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SAG Presidential Candidate: I'll Seek Strike Authorization Next Year if Elected

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In an open conference call today, SAG VP and presidential candidate Anne-Marie Johnson said she will seek a strike authorization next year, before the mandated early negotiations next fall if she's elected. She argued that that's what's needed to gain bargaining leverage and added that she's "confident" the SAG membership would vote Yes, especially after the guild conducts an educational outreach campaign during its wages and working conditions (W&W) meetings with members.

Johnson added that some people say her Membership First faction is strike happy. She denied that, but said that union members would feel the impact of new media defects in the existing contract before the negotiations next fall. She added that she thought at least 75% of the board will support a strike authorization. She also argued that the sunset clause in the contract, which calls for blank-slate renegotiation of the new media provisions, is "not worth the paper its written on." That's seems to be a signal that she thinks a strike will be necessary to force renegotiation.

In an email interview with me, Ned Vaughn, spokesman and board candidate on the moderate Unite for Strength slate, responded as follows:

How we address a strike authorization depends on what we see headed into the negotiations. It's my firm belief that we must negotiate the next TV/Theatrical contract jointly with AFTRA, so it's not a decision that would be made unilaterally. That said, the sole focus of Unite for Strength is increasing performers' bargaining power, so if a strike authorization is needed, we would certainly support it.

I also spoke with an AMPTP spokesman, but he declined comment, explaining that the AMPTP (studio/producers alliance) never comments on guild internal affairs or elections. For the same reason, he declined to comment on the election of moderate candidate John Wells at the WGA.

It's my sense that Johnson may be at least partially right -- i.e., that the union's board would support a strike authorization, albeit she cautioned, not unanimously. Whether the membership would is a harder question, since next fall is only a year and half after the end of the devastating Membership First-led SAG stalemate which cost members an estimated $85 million in lost wages.

In any case, there's no doubt that the union has a lot of unfinished business in the upcoming round of negotiations. Compromises that were reasonable and necessary in this past round may become less so as new media advances.

For example, move-over residuals (for reruns on the Internet) are very low, and it seems unreasonably so. If as the studios become able to make more money on the Internet, those residuals need to increase, although the Internet's economics are unlikely to ever support the lucrative level of prime-time network residuals, which can range from approximately $800 to $3,200. The entire content industries -- management, in other words -- are being squeezed by technology, and labor is not exempt.

When will the studios become able to make significant money on the Internet? That depends in part on how far new media advances and becomes able to replace network and cable TV not just for young people viewing content on their PC's, but also the general population who prefer to watch content on the big screen TVs they've purchased.

My own experience is instructive. I just got a new flat-screen TV, a 42" LG 42LH50. It's an Internet-capable model that just came out 6 months ago, and CNET says it has the most advanced Internet capabilities of any model they've reviewed.

Yet, I got a ridiculously great deal. (Trust me, you don't want to know.) That, of course, is a reflection on how poorly consumer electronics are selling in this economy, which means that we're a long ways away from lots of people receiving Internet on their TV. The technology now makes it possible, but the economics don't yet make it a practical reality.

Now, the TV can play anything available on YouTube or Yahoo. It can even Twitter (how weird) and do other cool stuff, such as play AP news videos, no doubt to the detriment of network news programs, which survive, if at all, on advertising revenues based on viewership. Everyone's in trouble in the new media world.

So does my new TV's Internet capabilities mean I can stop watching conventional TV? No. Not only does it not get Hulu or other network websites such as CBS.com, even the YouTube and Yahoo it does get are unusable. That's because there's no keyboard, just a remote, so to search for a video, you have to painstakingly press keys multiple times, just like texting on a non-smart phone. Then you get 17,000 hits and how are you going to sort through that? It's even worse, because the keypad on the remote isn't as usable as a cellphone keypad: it's not as firm and doesn't click.

So, the technology isn't here yet in a practical sense, even for those who can afford the newest or are lucky enough to score a great deal. But the day is certainly coming. Business models are still shifting, and we might see the shift to new media retarded by pay walls around content or by add-on charges from ISPs (cable companies and telco's) levied on people who watch large quantities of bandwidth hogging streaming or downloaded media.

In any case, the unions will be under enormous pressure to get improvements in the new media deal, even with the election this week of Wells at the WGA and the likely election of Ken Howard, the moderate Unite for Strength candidate for SAG president. Let's hope that the studios and AMPTP recognize that next year is the time to deal with deferred business and negotiate in a more moderate fashion, or we may see a joint SAG-WGA (and possibly AFTRA) strike.

Now let's return to that conference call. The first question is, what if you gave a conference call open to all SAG members and nobody came? That's essentially what happened to Membership First -- twice. Last week's call had about 16 callers at most during the call. Today's maxed out at about the same. (The call-in system announced the number of callers, and I checked repeatedly.)

And let's look at that 16 number. Deduct 4 candidates (see next paragraph), me, at least one anti-MFer that I know of (lets say there were 2 or so), assume a couple of planted MF partisans (it'd be silly not to plant a few people) and that leaves at best 7 undecideds. What a fizzle.

Most of the prepared questions, and most of the ones asked on the calls, were softballs, many of which included pro-MF statements as the premise of the question. Most of the answers, from Johnson and MF board candidates Charles Shaughnessy, Erik-Anders Nilsson and Jordana Capra, were unsurprising and generally reiterated statements MF has made publicly before.

The newsworthy stuff in addition to the above? In last week's call, Johnson said she was paying her own legal fees in the long-running, counter-productive suit she, outgoing SAG president Allen Rosenberg and SAG board members Diane Ladd and Kent McCord brought against their own union. (How bizarre that she's sued the union she now seeks to lead.)

That appears to contradict Rosenberg's statement three months ago that he was receiving legal services pro-bono. Johnson also said she wouldn't bring a motion to have her legal fees reimbursed. However, she didn't address the likely possibility that another Membership First board member will, nor did she say she would refuse a check if offered. She acknowledged that the lawsuit has cost SAG $170,000 so far, but made no mention of the legal fees she and the other plaintiffs have incurred.

In a separate matter, Johnson claimed that she never said she would fire interim National Executive Director David White if elected, contrary to my report last week. However, she then essentially contradicted herself and confirmed my understanding, by saying there would be a search committee appointed and White could be a candidate if he wished. It sure doesn't sound like Johnson wants White in the job permanently, and I suspect Doug Allen might be brought back, notwithstanding Johnson's quasi-denial that I reported last week.

In an out of left field question, someone asked whether pro wrestlers should be allowed to join SAG. Johnson answered that they would have to if they were in a film, but that pro wrestling matches, because they are shot in sequence (i.e., in the manner of live shows), would potentially be under AFTRA jurisdiction, and so the question should be directed at that union.

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