Guild infighting could worsen

HOLLYWOOD — The biz is breathing a little easier now that SAG is on the verge of finalizing a film and TV contract with the majors.

But the end of this tortuous yearlong negotiation process hardly means the end of strife within the Screen Actors Guild. The battles that raged internally and externally over the contract only heightened the intensity of the political and ideological conflicts that engulf SAG’s various factions.

The stage is thus set for more brawling in the next few months as campaigning for the guild’s fall election of officers — including a possible successor to Alan Rosenberg as national prexy — and board members gets under way. The campaigning is sure to turn on two polarizing issues that go to the heart of SAG’s biggest headaches: the prospect of a merger with rival thesp union AFTRA, and the question of implementing qualified voting on guild contracts.

The fall election will be an important barometer of how SAG’s 120,000 members feel about the state of their union. But the political infighting won’t be settled even if there’s a landslide victory by candidates aligned with the Unite for Strength faction, the moderates who have effectively opposed the Rosenberg-led Membership First wing since UFS won seven seats on the national board last fall. SAG’s Balkanization is too deeply rooted to be overcome in one election. This predicament has led some longtime SAG-watchers to conclude that the guild is in danger of becoming “ungovernable” in its current state.

At this early stage, likely candidates for the president post include Anne-Marie Johnson, SAG first VP and a Membership First stalwart, and James Cromwell, a former SAG secretary-treasurer who is affiliated with UFS.

UFS’ key instigators, Amy Brenneman and Ned Vaughn, emerged as players in SAG politics a little more than a year ago with the launch of a petition drive to push a proposal to establish annual earning thresholds for members to be allowed to vote on contracts (Daily Variety, Feb. 27).

Qualified voting tackles head-on the employment disparity that has long vexed the largest of the biz’s three creative guilds. An estimated two-thirds of SAG members earn less than $1,000 a year as actors, which means they have little to lose if the guild goes on strike. The pay scale of the remaining third, of course, ranges from $2,000 per year to $20 million per pic. With that kind of earnings variance among members who do essentially the same work (when they can get it), it’s becoming harder for the guild to pursue an agenda at the bargaining table that works for all members.

Rosenberg and former SAG national exec director Doug Allen staunchly opposed qualified voting on the grounds that it would disenfranchise the SAG members who are most in need of the guild’s bargaining power. Given the political volatility of the issue within SAG, UFS backed off its qualified voting push before fall’s board elections, but it’s sure to come up again in this year’s campaigning, if only as a scare tactic employed by Membership First.

Allen’s combative stance at the bargaining table wound up costing him his job as tactics backed the guild into an impossibly tight corner. He was inscrutably insistent on raising the strike threat, even as many stars and working actors went public with their opposition to a walkout.

Despite the fact that SAG is poised to accept the same contract terms offered in June, Rosenberg remains a revered figure to many SAG members. And Allen is viewed as a martyr to Membership First’s cause. There’s clear resentment in some quarters that the guild’s most prominent members spoke out against the strategic approach of the Rosenberg-Allen regime.

“Tom Hanks is a Union Buster,” read a picket sign at one of the demonstrations that about 200 or so SAG members have held in recent weeks outside of Warner Bros., CBS and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers headquarters. This contingent has vowed to mount a vigorous “vote no” campaign when the tentative contract is sent to members for ratification.

“Thank you for keeping the fires burning,” Rosenberg said through a bullhorn April 2 at a rally outside the AMPTP. The next prexy will have a hard time containing these fires.

Unite for Strength’s platform also calls for SAG to take a hard look, once again, at the possibility of a merger of SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. That would seem to be a priority for the national board’s “to-study” list after the gamesmanship that erupted last year.

Bickering between SAG and AFTRA, which have about 44,000 dual members, led the two unions to negotiate their film and TV contract separately last year for the first time since the actors strike of 1980. About 26,000 people are members of AFTRA only.

While SAG leaders dug in, AFTRA made a deal with the majors that wound up undercutting much of SAG’s leverage. SAG couldn’t threaten to shut down the TV biz with a strike, as the WGA did practically overnight, because most new TV productions had the strike-proof option of working under an AFTRA contract (most of this year’s broadcast net pilots took that route).

As long as there are two actors unions, the majors have the ability to play one off the other. And as the studio-network congloms have grown bigger and broader in scope, and fewer in number, there’s a case to be made for actors uniting in order to play their strongest hand in negotiations.

But the long history of rivalry and conflict between SAG and AFTRA has been a roadblock to such a merger (the most recent attempt was voted down by SAG members in 2003). Membership First is adamantly opposed to a merger — so much so that eight of its partisans with dual SAG-AFTRA membership are running for AFTRA board seats in an effort to help squash any movement toward a deal.

At a time when the entertainment industry is being transformed by new technologies and distribution mechanisms, the internecine warfare at SAG is undermining the guild’s ability to effectively represent its members.

In the tentative contract agreement reached with the majors, the executive regime at SAG scored a win in getting the term to run two years rather than the customary three, so that SAG’s next round will sync up with the expiration of the WGA and DGA contracts in mid-2011. But actors will still pay a price for the guild’s leadership crises.

Actors working under AFTRA contracts received a 3.5% pay increase in basic minimums in the first year of the new contract, which kicked in on July 1.

SAG actors will receive a 3% hike for the first year, but there will be no retroactive 3.5% pay bump for actors who worked during the 10 months since SAG’s previous contract expired on June 30. The majors, which estimate the loss at $67 million, just aren’t that generous.

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