Thursday, April 23, 2009

SAG Should be Praised, Not Assailed

This article was originally posted at

The Perils of a Faithless Membership
SAG Should be Praised, Not Assailed


On Friday, April 17, after nearly a year of negotiating, a humbled and restructured Screen Actors Guild (SAG) reached tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on a two-year contract. The following Sunday the 71-member board voted to recommend the agreement to the membership.

This contract is said to be no better than the one that’s been sitting on the table since last summer and virtually identical to the one accepted by Hollywood’s writers, directors and competing actors’ union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

Because the original team (headed by SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen) couldn’t get the deal it wanted, Hollywood is now piling on, accusing the previous leadership of having under-estimated the Alliance, misread its membership, and failed to anticipate the recession. Indeed, people are now saying the negotiations were an exorbitant waste of time and money.

Those people are wrong.

First, to criticize SAG for not accepting essentially the same contract that was accepted by the writers, directors and AFTRA is to miss the point. Yes, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) signed the contract, but they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. Don’t forget: They took a 100-day strike to avoid signing it.

Why did they strike? Because the AMPTP’s offer didn’t adequately address critical issues, including New Media jurisdiction—an area which happens to be (along with residuals) one of SAG’s key agenda items. And Rosenberg’s committee believed the Alliance’s “last, best and final offer” was still inadequate. Second-guess them all you like, but don’t say they were wrong for wanting to secure the membership’s future.

Second, a quick look at the dynamics of contract negotiations tells us that there are two (and only two) considerations that matter: fairness and attainability. Obviously, what is deemed “fair” is subjective and is going to depend, by and large, on where you’re sitting. What’s fair to the union may not seem fair to management. That’s why you bargain.

As for “attainability,” that can never be known in advance, because a union never knows what can be gotten until it sits down at the table and tries to get it. Bargaining is not about sharing new ideas or reaching a consensus; it’s about trying to get very powerful and selfish people to part with their money.

Also, it’s important to remember that if organized labor had routinely accepted management’s “last, best and final offer”—if they took as gospel management’s assurance that such-and-such was simply unobtainable—we’d still be working 12-hour days with no health insurance or overtime premiums.

Third, management will use any excuse to avoid sweetening the pot. When there’s a recession, they’ll use the recession; when there’s a hurricane, they’ll use the hurricane; and when the economy is healthy and everyone is prospering, they’ll give you ten reasons why that prosperity is irrelevant to your negotiations.

And finally, the union knows what to expect. It knows that taking a hard line can be tricky, especially if management chooses to take an equally hard line. On one side, you have management, fully mobilized and dug in; on the other, you have your usual mix of union people: loyal members ready to battle, puzzled members wondering what’s going on, and nervous members ready to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. It’s Negotiations 101.

Similarly, union bargainers will be regarded as either weak and gutless, or belligerent and stubborn. Unfortunately, there’s very little middle-ground. If a negotiating team puts the membership in jeopardy by asking for a strike vote, they’re militants; if they bring back a lousy contract and recommend ratification, they’re wimps.

So let’s get it right, people. Labor relations is a contact sport. Unless you take the view that your union should never fight, or that it should fight only when it’s assured of winning, you’re always going to risk having your butt handed to you in a sling. But if you’re not willing to fight for a decent contract, you don’t deserve one.

And not to rehash the past, but if SAG’s membership had remained faithful—if some of its big-name stars had not seen themselves as deputy ambassadors, and set off on their own bizarre, diplomatic mission—this bargain might have turned out differently.

Actually, it’s not over yet. SAG’s membership could still reject the offer, which would put the AMPTP in a bad spot. The Alliance can posture all it likes, but a membership rejection, particularly after a board recommendation, would be a body-blow.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was former president and chief negotiator of the AWPPW, Local 672. He can be reached at

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