Deadline looming

SAG fears backlash in dues battle

Fall negotiations with producers loom, but already an email and whispering campaign is threatening to wreak havoc with the Screen Actors Guild’s bargaining clout.

Only three days remain before all ballots are due on a hotly contested voter referendum on a proposed dues hike.

The hike in question could generate roughly $7.3 million in revenues annually, placing SAG on a financially even keel after a decade sailing in red ink.

But dissidents like former SAG treasurer Kent McCord, Frances Fisher and David Jolliffe are pulling out all the stops in an online campaign, urging members to vote against it. Some opposition members stressed that even though they think the dues increase is, in principle, a good idea, they see the current measure as a referendum on SAG CEO Bob Pisano’s leadership, which they do not care for, and therefore will vote against the hike.

Such disagreements might not be news were it not for the fact that early voter returns suggest the online campaign may be working, worried SAG insiders say, and that the initiative may not pass.

Adding to the drama, the union lacks a strike fund and won’t get one without passing the dues increase — a potential disaster for labor negotiations skedded for October if it fails.

Tough all over

That the opposition has found fertile ground to plant seeds of dissension is not surprising: SAG’s working actors and, in particular, low earners, are already facing soaring health-care costs. In response, SAG and AFTRA boosted the producer contribution rate from 13.3% to 14.3% on its recently ratified commercials pact with advertisers, along with relatively moderate gains in minimums.

“We are absolutely living on the drug of deficit spending,” said SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert in an interview with Daily Variety, adding “I’m scared. I shudder to think what could happen to EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) programs. We’re facing cuts in every department, and if this (increase) doesn’t pass, we have some very tough choices to make.”

Gilbert stressed that in addition to the loss of a much-needed strike fund, big initiatives in information technology, residuals tracking, on-set representation and online casting would all face the chopping block. She cautioned that background performers — by far the neediest, lowest earning and largest block of SAG members — would necessarily be those most hurt by a failed dues hike, as they are most likely to need the SAG services and protections threatened by red ink.

Gilbert also likened those who would not set aside personal politics for the good of the guild as “driving the union over a cliff.”

Opposed to deficits

Pisano “has made it patently clear that he will not operate at deficit anymore,” said James Cromwell, secretary and treasurer of the guild. Cromwell railed against the whispering campaign, calling it “a screed that’s mendacious, uninformed and self-serving” and saying that the “issue has been politicized by a few people whose goals are antithetical to the union’s.”

If accepted, base dues for SAG membership would increase 30%, from $100 to $130 per year, and the Guild’s initiation fee would rise from $1,356 to $2,085. Proposal would modestly increase dues on earnings up to $200,000 from 1.85% to 1.95%. Those actors earning more than $200,000 annually would face doubled work dues, from 0.50% to 1.0%, capped at $500,000 per annum.

Lacking a strike fund last March, SAG extended its contract with producers for only the third time in its history. And while modest bumps in minimums were achieved, the nettlesome issue of residual payments was left off the bargaining table, because SAG lacked a strike fund. Instead, SAG and AFTRA sought to focus solely on securing modest wage and pension and health increases and avoiding a work slowdown. In the fall, when the second — and hotly contentious — phase of the negotiations resume, DVD, pay TV, made-for-basic cable and other residuals will again be front and center.

In the few days remaining, SAG is considering marshaling whatever A list thesps it can to defend the increase as essential to all of SAG’s membership, though it’s not clear which thesps will volunteer to be the public face of such a hearts-and-minds campaign.