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Union Roundup – March 2008

March 8, 2008 | By

And so, the BTL blog has gotten quieter since the Great Writer’s Strike of 07/08 wound down, and while TV is happily getting busy again, we find that there may be another de facto strike brewing, this time on the feature film side. Studios, the word goes, don’t want to launch into new mega-features, especially those requiring the availability of A-listers, until we have dotted-i’s and crossed-t’s on the thespian side of the current Hollywood season—the labor contract season, that is.

The idea there might be de facto strike is surprising, since, it would seem the actors have no actual ability to call a strike: Their best shot was to have to the allied leadership of the WGA wait it out with them until June, and then call for a “perfect storm” shutdown of production. Yet the writers felt there would be too many scripts stockpiled by then, too many TV shows already in the can, and so decided to make last year’s Day of the Dead their own, well, D day.

With the DGA settlement in the interim—which also drove the WGA settlement—it seems the actors will have scant ability to call a strike on similar issues, since a “template” now exists, for better or worse, to negotiate the “digital due” for Tinseltown talent.

Yet, in spite of this reduced strike threat—it wouldn’t even rise to yellow on the current alarm scale—several Hollywood A-listers (and ye shall know them by their Oscars) took out an ad insisting the SAG leadership settle this thing much sooner, rather than later—a style and timeline familiar to those who follow IATSE’s negotiations.

And in response, the SAG leadership had the A-listers over for a drink. Or at least a chat.

Which prompted an uptick on our blog, as suddenly we had a source—this one attuned to the wiles and wherefores of the performer’s art, or at least, the performer’s art of labor tactics— that let us know what happened in a room where a yes from any of the participants can get a project greenlit, and yet, there was still no agreement on what to do about the current contract.

According to this source, the “A-lister meeting with Alan Rosenberg, Doug Allen and SAG board members was at times incredibly contentious, but some good things did finally emerge from the meeting.

“First, as stated in their ad, the A-listers want talks to begin NOW. After Rosenberg and Allen repeatedly reassured them that informal talks with the CEOs have been ongoing in advance of formal negotiations, invited A-listers to attend the open Wages & Working Conditions meetings where membership can talk about the issues they want addressed in this contract, and even recited their CEO meeting schedule for the next two weeks—only then did the A-listers begin to believe them. The A-listers did, however, say that they were going to check with the CEOs they knew well to make sure these meetings were taking place.

“The A-listers also talked about the de facto strike that is happening right now, as films aren’t getting completion bonds issued because the companies that issue the bonds fear a strike and a payout on those bonds. Completion bonds are not being issued, and production is being delayed. Which is its own kind of corporate pressure. But Rosenberg and Allen reiterated that they don’t want a strike. What they want is a good deal for SAG.

“They agreed that the DGA and WGA deals give templates on certain issues, but said there are many issues SAG membership face that have nothing to do with DGA or WGA issues, and those need to be addressed. Also, the timing of the announcement of the beginning of formal talks is probably the best piece of leverage SAG has, and the beginning of talks won’t cause companies to start issuing completion bonds; only an accepted contract will do that.”

“The A-listers talked about how SAG was the most powerful union of all and could negotiate from that position of power, beginning now. But Rosenberg and Allen also talked about how they could not take the strike option off the table, since SAG is negotiating from a weakened position, coming after the long WGA strike and the DGA and WGA deals.”

We’re going to pause here to note that of course an A-lister, by definition, would say that, since, to an A-lister the existence of a Hollywood project being successful, without them contradicts all known laws of showbiz physics. Since most studio heads believe this as well, it may be true by industry assent, if nothing else. But then, this SAG source mentions that the union is “further weakened by the current internal strife over AFTRA and ‘earnings threshold.’ A spurious argument was made by one of the A-listers that the dues-paying SAG members who still make nothing in the industry all have day jobs and wouldn’t be hurt by a strike. They, this particular A-lister contended, would be more willing to vote for a strike, but this was immediately shot down. That argument was countered with the fact that they are the members who least want a strike, since there’d be no chance for them to get jobs in the industry while it was happening. Also, the percentage of members who actually vote is steady at about 35 percent, so those non-earners in fact rarely vote.

“SAG leadership also said that this very public posture the A-listers have taken gives the real perception of a rift in the union, which weakens bargaining power.”

Interestingly, that rift was concretized when a report was issued a few days after the “A squad” confab, stating that SAG “will not begin negotiating with studios until the beginning of April at the earliest. Leaders of the guild announced the timetable in a letter sent to members Wednesday, saying it had to finish gathering input about wages and working conditions from its 120,000 members. The process is set to end March 31.”

So, if there is indeed a palpable de facto strike, it’s going to get more palpable. And the A-listers must still be reeling from the shock.

Will they want to see Rosenberg replaced as SAG head, when all this is said and done, and his term at the helm expires? This puts the last part of our thesp source’s report in a new light:

“All of this begs a few questions. First of all, last year, Rosenberg, with a strike authorization vote in his pocket, quietly and efficiently negotiated a good new basic cable deal for SAG with none other than the ‘Dark Lord’ himself, Nick Counter, with little fuss or fanfare.”

“So who is telling all these A-listers that Rosenberg is strike happy and that he wants to cement his place in SAG history by calling a strike? What makes a SAG president eternally famous is negotiating a great deal, and that is what Rosenberg and Allen intend to do. Furthermore, leadership can’t call a strike. Only membership can.

“So who gains by painting Rosenberg as ’strike happy’?

“Whether true or not, the perception around town is that the CEO’s who call these A-listers their friends have been telling the A-listers that Rosenberg is a loose cannon who needs to be reined in.

“If that perception is true, and the CEO’s have the A-listers ears, then in a way, the A-listers just got ‘played’ by going public with their position before even talking with their leadership, and advertising a very public split between them and their union. The upshot of all of this, though, has ultimately been positive. There is now an open channel between leadership and the A-listers, and discussion between them has been ongoing since the meeting. We can hope that this continues.”

We can indeed hope, since that’s the stuff that springs eternal. But it’s also just as likely there are some bruised feelings in the performers’ union right about now.

Whether this is all for show remains to be seen. If SAG can’t really call a strike, practically speaking, perhaps a delay is the highest card they have left in their hand, and they need to play it, just so the owners don’t get overly cocky.

The future does, after all, remain unknowable, even when we think we have it in hand.

We’ll see you down the road…

Write Union Roundup: mark.williams@btlnews.com

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