The referendum on the proposed contract between SAG and the studios began yesterday, as ballot packets were mailed to about 110,000 paid up members of the Screen Actors Guild. The votes are due back June 9. Will the agreement be ratified? SAG President Alan Rosenberg claims there's "a good chance" it won't, but the guild's interim National Executive Director David White says otherwise, predicting confidently that the deal will pass.
White's comment came in a wide-ranging, one-on-one interview yesterday afternoon and into the evening. The conversation, which lasted about two hours, touched on topics ranging from the proposed deal, to SAG's relationships with AFTRA, talent agents and the industry at large, to the question of expired contracts.
The pending deal was, of course, the most pressing issue. White heralded the proposed agreement as "a good deal with solid gains," and added that "Within the context of negotiations [lasting] over a year and an economy changed radically since 2008, it's a fantastic deal."
Asked whether the new media provisions in the deal were everything he wanted, White said no, but expressed confidence that improvements could be achieved in the next round of negotiations, when new media business models will be better understood. (The proposed deal expires in mid-2011, as do the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and AFTRA deals.) He added, "Notwithstanding the rhetoric, there have been upgrades in some formulas in the past and we'll see some in the future in new media." Although White judiciously refrained from singling out any particular members or factions, the comment seemed clearly a response to Membership First hardliners, who have frequently pointed to the studios' 25-year refusal to improve home video residuals as evidence that the new media deal will never improve.
White's confidence in the possibility of future upgrades led me to pose a question actors ask from time to time: do the studios want to break the union? His answer turned on the intermittent nature of entertainment employment: "Employers have a natural incentive to want weaker bargaining partners, but employers also understand that if unions didn't exist they'd have to invent them. Unions are the glue," White added, that allows actors to receive compensation between gigs (i.e., in the form of residuals), that deal with healthcare costs, and with pursuing claims when workers are wronged. He added that having union contracts in place lowers transaction costs--that is, the existence of the union agreement makes it unnecessary for producers to repeatedly negotiate minimum terms with each individual actor.
In other words, as White said, "Employers need unions to serve as an intermediary to ensure a professional talent pool." And what about those "weaker bargaining partners"? White, the guild's former general counsel, put it this way: "Our job is to put ourselves in the strongest position with the most leverage possible for the next round [of negotiations]. This contract lays a good foundation."
Will White be running SAG when that next round comes around? That's the Board's decision, of course, but I asked White if he intended to be a candidate for the permanent (i.e., non-interim) NED job. He diplomatically claimed not to have given much thought to the matter, but added that he considered the position a "great job," albeit a hard one. He also said he was enjoying it, which might suggest a touch of insanity, were it not for the fact that White is not only smart--he's a Stanford Law grad and a Rhodes Scholar--but is a well-centered and calming influence as well.
Probably key to that sense of calm is an inner optimism. When I asked whether fixing SAG was hopeless, White replied that it was anything but. Instead, he said, board members from various factions have "an appetite to find a way to work together." In White's view, the industry and general public see SAG through a prism of political divisiveness, and that prism is not reality.
At that, I demurred, and White did acknowledge that members of the board hadn't yet found as much common ground as they need to. Helping make that happen is one of White's roles: "My job is to be the keeper of the focus--remind folks about the need to interact with each other as part of the same team [and] help members rally together."
It might help if SAG's board were smaller. In my view, its unwieldy size--71 members--contributes to the guild's difficulties, since trust and consensus are difficult to achieve in such a setting. White was diplomatic on this score, acknowledging that the board, which was once even larger, might want to revisit the question of size.
If SAG's internal politics are contentious, so too is the guild's relationship with AFTRA. White sees that changing: "We are now building on the positive aspects of our relationship with AFTRA, notwithstanding the actions of some individual members." Whether those members might include those who passed a Hollywood board motion last week to raid AFTRA is a question I didn't ask White to address.
Should the two unions merge? White replied that that was up to the national board and to the members at large of both unions. In any case, White emphasized the need to reduce competition between the unions in areas of overlapping jurisdiction: "We must not have a race to the bottom on rates and provisions that protect the members." White indicated he was looking at the idea of a joint SAG-AFTRA committee to discuss jurisdictional issues.
Another tough area for SAG is its relationship with talent agents: SAG's been without a "franchise agreement" with the agents association since 2002, while AFTRA, DGA and WGA all have such agreements in place. White indicated that at some point, the guild will revisit the issue of the franchise agreement, but that in the meantime "there's a lot that can be done beyond the formal negotiations of the franchise agreement."
Speaking of the industry in general, White identified one of his priorities as "reinvigorat[ing] relationships with industry partners." He stressed that the guild "wants to be viewed as a partner with industry," and acknowledged that it is "challenging to cultivate relationships," which is putting it mildly, given the work of his predecessor.
So what next? SAG has a number of other expired agreements--smaller fry than the SAG-AFTRA commercials agreement (expected to be ratified when votes are tallied tomorrow night) and the pending TV/theatrical agreement, but nonetheless important to those who make their living from them. White expressed confidence that the guild will be able to close some of those deals this year.
Circling back, I saved the toughest question for last: what if the TV/theatrical agreement fails to pass? White paused, then gave an answer that once again reflected an underlying optimism: "We're being bombarded with messages of thanks from members around the country, so I'm hopeful that we won't have to address that situation." He's not the only one who's hopeful. We'll know in a few weeks.
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