Unity? It’s a guilded cage

Guilds' division becomes clear in strike talks

It was anticipated to be a perfect storm. It turned out to be a lot of hot air.

Since the last round of guild contract talks two years ago, Hollywood had braced for the prospect of a synchronized work stoppage by SAG, the WGA and the DGA in July, since the thesps and the helmers had the same June 30 expiration date on their previous contracts.

Even the WGA’s Nov. 18 proclamation that it had filed an arbitration claim against the AMPTP for allegedly stiffing scribes on new-media residuals was seen by many observers as timed mostly to help SAG, which was on the verge of meeting with the congloms for two days of contract talks. (The WGA insists the timing was coincidental).

But the town’s three major talent guilds, even when they try to work together, rarely achieve harmony, let alone synchronicity.

And while there’s growing alarm about a SAG strike coming early next year and seriously disrupting features, the TV season and, yes, the 81st Academy Awards, it’s certainly not the multi-guild showdown it might have been.

The DGA made its deal way back in January. And the WGA undercut SAG’s leverage by going on strike last November rather than waiting for SAG’s contract to expire.

SAG, for its part, delivered on its promise of solidarity for the writers. The guild was by far the strongest union supporter of the writers during their strike.

But since then — and despite paying renewed lip service to the notion of guild unity — Hollywood’s top unions are hardly aligned.

The WGA has battled IATSE for years over jurisdiction, had chilly relations with the DGA for decades and received virtually no support from the DGA and AFTRA during the strike.

SAG and AFTRA went through an ugly divorce last spring over jurisdiction, with AFTRA engaging in separate contract negotiations and signing its own primetime deal — further undercutting SAG’s leverage.

The SAG-AFTRA dispute generated such vitriol that the leaders finally agreed to let the AFL-CIO sort it out so both unions are back to joint negotiations for the commercials contract. They have a non-disparagement agreement in place, with each posting a $2 million bond that can be tapped for fines if staff or elected leaders of either guild say anything negative about the other.

“Solidarity is the soul of the labor movement, but it’s one thing to talk about it abstractly and it’s quite another to act that way in the heat of the moment,” notes labor expert Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor. “So getting a measurable penalty like that will help keep the participants in line.”

When AFTRA members ratified their deal over SAG’s objections in July, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon announced an ambitious plan for a summit for all unions to plan negotiating strategies. But that proclamation has gone nowhere so far.

Similarly, within SAG, the moderate faction that gained control in September hasn’t yet made any move to revisit merging with AFTRA, even though that was a key plank of its platform, and probably won’t do so for another year.

In the end, while guild leaders routinely preach unity, the reality’s far different, according to labor relations expert Daniel Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at UCLA.

“Since the unions are organized on a craft basis, they don’t have exactly the same interests,” he notes. “The DGA and WGA have different interests, so acting in a coordinated way is going to be a complicated calculation. In theory you could get more. But it’s hard to make that work.”


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