02/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

SAG: What Might Happen at Next Week's Board Meeting

The SAG National Board is meeting next Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 12-13, and speculation is rampant over whether SAG will send out the postponed strike authorization ballot (as well as whether the negotiating team will be replaced). But what if, rather than send out the authorization ballot, SAG leaders decide instead to send out the deal itself for a vote?

That's just one of the intriguing possible outcomes of next week's meeting. Here's why it might happen: support for the strike authorization vote is eroding. Rather than risk defeat, the hardliners who control the Guild may instead push for the deal to be sent out to the members for ratification. If so, the deal might be accompanied by a recommendation that the membership vote No, or there might not be any recommendation included at all.

Either way, the accompanying informational materials would no doubt highlight the failings in the deal, also referred to as the last best and final (LBF). They might use language similar to that in last summer's push poll, stating that a Yes vote means "accepting the flawed deal," and a No vote means "empowering the Negotiating Committee to continue seeking a fair deal" (these quotes are hypothetical language that the ratification materials might use; they're not quotes from anything that SAG has actually said to date).

And what are those failings? We know that, certainly from the hardline perspective, they include lack of jurisdiction over some original new media content; lack of residuals for virtually all original new media content; and lack of increases in DVD (home video) residuals. Those alone will be enough for some members to vote No on the deal. But many moderate members will not be persuaded that those items are reason enough to vote No.

However, there are other aspects of the deal that could doom it to a No vote even among moderates. Those include the studios' rollback of force majeure protection; imposition of the possibility of "French hours" (meals become catch-as-catch-can, rather than there being a designated meal break); the dilution of "union security" in new media (I'll explain that in a moment); lack of any compromise on product integration; and perhaps other issues on SAG's list of outstanding issues. (Several of these are issues I've previously suggested are negotiable if SAG were to drop the new media and DVD residuals issues.)

("Union security," by the way, does not mean bodyguards at SAG meetings, although those may be advisable, given the acrimonious divisions in the Guild. Rather, union security is the requirement that an actor must join the union if they want to work a union job 30 or more days after the first union job they work. In other words, non-SAG members can work one union job even though they're not a member of the union, but if they want to work another union job 30 or more days later, they have to join. The studios are proposing that this 30 day period be lengthened to 90 days in new media, which would increase competition from non-union actors and diminish the power of the union in new media.)

If SAG leadership sends out the deal and achieves a No vote, they would then use this result in two ways: (1) They would go back to the studios and make the point that the deal is un-ratifiable, and must therefore be amended. (2) They would reflect the vote back to the members, and use it as the basis for arguing that the next logical thing to do is to approve a strike authorization. If the deal is defeated by more than 75% of those voting, this would obviously strengthen the leadership's hand.

The moderates and independents in the board room may have a hard time opposing this gambit. After all, the hardliners would argue that such a move represents union democracy: "let the members decide," they'll say. That may be tough for the moderates and independents to oppose, especially since the moderates in LA (in particular) are mindful of how their actions might look to voters in next September's SAG elections. The hardliners will also sell this approach as a compromise, just as the October resolution (mediation followed by strike authorization if/when mediation failed) was viewed by moderates (who themselves proposed it) as a compromise. The hardliners would also point out that that this approach eliminates (for the time being) the possibility that leadership might suddenly, and improvidently, pull the trigger and call a strike. That latter possibility is, of course, one of the strong arguments, in many people's eyes (including my own), against a Yes vote on strike authorization.

Given the attractiveness of this scenario to the hardliners, and the difficulty the moderates and independents would have opposing it, I'm guessing this outcome has a reasonable degree of probability. That said, I'm not placing any bets, because there are many possible outcomes of the board meeting. Below are some of them. Oh, and by the way, the Hollywood Board is meeting next Thursday. That meeting's agenda will presumably depend (at least in part) on what happens at the National Board meeting next Monday and Tuesday. In any case:

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What will be sent out to the membership?

1. The offer on the table gets sent out. Possible, and would be a clever strategy. See above. UPDATE: Turns out Nikki Finke had discussed this possibility a while back.

2. The strike authorization vote gets sent out. Increasingly unlikely. Support for this seems to be eroding. But the Negotiating Committee could still decide to send this out nonetheless.

3. Nothing gets sent out. Quite possible.

Who will the negotiators be?

4. No change in negotiating team. Quite possible. In order to effect change of the negotiating team, the moderates in LA (Unite for Strength), the NY board members, the regional board members, and the independents in LA and elsewhere all have to be united on a strategy. That's a degree of unity and resolve they haven't always shown so far. Any defections, and they'll have a hard time standing up to the unity that the hardliners (Membership First) have displayed. But, of course, if the NED and current Negotiating Committee remain in place there are unlikely to be any new negotiations with the studios. Stalemate would continue.

5. The National Executive Director, Doug Allen, is fired from his job. Unclear how likely this is. Some moderates are uncomfortable with such a move, because the last two NEDs were fired summarily, and those moderates are afraid that firing this NED would politicize the job, as though it isn't already. They are also wary of the cost of settling out the NEDs roughly half-million dollar per year contract. Also, it might be difficult to find an acting NED on short notice, although the job might be split between NED and Chief Negotiator, on an interim basis.

(One might ask whether the NED could be fired for cause, thus avoiding a payout, on a theory that his failure to achieve a contract constitutes performance so subpar that he is not competently performing his job. That seems a stretch, particularly since the NED has presumably been following the instructions of the Board that he take a hard line, but it's hard to analyze such a question without seeing the contract and knowing details about the interactions between the NED and National Board.)

6. The National Executive Director is retained, but is relieved of his role as chief negotiator. This is possible. However, some have said that the NED's contract requires that he be allowed to be chief negotiator (I don't know, since the document isn't public). In that case, relieving him of his role as chief negotiator would be a breach of his contract, which would require that his contract be settled out. However, if this approach is doable without breach, then it becomes a distinct possibility, and there are probably a variety of people that the moderates could approach to serve as chief negotiator. Some moderates may also believe that stripping the NED of this role might lead him to resign voluntarily, though I think this is unlikely, given the prestige and compensation of the job, and the NED's general instinct to fight.

7. The Negotiating Committee is dissolved and replaced with a task force consisting of the same people. Possible. A task force would have less power than a committee, and might be under more control from the National Board. However, if the task force consists of the same people, it will continue to be controlled by hardliners, which means that little or no progress in negotiations could be expected.

8. The Negotiating Committee is dissolved and replaced with a task force consisting of altogether different people. Unlikely. This, in combination with a change in chief negotiator (items 2 or 3 above), would be likely to restart negotiations. However, bringing new people on in this fashion is likely to be resisted by at least some NY and regional members on the Negotiating Committee, who will (understandably) feel themselves unfairly punished for the conduct of others (the hardliners on the Negotiating Committee).

9. The Negotiating Committee is dissolved and replaced with a task force consisting of moderates only. Unlikely. Under this scenario, the task force would retain the moderates from the Negotiating Committee (thus avoiding the objections to scenario #5), but the hardliners would all be replaced. This would result in vociferous protest from the hardliners that the views of many union members are being trampled. To oppose this position would require that the moderates exercise a degree of bare-knuckle politics they have so far avoided.

10. The Negotiating Committee is dissolved and replaced with a task force consisting of mostly the same people, but a small number of different people. Possible. This would be cosmetic, just as the addition of Unite for Strength members to the Negotiating Committee in Sept.-Oct. was essentially cosmetic. As long as the three key Membership First people (David Jolliffe, Anne-Marie Johnson, and Kent McCord) remain on the Committee or task force, there's no real change.

11. The President, Alan Rosenberg, will remain in power. Almost certainly. I mention this just to point out that Rosenberg's term doesn't expire until September. Thus, he remains in place unless he were unexpectedly to resign -- in which case Anne-Marie Johnson, 1st Vice President, and likely candidate for President in September, would presumably become acting president. That's highly unlikely (I know of no move to suggest that he resign).

Note: For more discussion of issues involved in changing the NED and Negotiating Committee, see What Happens if the Challengers Win Control of the SAG Board?

Putting it all together: what will happen next?

12. If nothing is sent to the members and the negotiating team has little or no change, then we remain in stalemate. Unless the negotiating team has a sudden change of heart regarding new media and DVD, there's unlikely to be further negotiations any time soon.

13. If nothing is sent to the members but the negotiating team is changed significantly, then talks will probably restart. If the negotiators take new media jurisdiction and residuals, and DVD residuals, off the table, they may have enough leverage to make gains in other areas. One thing new negotiators would be able to say to the AMPTP, that the current team cannot, is that if the AMPTP doesn't give the new team some sort of concession, that the new team will unite with the hardliners and jointly urge the members to strike. A joint call by moderates and hardliners for a strike could indeed result in one. The AMPTP knows this, and accordingly may be more willing to deal with a revised team of negotiators.

14. If the strike authorization vote goes out (regardless of whether the negotiating team is changed or not), then see SAG: When Will There be a Deal? for discussion of possible outcomes and timing (but add two weeks to the timetable, because the ballots were originally scheduled for Jan. 2). I'm guessing the strike authorization would fail if sent out, but it's tough to know.

15. If the deal goes out (regardless of whether the negotiating team is changed or not), then the timeline would look like this: deal is sent out in third or fourth week of January (it will take some time to prepare the informational materials to be mailed out with the ballot). A 3 week voting process takes us to the second or third week of February. If the deal fails to achieve ratification (which would be my guess, since it will be pretty hard to campaign for the deal as it now stands, as I explained at the beginning of this article), then allow another 2-3 weeks of probably fruitless negotiation with the studios, followed by a strike authorization ballot (3 week voting process), and we're at at least April 1 before a strike could happen, assuming the authorization passes. If it doesn't pass, then we're back to stalemate.