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Jonathan Handel

Jonathan Handel

Posted: May 22, 2009 01:46 PM

SAG-AFTRA Ratify Advertising Agreement; SAG Townhall Features Fireworks


SAG and AFTRA announced yesterday that their combined paid-up membership, about 132,000 members, overwhelmingly ratified the contracts between the unions and the advertising industry. The result was expected, as there was no organized opposition. About 28% returned their ballots, about typical. Of those voting, about 94% voted yes. The deals expire March 31, 2012.

The news from the TV/theatrical side is nowhere near as placid. The ballots went out a few days ago--they're due back June 9--and SAG's conducting a series of town hall meetings across the country. The first was last night in Hollywood, and the fur flew. About 600 people attended; although the crowd was reportedly 70% composed of hardline Membership First partisans, they didn't manage to fill the room. That's a bit surprising. I'd expected an overflow crowd, given their (apparent?) strength in Hollywood.

What they slightly lacked in numbers, they made up in volume and conviction, according to sources inside the room. Fellow MF-ers like SAG President Alan Rosenberg were applauded for their statements against ratification, while pro-contract voices such as SAG interim National Executive Director David White were booed. The approximately three-hour confab kicked off with statements from the dais, and was mostly taken up by member questions and comments, which were described as overwhelmingly anti-ratification.

That dais, by the way, included SAG Secretary/Treasurer Connie Stevens, chief negotiator John McGuire, White, SAG 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson (who chaired the meeting), Unite for Strength leader Ned Vaughn, UFS-er Stacey Travis, Deputy NED Ray Rodriguez, and Rosenberg. General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland responded to questions from time to time.

According to Vaughn, Rosenberg was asked at the meeting what he proposed the union do if it voted down the deal. Rosenberg apparently replied that the union should get a strike authorization and then, if necessary, strike. How he expects to conjure up the necessary 75% vote for a strike authorization is unclear. In contrast to that high hurdle, it only takes 50% + 1 (a simple majority) to ratify the deal.

More colorful speakers at the meeting were Ed Asner and Seymour Cassel. Asner compared the contract's effect on actors to "taking the Jews out and shooting them," leading one audience member to comment that he hadn't expected Holocaust metaphors at a SAG meeting. Well, why not? SAG politics seem to know no bounds.

Cassel, for his part, spotted former SAG president Melissa Gilbert, a mod-erate, and, standing at the mic, referred to her dismissively. Cassel later responded to one of David White's comments by saying "bullshit." This was understandably too much for Johnson, as chair of the meeting, and she ordered Cassel to leave. Out in the hallway, Cassel told me that "I tend to speak my mind, perhaps too candidly." That certainly seems true.

Another notable out in the hall was Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original Star Trek. We chatted briefly about the Star Trek movie, not SAG politics, let alone Trekian essays about SAG politics. There was also a Jack Nicholson lookalike, wearing a snappy suit, white shoes, and tinted eyeglasses. Maybe it was Jack Nicholson, but somehow I wouldn't expect to see him aimlessly wandering the halls at a SAG meeting and using the hotel ATM.

David White chatted for a bit after the meeting, and explained the contrast between his reaction to the studios' February offer (it "sucks," he said at the time) and the current one ("a good deal with solid gains," he told me yesterday, and, in the context of the economy and the dragged out negotiating process, even a "fantastic" one). The key difference is the contract expiration date, which in the current deal is synchronized with the WGA, AFTRA and DGA (mid-2011). In the February deal, it wasn't, and the significance is that synchronicity allows at least some of the unions to make common cause and present a united front when the contract is up.

White previously predicted the deal would pass, so this time I asked whether he thought it would pass in Hollywood. (That's not necessary for passage, but it would give some signal of a reduction in divisiveness within the union.) He predicted it would, citing the strong messages of support he was receiving from Hollywood members (though not at the meeting), but noting judiciously that "members will vote their conscience."

Ned Vaughn also told me the deal would pass, both in Hollywood and nationally. He pointed to the importance of consolidating gains and negotiating in solidarity with other unions, especially AFTRA, in 2011. I asked if he thought SAG and AFTRA would be merged by 2011, and he replied that he "would love it if they were."

A contrasting post-meeting voice was MF stalwart and SAG board member Clancy Brown, who explained his opposition to the deal in more measured terms than Asner and Cassel had used. He argued that "there's a better deal out there to be had," and cited "the paltry Internet move over residual" and the "larcenous" force majeure settlement as reasons.

The day before, I spoke with 2nd VP Sam Freed, who is president of the New York board, and separately with board member Mike Pniewski of Atlanta, both supporters of ratification. The latter predicted the deal will pass, and commented that the guild "got the best deal we can." He cited a variety of positive aspects of the deal, and underlined the need for "stability in the marketplace" for labor.

Freed pointed to the estimated $105 million value of the deal, and said it addresses "the plight of the middle class actor." He emphasized that the level of concern MF expresses over new media was not supported by current figures: of $1.3 billion in SAG earnings in 2008, Freed told me only 0.05% came from new media. (That's one-twentieth of one percent, not 5%.) Alluding to the opposition, he quipped "There's a guy who would be complaining if it was raining vegetable soup and he only had a fork in his hand."

In other union news, Variety reports that 85 year-old actor Theodore Bikel "has been re-elected to an 11th two-year term as president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America." The 4-A's, as it's known, is in turn a unit of the AFL-CIO. Its affiliates are AFTRA, SAG, Actors' Equity and several smaller performers unions: American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), and the Guild of Italian American Actors. AFTRA has a direct charter with the AFL-CIO, awarded last year. The other unions are chartered with the 4-A's, as far as I know, and derive their AFL-CIO affiliation that way (as did AFTRA prior to 2008).

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