Guild needs to find exit strategy

As the evidence mounts that SAG’s 122,000-plus members are in no mood to approve a strike authorization vote, the guild’s top two bosses seem to be twisting in the chilly December wind, looking for reinforcement on their ill-advised decisions as the contract negotiations impasse continues with Hollywood’s majors.

The glaring disconnect between Screen Actors Guild prexy Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen and the will of the membership is spurring talk of Allen’s ouster as a means of breaking the guild’s months-long stalemate with the majors.

The latest maneuver from SAG’s leaders came Dec. 22, when Allen advised members via email that the strike authorization vote, originally skedded to commence Jan. 2, would be delayed until after SAG holds an emergency national board meeting on Jan. 12-13.

According to Allen, the powwow is needed to “address the unfortunate division and restore consensus” among SAG leaders for the strike authorization vote. Rosenberg said it would also give the guild more time for “member education and outreach” on why SAG leaders need to have the club of a strike threat in their back pocket.

The move to delay is a reaction to the rising chorus of SAG members saying “What are you, nuts?” in response to the guild’s call for a strike authorization vote. That list includes the bulk of the guild’s New York board, which requested the emergency meeting; the Chicago board; and more than 1,500 members, many of them marquee names, who have vowed to vote against the authorization.

SAG toppers emphasize that a vote to authorize a strike does not automatically mean they’d be hitting the picket lines, but guild members can be forgiven for not wanting to hand a loaded gun to the leaders who have waged such a quixotic contract negotiation campaign for nearly a year.

Allen and Rosenberg have to be cognizant of the fact that celebrity plays a powerful role in SAG politics, and the celebs are largely in the no column. Despite the stated reasons for the Jan. 12-13 emergency national board meeting, it’s really a stall tactic in the vague hope that the tide will somehow shift their way and the majors will be worn down.

But SAG has had more than a year to rally the troops after the WGA strike undercut most of its leverage. Nevertheless, SAG leaders seem fixated on the Feb. 22 Academy Awards ceremony as a pressure point for a strike.

In fact, the national board meeting may result in a vote to replace some or all members of SAG’s contract negotiating committee. Allen’s fate in the guild’s top paid position could well be a subject of discussion by board members.

Although Rosenberg’s hardline Membership First faction lost some of its grip on SAG’s national board in the September elections, when a more moderate group of candidates dubbed Unite for Strength ran a campaign critical of Membership First’s handling of the contract talks, the negotiating committee members are mostly stalwart supporters of Rosenberg and Allen.

A change in the complexion of the negotiating committee might be enough to draw the majors back to the table, and perhaps they’d bring along a crumb of a concession for the sake of making peace. Conversely, putting a fresh set of SAG eyes on the deal that the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers put on the table on June 30, the day SAG’s previous contract expired, could be enough to convince the broader membership that it’s the best they’re going to get in this economic climate, strike or no strike.

The other big issue is Allen, who in the past two years has led the guild into a tight corner with its contract negotiations campaign. It’s the kind of hard charge that facilitates the spectacle of open dissent and recriminations among members — as we’ve seen the past few weeks.

Allen has his fans, no doubt, but his track record is one of obstinance at the bargaining table and willingness to go to war with a fellow union. This was demonstrated over the summer in SAG’s shameless and unsuccessful campaign to torpedo the ratification of the primetime contract negotiated by AFTRA among the 44,000 dual SAG-AFTRA card holders.

How can SAG leaders justify to members why thesps working under AFTRA deals have been collecting higher minimums and new-media residuals for nearly six months while SAG holds out for different terms than those agreed to by AFTRA, the DGA and the WGA, after a 100-day strike?

The residual coin from paid downloads and Web streaming admittedly isn’t much to speak of yet, but actors working under SAG contracts are still missing out on earning something at a time when every little bit helps. According to the calculations of the AMPTP, SAG members have sacrificed more than $40 million in additional compensation that they would have received under the contract offer made June 30.

SAG leaders have maintained that members can’t afford to agree to the modest residual coin for new-media reuse because it is so much less than the payments actors receive from traditional on-air repeats of primetime shows.

But with that stance they refuse to recognize the obvious evidence that the nature of primetime television programming — and its traditional use of reruns as “amortization theater” — is undergoing a historic transformation, fueled by the influence of new digital technologies.

Those changes are reactions to shifts in the broadcer marketplace, not a conspiracy by the nets and studios to deny creatives their residual coin. Allen and Rosenberg need only look at the moves made by NBC in the past month to see that everything in television is in flux and will be regardless of whether SAG has a contract.

As it is, the contract impasse is costing SAG marketshare in primetime, as studios seek the strike-proof insurance of doing shows under AFTRA contracts whenever possible.

Add to this maelstrom the fact that the national economy is in a tailspin, and it’s little wonder why actors are balking at the prospect of going on strike next year.

With the national board meeting now set, the pressure is on SAG’s national board to command some forward momentum in a process that has dragged on far too long. Rather than trying to build consensus on a doomed negotiations strategy, SAG’s leaders should be looking for a graceful way out — one that gets the guild over the hump to a completed film and primetime TV contract with the majors.

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