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SAG Stalks Towards Strike

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Mediation between the studio alliance (the AMPTP) and the Screen Actors Guild failed late Friday night, and SAG announced plans to seek a strike authorization vote from its members. Unfortunately, that puts us one giant step closer to a strike.

What's next? SAG will send out "educational materials," which will say that a strike authorization vote is not the same as an actual strike vote, and that authorization is needed as a negotiating tool, since negotiation and mediation have failed. At the same time, or later (it's unknown), SAG will send out strike authorization ballots. That latter process takes 30 days or so, we're told (i.e., ballots are due back approx. 30 days after they're sent out).

The union needs to achieve a 75% yes vote from those voting, in order to authorize a strike. Achieving the 75% may be hard in this economy, but might still be doable, since what's required is 75% of however many or however few members vote, not 75% of the entire membership. Over half the union doesn't work in any given year, so a strike has little direct negative effect on them. On the other hand, many are probably waiters (and some, like those at my gym, are personal trainers), and those jobs, in NY and LA, at least, will be hard hit by a strike.

No one other than the union itself has access to member email addresses and physical addresses, to my knowledge, so no one will be sending "educational materials" directly to the members arguing for a no vote. There'll be pro and con ads in the trades (Variety and Hollywood Reporter), but the trades are less targeted: each of them has a circulation of only about 30,000, including execs and many people other than actors (indeed, at $200/year, most actors can't afford the trades), whereas there are 106,000 paid SAG members. Back Stage will probably have ads too -- it reaches more actors -- but ads are still less persuasive than a detailed brochure from one's own union. Will the A-listers finally take a public, prominent, organized stand against this movement towards a strike? Who knows.

For an actual strike to be called, the National Board has to authorize one by a simple majority vote. The slightly more moderate faction (Unite for Strength plus NY and Regional Branch Division members) has a slim majority on the Board -- probably only 1 or 2 votes (votes are weighted, so it's a little hard to tell the exact margin).

However, they'll be under pressure: the hardliners (the Membership First faction) will say that the vote represents the will of the members. They'll also remind the moderates that there's another SAG Board election coming up in September. The moderates will be split on whether to stand in the way of a strike and be labeled Benedict Arnolds in the fall, because lack of a strike means that SAG will have to accept a deal that the hardliners consider odious.

The leader of the moderate faction, Ned Vaughn, was quoted in the LA Times over the weekend criticizing the negotiating committee for giving up on mediation after only two (marathon) joint sessions (both sides plus the mediator). However, this was totally predictable. Moreover, the moderates out of NY are the ones who proposed the overall procedure (attempt mediation (which was bound to fail), then seek an authorization). The Board resolution setting this procedure passed 97% to 3% (2 dissenters out of 71 Board members) in October. So, the anti-strike constituency on the Board is somewhat lacking in cohesion or strategic vision.

I'm guessing the ballots will go out soon, so that SAG will have an authorization in hand (if they get the requisite 75% yes vote), or will actually be on strike, before the Golden Globes, which are January 11 ... or, at any rate, before the Oscars. The SAG strategy would be to reenact the tactics that ended the WGA strike earlier this year: destroy the Globes by getting stars to boycott them, and threaten to do the same to the Oscars the following month. Whether that strategy will work is open to doubt: getting the stars to boycott the Globes might not be as easy this time; and, in any case, the studios might decide to hang tough regardless of whether the Globes and even Oscars have to proceed without stars.

SAG's main issues are a couple of gaps in the new media deal offered by studios, a deal which has been accepted by all the other applicable Hollywood unions this year (4 separate unions, in five separate deals), including the smaller AFTRA actors union. The gaps are real, but the dollar amounts are minimal, and are likely to be so for at least the next three years if not longer. However, SAG is convinced that these deficiencies in the deal will be the death of the union. They're also convinced that it will be impossible to fix these issues once the language is in the contract. That position is understandable - the home video (VHS / DVD / Blu-ray) formula, which is extremely unfavorable to actors, writers and directors, has been embedded in the union agreements for 24 years without change.

A Membership First source tells me that the negotiating committee offered during mediation to nonetheless accept the proposed new media language, if the studios gave assurances that they'd revisit the language in 3 years (when the contract would next be up for renewal) and if the studios increased the home video formula. I haven't verified whether this claim is true, but if so, the studios should have offered some movement on this. On the other hand, the economy has dramatically worsened in the last 6-9 months. SAG should have made this offer when something might have come of it. Now, everyone may suffer.

Still, it's almost beyond belief that SAG might strike -- over issues that amount to mere pennies for the next several years at least -- and would do so in the middle of the worst economy since the invention of talking pictures, literally. Unfortunately, Hollywood's a place where dreams aren't the only thing that comes true; sometimes nightmares do as well. Here's hoping that there's still time for a sensible approach to prevail.

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Belatedly (I've been in transit to NY), here's a recap of the last few days, in case you'd like to know how we got to this sorry state:

On October 20, SAG called for mediation, and indicated they would seek a strike authorization if mediation failed. Over the next four weeks, the federal mediator met one on one, first with SAG, then with the AMPTP, then SAG again, and so forth, at the glacial rate of one meeting per week.

Next, the parties used allies to harden their positions. The AMPTP did this by conducting lightning-fast negotiations with IATSE, the union representing technical and craft workers. The existing IATSE deal doesn't expire until August, but the IA likes to negotiate early, and so do the studios. They reached agreement this Wednesday on a package that includes new media provisions similar to those that were incorporated in four earlier deals this year: Directors Guild, Writers Guild, AFTRA daytime deal, and AFTRA primetime deal. (AFTRA is a smaller actors union whose jurisdiction overlaps with SAG in television.) A key reason the AMPTP wanted this deal done now is that it allowed them to point to yet another endorsement of the new media template, reinforcing their refusal to give SAG concessions in that area that none of the other unions in Hollywood won. The studios point also to the drastically worsened economic climate since the template language was established.

SAG, for its part, drew strength from a claim advanced by the Writers Guild a couple days ago that the studios are already in breach of the WGA new media deal even though the ink is scarcely dry. The studios disagree, and the argument turns on some rather sloppy and ambiguous language in the contract regarding the effective date of one provision. It's not clear that the WGA is correct, but it's even less clear why the language was so loosely written, especially since the date clause in a related section is quite explicit.

In any case, having teed up their arguments, the parties and the mediator finally met jointly for marathon sessions Thursday and Friday. Mediation failed, and SAG issued a press release announcing that it would seek a strike authorization. The press release sets out no timetable, but it's understood that the authorization process takes about 30 days or so.