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SAG’s Internal Struggles

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The Screen Actors Guild, paralyzed in efforts to restart negotiations with the studios on a new contract, has begun to resemble a Punch and Judy show. Two bitterly split factions within the guild have been beating up on each other over how to proceed in the stalemated talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
The rest of Hollywood, including members of the 18 Hollywood guilds of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, is frustrated in the extreme watching on the sidelines as the opposing SAG groups batter each other instead of negotiating a new theatrical features and primetime television contract with AMPTP. The previous one expired last June 30. No talks have taken place since November when the parties returned to the table at the behest of a federal mediator but talks broke down again after only a couple of days.
Though the specter of a strike by SAG remains a possibility, few expect the balkanized guild to initiate one. However, the long unresolved situation is being cited by producers as a reason for projects to be delayed, and severe cost-cutting measures to be implemented by studios. In fact a collapse in DVD sales, once a dependable source of revenues, the downward spiral in the economy and the evaporation of credit availability for financing are the main culprits behind the retrenchment which began last year in the wake of the 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America. Warner Bros. recently announced it was laying off 10 percent of its worldwide staff, amounting to some 800 positions. Other studios can’t be far behind.
The key issue that has been dividing the actors’ union is whether to ask SAG’s 120,000 members to vote to authorize a strike, a proposal backed by guild president Alan Rosenberg and besieged executive director Doug Williams, whose job is on the line. The vote would not declare a walkout but would hand SAG’s leadership the right to call a strike anytime it wanted.
At a fractious marathon meeting of SAG’s national board on January 12 and 13 which went 30 hours nonstop, unsuccessful efforts were made to remove Williams from his post as chief negotiator by the Unite for Strength faction, which has a majority control of the board following recent elections. However, the group was thwarted from voting by what it claimed was an unending filibuster by the more hardline Membership First group.
“These people are like children,” Rosenberg, who supports Williams, told Variety in the wake of the showdown. “They refuse to take responsibility for anything they do.” That has only increased the ire of the moderates who include well-known actors like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. The United for Strength group is continuing to seek to oust Williams. The case against SAG’s chief negotiator is that he has pursued a failed negotiating strategy—including the call for a strike authorization vote—and utterly botched the contract negotiations.
Almost lost in the internecine warfare are the issues: SAG has been demanding greater residuals on work distributed on new technology platforms like the internet and cellphones than what other unions, including the WGA, the Directors Guild of America, and IATSE agreed last year to accept in their contract negotiations with AMPTP.  SAG has also asked for a bigger cut of DVD residuals, which AMPTP has declared to be a non-starter. AMPTP has responded, saying SAG is out of line expecting a sweeter deal than the other guilds got, and is reckless talking about a strike when economic conditions continue to worsen.
Further adding to the confusion, a fallback plan has emerged because SAG’s leadership doesn’t think it can get the 75 percent approval necessary to authorize a strike. The ploy put forward by Williams is to return to the negotiating table and then submit AMPTP’s latest offer to an up or down vote by SAG members, hoping it will be rejected, thus strengthening the hand of SAG’s contract negotiating committee.
At the same time, a SAG spokesman has insisted that Rosenberg continues to support a strike authorization vote.
In another sign of how mean things have become, emails have been sent out to members asking them not to vote for actors nominated for SAG awards that support a change in strategy and the firing of Williams. Targets of the effort claim the campaign amounts to blacklisting. Below the Line was going to press before the awards ceremonies, scheduled for January 25, took place. So it wasn’t clear whether the effort paid off. What is clear is that the bickering and backbiting will continue, further putting off the resolution of the contract talks with AMPTP and leaving the rest of the town’s film and television community in the lurch. How’s that for acting out?

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