THE BLOG

The AMPTP Strikes Again

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After over four months negotiating with the AMPTP conglomerates, the Screen Actors Guild announced they were finally asking their members for a strike authorization vote.

I can feel their pain.

Admittedly, I know more about the writers negotiations than about the actors. But the response from the AMPTP was instantly familiar, pure déjà vu, and equally swaggering, posturing and manipulative bullying. Even by AMPTP standards.

"SAG is the only major Hollywood union that has failed to negotiate a labor deal in 2008," the AMPTP blustered. "Now SAG is bizarrely asking its members to bail out the failed negotiating strategy with a strike vote - at a time of historic economic crisis."

Of course, what the AMPTP conveniently leaves out is that it took writers 100 days on strike to get their deal. And the reason SAG has no deal is because the AMPTP corporations have blocked them for four months. This is like blaming someone for not dating you, when you're the one who said 'no.'

Worse, though, is when some corporate PR whiz ludicrously floats the buzz words, "bail out," to invoke public antipathy of government loans. Not only isn't it "bizarre" for a union to approach its membership, it would be malfeasance if they didn't.

But mainly, it is the very point that we are in an economic crisis that every worker specifically needs the basic protections the conglomerates are refusing to give.

The challenge for SAG is that it's being pounded in a perfect storm. Economic conditions make this is a dismal time to strike. A related union, AFTRA, caved early and signed a very weak agreement. And other unions have settled.

Yet many issues SAG is fighting to get are unique to itself. And writers bettered the deal that directors got.

Ultimately, though, it's terribly scary to even think of striking. During the three months that the seven AMPTP conglomerates refused to settle with the writers, the entire city of Los Angeles took a huge hit.

For SAG, it's equally scary to think of the alternative, because of the risks to their future.

Consider: much of old media is shifting to New Media. TV will eventually blend with the Internet. It's already long-since begun.

(Though the AMPTP corporations cry no profit from the new-fangled Internet, the other day CNET reported that Hulu.com - a joint venture between NBC and News Corp. - just made a $12 million profit, streaming video.)

So, consider all this when you understand what the AMPTP multi-national corporations have offered to SAG for its future in New Media -

The proposed minimum rate is zero.
The proposed residual structure is zero.
The proposed overtime protections are zero.
The proposed "forced call" protections are zero.
The proposed protections for minors are zero.

As I wrote back during the WGA negotiations, the public understands "zero."

Here we go again.

It is not for me to speak to SAG needs. I can speak to AMPTP history, however. And as George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Back 24 years ago, the AMPTP offered only 4-cents for videocassette payment, because it needed "studying." A quarter-century later, when writers finally asked to increase this paltry amount for DVDs, the corporations demanded the request be removed. In good faith, the writers did. The studios got what they wanted - and then walked away.

Through the strike, the AMPTP companies kept insisting they needed time to study the Internet. Afterwards, an online interview with a Warner Bros. president was discovered from two years earlier, showing that their Internet division had already cleared 15,000 TV episodes.

Today - the AMPTP companies have repeatedly tried to subvert their agreement with writers. They've failed to make proper payments on streaming, blaming "technology problems." They've even claimed that the new rates for downloading doesn't apply to any material produced before the strike - and therefore insist they owe nothing on the studio libraries.

That is the history of who SAG is negotiating with. It is wise to keep such history in mind. At the very least, it makes four months of getting nowhere understandable.

It's likely that during these past four months, the AMPTP conglomerates have been playing theater games with SAG. After all, the AMPTP only negotiates seriously when CEOs themselves show up. Negotiating lawyers are only authorized to say, "No." The Writers Guild had 100 days of "No." Then, two CEOs appeared, and it was settled in a week.

After that settlement, AMPTP negotiators acknowledged in private that there was a 100-day strike only because they underestimated the writers' resolve; noting they would have otherwise settled beforehand.

That may be the biggest hurdle SAG faces now. A strike authorization shows that the SAG team has strong support, in hopes of avoiding a strike. This is the only time the AMPTP takes you seriously. Whether SAG members are willing to show that unified support during difficult times is what we will find out.

No doubt, through all this, some will paint the picture that Actors are Rich and Greedy - in reality, most actors scrabble at the edges, slowly pursuing their career, lucky to get a single speech in a single production. There are 120,000 members of SAG. Count the number of Big Stars you recognize. Now, subtract that from 120,000. That's the picture. It is a union trying to save itself and its middle class. Like most of America.

SAG faces grueling decisions, balancing its interests and future with AMPTP hard lines. Myriad voices in SAG will argue what is best for them. But making those arguments based on the goodwill, good faith and good word of the AMPTP conglomerates is a guarantee of eternal disappointment. The only voices in SAG worth listening to are theirs alone.