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Counterpunch on Internecine Thespian Battles!


In a bit of surprise, Counterpunch, the very leftward news & commentary pub & website started by columnist Alexander Cockburn, takes its attention away from its usual Mideast concerns, to run a trenchant commentary on the AFTRA-SAG split, by writer David Macaray. A goodly chunk of his observations follow below, and the entire thing is right here:

Clearly, AFTRA has felt like the unappreciated stepchild for some time, not only because it has fewer members and, therefore, a lesser role in decision-making, but because SAG, which represents motion picture performers, accounts for far more revenue. For decades there has been talk of getting the two unions (both affiliated with the AFL-CIO) to merge, but they’ve been unable to come to any agreement. Only a few weeks ago, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney attempted to broker a “peace treaty” between the competing unions.

As for SAG, the general consensus is that AFTRA’s defection has left them in a precarious if not nakedly vulnerable position. The dread scenario goes like this: If AFTRA settles with the Alliance for what SAG feels is an inferior contract, the Producers will use the settlement as leverage against the Actors Guild when it comes their turn to negotiate, just as the Alliance used the DGA (Directors Guild of America) settlement against the WGA (Writers Guild of America), following the Writers’ recent 100-day strike against the studios.

Contracts aren’t negotiated in a void. Intentional or not, when contracts get settled, precedents get set. One sign that SAG is already experiencing a sense of urgency is that, as a result of pressure being applied by the membership, it was pushing to begin bargaining immediately-even looking to beat AFTRA to the punch, although, with AFTRA taking the initiative, that wasn’t likely to happen. On Tuesday, SAG announced that it would begin negotiations with the studios on April 15.

But there’s another possibility to consider. Although management may be relishing the prospect of an intra-union squabble, the separate bargaining arrangement could backfire on them. Instead of leading to increased leverage, the split could spell trouble for the studios. Being divorced from AFTRA could unleash the more radical impulses of SAG and induce its negotiators to take a harder line than they would have had they been linked with their more moderate sister union.

Ever since the writers went out on strike last year there have been reports of SAG wanting to hold the studios’ feet to the fire, that the Alliance’s imperious, “Don’t screw with me” stance which it took with the WGA had alienated SAG members. The demand, for example, of a larger share of DVD sales could be the basis for an actors’ walkout, something that no one in Hollywood looks forward to. The industry is still recovering from the WGA strike.

The coming weeks will make clear whether AFTRA’s go-it-alone philosophy was prudent or not. But one thing is for certain: The studios will try to play one union against the other.

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