staff and, as I blogged about recently, it will not lead, at least initially and perhaps ever, to a merging of the benefits plans.
In the case of the SAG-AFTRA proposed merger, however, there is a deeper concern, one that goes to the heart of what makes Los Angeles a union town, what makes nearly the entire entertainment industry, from New York to Portland, a unionized industry.
It turns out that the “SAG Card” is the glue so essential to holding that environment together. The SAG Card is the draw for many thousands of aspiring actors around the world because it represents the chance of earning their place in the Guild. And it is this global motivation, as intangible as it may seem, that lies at the hub of unionization in the film and TV industry.
The merger of SAG and AFTRA into a new entity called “SAG-AFTRA” (yes, seriously) means in essence the tearing up of that vaunted SAG card. That is a very dangerous turn of events for the future of unionism in Hollywood.
There is a great deal of confusion among SAG members about the basis of their union’s strength in the entertainment industry. Unlike many unions SAG secures representation of actors through something known as “voluntary recognition.” SAG does not typically try to organize actors via a union election. Even the original recognition of SAG in the late 1930s was a form of “voluntary recognition” as the studios conceded that indeed SAG was the actors’ choice as their collective bargaining agent.
The “voluntary recognition” mechanism is often more attractive to unions because it avoids the time, expense and unpredictability of a union election. And in recent years it avoids the inevitable confrontation with an anti-union campaign by the employer. But to be successful, the union must be able to demonstrate that an uncoerced majority of employees supports the union. Many unions use a system called “card check” to demonstrate that majority support: they collect signed cards from workers that state the workers’ support for the union as their exclusive bargaining agent.
SAG does not actually need to solicit cards or other forms of support. Why? Because it has an even stronger method to demonstrate majority support: the actors that a production company almost inevitably wants to hire are already dues paying members of SAG! There is no clearer form of demonstrating “uncoerced majority support” than that.
In other words, the fact that all, or nearly all, the actors that a production company may want to hire carry a SAG Card is proof of the union support that motivates the production company to voluntarily recognize SAG and therefore to go ahead and sign on to the relevant CBA.
In fact, SAG goes further than this and prepares draft forms of the whole set of documents that a production company needs to execute in order to begin a union production. This is a very important means of controlling the industrial environment in which SAG operates and helps improve SAG’s leverage with new production companies.
Notice, though, that the glue that holds this industrial system together is the SAG Card. It is the willingness of tens of thousands of actors to hold that card, to be dues paying members in good standing even while in between gigs, that gives SAG the leverage to ask for and get “voluntary recognition” by production companies of SAG as the exclusive bargaining agent for the actors on those projects. When an autoworker leaves a job at GM the UAW often loses that union member for life unless they get rehired later by GM. That does not happen, for the most part, to SAG.
What is it that motivates those thousands of actors to hold SAG Cards in good standing?
It is the collective sense that getting a SAG Card is a significant achievement in and of itself, that there needs to be a collective “all for one, one for all” sense of solidarity among actors if they are to be free to concentrate on their craft and their artistry while not sacrificing their rights as workers. Being part of that collective is the contribution that each actor is willing to give in order to gain the opportunity to pursue their careers.
This leads, in turn, to widespread support in SAG for Global Rule One under which principal actors agree not to work on non-SAG productions anywhere in the world. The SAG Constitution says: “No member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s Tom Cruise or a recent unknown graduate of Yale Drama School, SAG members will not act on non-SAG productions. That commitment comes with the winning of a SAG Card. In fact, Global Rule One is printed on the back of the SAG Card!
As SAG itself (still!) says on its website:
“Screen Actors Guild is the most distinguished performer’s union in the world. Our members are experienced professionals who require certain standards of working conditions, compensation and benefits. Membership is often a major milestone in an actor’s career; every SAG card issued symbolizes success and solidarity with a community of 120,000 talented and accomplished artists worldwide.”
(Notoriously, many leading AFTRA members freely work on non-union jobs sometimes for years at a time. AFTRA’s weak support for union solidarity was highlighted recently by the comment of Roberta Reardon, AFTRA President, that she could help SAG members find a way to sneak around picket lines of her own union members.)
If the intangible sense grows that this collective known as SAG is in fact no longer about primarily actors, about protecting their ability to pursue their craft knowing that the union has enough collective power to defend and improve their basic working conditions, then the entire edifice of SAG power in Hollywood will decay and could even collapse.
A merger with a union that includes many thousands of workers – albeit professionals – who have very different economic interests and working conditions can easily dilute the collective sense that the organization is committed to protecting actors. Union staff will be divided among those groups and competition for resources will ensue. Attention will be diverted and new fault lines will develop.
And of course it is highly unlikely that the merger-happy AFL-CIO will stop with this single merger. No doubt if the SAG-AFTRA merger is pushed through, it will be followed by efforts to force that new organization into other alliances. Already, AFTRA is in an alliance with IATSE and it is conceivable there are plans to place what other labor unions view as small organizations into larger players like CWA (where the Newspaper Guild and NABET already reside).
Once the sense takes hold that actors are just one of several if not many occupational groups inside a larger “industrial” union instead of the central craft inside a genuine “trade” union, it is very likely that producers and agencies could begin a campaign to encourage actors to consider non-union productions. Pressure to weaken Global Rule One could easily follow. An uptick in Fi-Cor could occur and the ensuing downward spiral could lead to a post-union entertainment industry.
This seems, of course, a dire prediction. But it is meant to highlight the risks associated with this kind of union reorganization. Very little attention has been paid to these risks.
To take one example, SAG members have received little or no disclosure about the intentions of the AFL-CIO in this process. Yet it is instructive to note that AFTRA has gained the inside track with the AFL-CIO in recent years, securing its own seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council after leaving the 4A’s.
Merger critics, of course, have a very poor track record of navigating AFL-CIO waters. Their former NED, Doug Allen, was not well known in that environment and did little to help Membership First with that issue when they ran the Guild.
Under NED David White, who has even less experience than Doug Allen with the AFL-CIO, it appears SAG has been willing to follow AFTRA’s lead – it is clear that AFTRA is driving the merger process, building off their unexpected success in winning cable pilot shows in the wake of the 2008-09 negotiations. In a post-SAG organization AFTRA staff and leadership weight will likely grow flush with the success of winning the merger debate.
This points precisely to the very kind of problem that can trigger the downward spiral of support for unionization. When SAG represents actors in cable productions it demands that the production companies sign on to a single master agreement. SAG is successful at this by demonstrating the kind of support for voluntary recognition described above. No cable company risks saying no, we won’t sign this agreement, because SAG can point to Global Rule One and make it clear that failure to sign means you won’t get SAG actors on this set.
AFTRA, however, does not make this claim. And it does not have a master agreement that sets a floor beneath which wages and working conditions cannot fall. Instead it drafts a new form of contract (based on one of four separate templates apparently) each time it negotiates with a cable production company. AFTRA justifies this by arguing it wants to provide those companies flexibility lest those acting jobs go to Canada or elsewhere.
The problem is that this apparently “flexible” approach can easily lead to a race to the bottom in pay and working conditions. It can allow the employer to dictate the basic terms instead of negotiating those terms collectively with the union. But AFTRA does not have what SAG has to enforce a master agreement. SAG knows Tom Cruise will not work a non-SAG project. But AFTRA is unwilling to enforce that kind of rule against Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper.
No doubt merger advocates will say that merger will not change this, that SAG can continue to have Global Rule One inside the new SAG-AFTRA. But that is where the dynamics of a new multi-occupation “industrial” union come into play. Once the union membership and staff get into battles over the allocation of resources among the different occupational groups there will be pressure to compromise. This is precisely what happens in larger conglomerate style unions like the Teamsters. Remarkably, even small differences in working conditions can lead to fierce battles, which is demonstrated by the difficulty UPS workers have had in gaining support inside the Teamsters. It is harder to harmonize upward to better and stronger principles of solidarity than it is to give way to weaker rules and principles.
And, of course, the new organization will not be operating in a vacuum. There will be pressure to merge again with other larger unions where the sense that the organization is for actors will dissipate even further.
Finally, and most ominously, the employers will see this development, the creation of a clumsily organized (and even more clumsily named) SAG-AFTRA entity, as an opportunity to call into question what has been the unquestioned principle of solidarity that has held SAG together, through thick and thin, since 1933.
The idea of merger was conceived by all sides in SAG as a solution to some important problems, but it is now being implemented for altogether different reasons – largely motivated by an overreaction to the already discredited bargaining strategy of one tendency in the union. That is a weak and dangerous basis upon which to build a future for actors.