THE BLOG

SAG -- Just Say No? [UPDATED]

07/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UPDATE, 9pm EST, 6/7 :

Thank you for the respect. We should begin and end with that at the very least. Some of you who have stated your yes vote position make exceptional and heartfelt cases and who knows, you may very well be right. Perhaps a unification of unions two years hence is the way we will go. But my bigger point here is that the schisms within our union have been debilitating and destructive and have lead to the stagnating dilemma we find ourselves in now. Most of us have already voted so writing this piece was really more a call for unity regardless of how the vote turns. I happen to think the contract is beyond the realm of reason and respect but then again that comes from my disposition to the world.

It has nothing to do with whatever success I may have achieved -- I have been as unemployed and broke as the rest and remember those days as if it was yesterday. I have also been a member of nine different unions in all of those survival jobs along the way including the Teamsters and IBEW and The NYC Taxi Cab Union. I have just lobbied congress for the Employee Free Choice Act and had long discussions with Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. and AFL leadership. That is just a plea to the below the line mates who seem so angry and resentful. I am of the position that a fair deal that allows respect and living wages can be a boon for business in the long run. A craftsman in an earlier comment said he had moved on to other fields because of lack of work, Well, actors are doing the same thing because they can't make a living anymore -- some of whom I know and are wonderful at what they do. If all the best gaffers and electricians left filmmaking we would be in deep trouble to try and light our sets properly. So too when our best character actors are leaving the field -- there will be no one left to help elevate the stars and tell a story. And our product becomes less enjoyable and people stop paying and watching and we all lose.

I am one of the lucky ones, believe me I haven't forgotten that. So I would never try and coerce someone who is of a different disposition and whose priority is family first-- I just ask that they read the contract thoroughly before signing on lest they realize too late that their work will not be compensated down the road when we rely on it to keep our insurance payments and when we no longer can get a job.

To those who say that all unions should unite in two years time... well, our own union can't even find the same page much less get on it. I will be very curious to see how we can unite four different creative unions. Here's an idea... if the contract is voted down or if it isn't -- let's have all the other unions show solidarity and support right now! Why not send a message that if not now then soon we will all be united to forge out a fair deal that can help revive this dying industry. Killing any chance to make a living and sending workers running to other fields is certainly not the way -- that much I know.

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Original SAG -- Just Say No post:

I am far away from the fray. In London working for beans on toast and about to take another film here. As I contemplate the upcoming SAG contract vote I can't help but see the irony that this next film's subject is the 1968 women's strike for equal pay at the Dagenham Ford Motor plant. This movement began as just a job grade increase request whereby the women wanted to be deemed as skilled workers so they would get the relative pay increase accompanying such a classification. It snowballed into the first job action and strike for women's equal pay and led to a fundamental shift in the way women were treated in the work place world-wide.

England at the time was an economic disaster waiting to happen. Millions of workers went on strike every year trying to pound out a living wage and the environment was growing increasingly anti labor. So why was this women's strike effective? Because no one could deny the fundamental fairness of the women's position. Even as Ford shut down all production so as to incite the men to corral their female counterparts, the movement garnered its strength from the undeniable reality that they were on the right side of morality. That's not to say that the gains were easily won; that unity was a foregone conclusion; that fellow union rank and filers weren't antagonistic and combative; that fear of lost jobs and broken intra-union marriages weren't colossal obstacles. These women united in force through and despite the army of opposition and the clamors for common sense and reasonable capitulation for the sake of the plant, the industry and the country.

SAG members are hearing these same arguments as we contemplate this new albeit regressive contract. "The industry can't afford another strike." "The fall off for all other unions and support industries would be devastating to the local economy." And most significantly: "This is no time to strike; we all can't afford it."

What was the devastating effect on the Ford Dagenham plant strike? The plant is still there 40 years later and has thrived as one of Ford's most successful operations overseas or anywhere. Ford has been able to hold a solid share of the European market as a result and continues to be the most innovative of the American car companies recently creating a 70MPG diesel engine for the European Ford Fiesta (developed at Dagenham.) It is the only major American car company not beholden to tax payers for their survival and is the strongest amongst them looking forward. The Dagenham plant is the only industrial plant left in London proper. What a disaster!

There isn't a producer in Hollywood or an actor in SAG supportive of this contract who can look you in the eye and keep a straight face while telling you this contract is fair and right. It isn't. But it's up to SAG members to go on the website and read for themselves and judge accordingly. I dare you to do that and then conclude that it is fair to give away our future in new media; to compromise our marketability with product placement enforcement; to let our hard work go wasted with erosion of residuals for past work; and on and on.

SAG members supportive of the contract accuse their opponents of wanting a strike. That is similar to the tactic of the so-called pro-lifers who have named their opponents "pro abortion." There is no such thing as pro abortion. No one wants an abortion to ever have to happen -- it is a last resort that some believe should be the sole right of the woman to decide. There is no such thing as a pro striker. No one wants to have anyone suffer through the sacrifices and stress of a strike for themselves or all the collateral damage caused by it. But it is basic negotiation 101 that a union cannot negotiate with confidence without a unified rank and file. Schisms and splits have cursed our union for too long. The supporters of this contract have been undermining unity, from what I noticed personally at meetings, starting six months prior to the beginning of the negotiation process. Union members will remember an email campaign and subsequent meetings that called for disenfranchising thousands of SAG members because they didn't meet what was basically an arbitrary standard for "being a real actor." I went to one of these meetings and asked what the standard should be. Their reply would have relegated me without a vote for half of my career. Mind you, I see the validity in their argument on principle and I think "staked members" as they called them may be at an unfair disadvantage when votes are counted because issues are different for the various tiers (for lack of a better word) of membership. So let's address that sometime down the road. But engaging in a viral campaign that splits the union right before the onset of negotiations for the most important contract of our time? Really? No wonder Nick Counter and the producers were so easy and smug in their dismissals of reasonable demands. All they had to do was read the emails to know that the union was hopelessly paralyzed and split.

Ford Dagenham's auto workers were also violently split yet the right path emerged from the infighting and a unified front resulted in victory.

So the argument comes down to: "Is this really the right time?" "Can the industry survive?" It is only at times of economic stress that union action can be effective. In our country the economically depressed 1930's proved to be the most fruitful for the emergence of unions and a subsequent growth of the middle class. The entertainment industry has been bought out and taken over by goliath corporations. Oddly, these entertainment subsidiaries are likely to be the only aspect of these giants to be in profit at this time. Corporations can't afford another shut down -- even two years ago I don't think that was true since all other parts of the giant were more healthy and profitable and a shutdown in Hollywood had no great effect on their bigger bottom line. Not so anymore!

Now, at last and at least, the playing field is even. Both sides cannot afford a strike. So it comes down to who is more courageous and who is willing to fight for a right cause. If this were a western, we'd win the gunfight. If this was an intelligent western -- the bad guy would walk away knowing he can't possibly draw first.

And who knows, perhaps in the aftermath the industry will stop destroying itself and maybe 40 years hence we will be as lucky as the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, England.