US: Screen Actors leadership calls for federal mediator

By Ramon Valle
21 October 2008

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) held its annual national membership meeting at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday. After four and a half months of SAG members working without a contract and in the face of the intransigence of the studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the SAG leadership proposed ... calling in a federal mediator to settle the dispute.

The response of the AMPTP was typical in its swiftness and arrogance: "There is simply no justification for SAG to expect a deal in excess of what the other studios have negotiated in better times."

Recently, the studios have begun referring to the economic crisis and patriotism in an effort to browbeat the union and its members into accepting concessions: the end of residuals as actors have known them; non-union production of new programming streamlined on the internet below a certain production threshold; and a roll-back in force majeure protections. (See "US: Screen Actors Guild may organize a strike vote")

The leaders also announced officially that they had called on the National Board to organize a strike authorization vote of the union's 120,000 members in case negotiations fail. The approval of 75 percent of those voting is necessary for a strike to be called.

SAG leaders have no intention of calling a walkout, but hope that an authorization vote by the members will somehow pressure the employers into weakening their resolve. If the strike vote fails, on the other hand, guild officials will claim they did everything they could and the members "let them down."

The wording of an advisory motion passed October 1 by SAG's National TV/Theatrical Negotiating Committee to the National Board makes the leadership's position clear. Its sixth paragraph states: "Whereas, in the opinion of the National Negotiating Committee, the AMPTP and the employers will only seriously engage in further negotiations after the members of the Guild express their confidence in their leadership by authorizing them to take all actions necessary to protect the interests of the membership, including a strike. ..."

Indeed, on Sunday, despite the obvious enthusiasm from the members present whenever the word "strike" was mentioned, SAG leaders, including President Alan Rosenberg and Chief Negotiator Doug Allen, repeated their argument that a strike authorization did not necessarily mean a strike would take place and that it was a bargaining tool to force the producers to come to their senses and return to the talks.

The guild leadership is still attempting to bluff the executives of the massive and predatory entertainment conglomerates, a vain effort, whose primary effect is to delude the SAG membership into thinking that something can be accomplished by this kind of maneuver.

As Sunday afternoon wore on and the discussion shifted onto other matters, mostly shop talk, members of the audience began to leave in droves, and by the time the meeting finished three hours later at 6:00 p.m., barely half the members remained. There was no reason for them to stay, for union officials had done everything in their power to focus on mostly non-contract matters.

At one point, Rosenberg spent several minutes talking about the symbolic maple sapling the union had planted in Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, and how it had come to symbolize the struggles of the union and actors. He exhorted the membership to visit it.

In any event, the call for a federal mediator seemed to many actors a compromise between the present leadership of the union and a new dissident faction, led by luminaries such as Sally Field, Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin, which recently won six posts to the National Board. This faction, calling itself United for Strength, essentially wants the union to sign a deal similar to the rotten contract accepted by the writers and directors guilds (WGA and DGA), as well as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

As experience has shown on countless occasions, the introduction of a federal mediator—even if the AMPTP were to agree to it—would not work to the advantage of the screen actors. It is a face-saving device by the SAG leadership, and would only lead to the imposition of a contract similar to the ones reached with the other industry unions.

There is no substitute for an industrial and political struggle, the mobilization of actors and other workers in the film and television industry against the ruthless media giants.

The nature of the floor discussion Sunday was bogus from the beginning. Before the meeting, actors who wanted to address the meeting or raise questions signed a card noting the topic they wanted to talk about. Members were supposed to speak according to the order in which they had signed cards. By some coincidence, only speakers who commented about treatment on the set and other minor matters were called upon.

Neither the present SAG leadership nor the new dissident members of the board have any idea how to defend the interests of the actors. They are all tied to the companies, the industry and the Democratic Party. By resorting to arbitration and empty references to a strike, SAG leaders have announced that in the end they will cave in to the pressure of the studios and the political establishment.