Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Norma Rae Moves to Hollywood: SAG, AFTRA, and the Congloms

It could be a movie called Norma Rae Moves to Hollywood except the star is Alan Rosenberg.

The concepts to be portrayed are complicated. On one side we have the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP). That's the simplest side. They're the bossess, the company. The equivalent of the textile mill in Norma Rae.

Except today the American textile mills are mostly shut down and the AMPTP members are international corporations. These congolmerates are already "outsourcing" creativity by using the formats and plots of shows created in Britain or Latin America, for instance, shows that were successful with audiences there. In some cases, they are using the actual show from Canada or South Africa. And, even with shows that have American creators and writers, for years they have been "shooting" the show in Canada to save on costs. Plus, American shows now have to have "international appeal" as royalties and residuals from Italy and Japan enter into the economics of measuring success.

Further, today AMPTP represents corporate congolmerates that internationally own most of: (a) the movie production companies, (b) the TV networks (both broadcast and cable), (c) the few remaining radio networks, (d) many of the cable TV companies, (e) some of the TV consumer hardware manufacturers, (f) most of the major newspapers and magazines, and (g) many of the movie theater chains.

On the other side we have industrial unions. But they're different from the textile workers in the original Norma Rae. I'm not sure how to portray the difference here, but we have to use the "way back machine" to understand.

Once upon a time there was an organization called the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that was made up of mostly trade unions. These unions are for carpenters or electricians. They had labor halls where workers put their names on the list and employers called to get a worker.

At that time there was the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It was made up of unions that included all the workers in an industry, such as textile workers, regardless of what job they did.

The AFL and the CIO merged in 1955 to form the AFl-CIO.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are two unions representing actors. They both have a history comparable to the textile workers in Norma Rae.

Headquartered in Hollywood, SAG was formed in 1933 to combat the exploitation of actors in Hollywood by the large studios that signed actors to multi-year contracts which did not include work hour or rest period provisions generally accepted in all working environments today in America. The contracts automatically renewed at the studios' discretion and allowed the studios to control the private lives of the performers. SAG is associated with the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (AAAA), which is the primary association of performer's unions in the United States. The AAAA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Headquartered in New York City, AFTRA is the result of a merger of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) founded in 1937 and the Television Authority (TA)created by AAAA in 1950. Historically, AFRA negotiated the first labor contracts on behalf of radio and recording artists while the negotiated the first contracts for television performers. AFTRA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

As one might expect, performers started working in all the various media so SAG and AFTRA have a history of tense cooperation at best. Today SAG has about 120,000 members while AFTRA has about 70,000 members. However, about 44,000 performers are members of both organizations.

Let's set the time framework of our script. Its the middle of 2008. Unlike in the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, the union members have credit cards, car loans, and home loans. Generally, they are up to their eyeballs in debt like the rest of America. Further, unlike in the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, if they are injured or ill their medical care is dependent upon insurance derived from employment, like the rest of America. (In fact, General Electric which owns the television, movie, radio, etc. behemoth NBC Universal also is heavily involved in the credit industry and the medical industry.)

Like the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, the entertainment industry is undergoing significant changes. In that early period, entertainment was changing from movies and general radio to broadcast television, music and talk radio, and LP records. Today the change is from television to internet digital video/cable digital video, from local radio to satellite radio, and from CD's (the successor to LP's) to individual tracks available in digital format on the internet.

Now let's add some immediate plot background.

Many in the entertainment industry believe that the labor contracts of the past 30 years did not result in workers such as rank-and-file writers and actors receiving a fair share of the industry's revenues such as cable TV and video tapes. Most recently, many think they were cheated out of a fair share of DVD revenue because the AMPTP at the time the contracts were negotiated claimed that it was too new a revenue source.

Further, one of the actors' sister unions, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), had a contract that expired nine months sooner than the SAG-AFTRA contracts which expired on the same date as the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

Add to that plot, many SAG and WGA members believe that the DGA sold out the last time by setting the miserly terms of DVD revenue sharing.

So, in the fall of 2007 the WGA began negotiating with the AMPTP. But the AMPTP refused to budge on any issue, forcing the WGA to go on strike. The AMPTP shut down all scripted movie and TV production. After a couple of months of production standstill, the DGA decided to begin negotiations six months early. They and the AMPTP quickly find a mutual basis of understanding, sign a contract, then turn to the WGA and say: "See. Any reasonable person can reach an agreement."

Several months of no work have gone by. Already some WGA members were facing home foreclosure and loss of health insurance. The electricians, carpenters and other workers (including agents) who also have had no income were angry. While SAG members have walked the picket lines with the WGA members, solidarity among workers was not strong.

And then there is the DGA. Directors as "union workers" is incongruous with the traditional concept of labor-management. At the core, a director is middle-management. It gets fuzzy when actors and writers also work as directors. But, in fact a production has producers who are clearly management and writers, actors, cinematographers, electricians, etc. who are clearly workers. Directors are middle management, the folks in charge of day-to-day production.

In any other industry, how middle management is compensated is irrelevant to the rank-and-file union worker. In earlier times in other industries the DGA would be suspected of being a "company union."

But in the entertainment industry, negotiations between managers and middle-managers determined the pattern of compensation for labor the last time and, it appears, are setting the pattern of compensation for new media such as the internet. Under pressure, the WGA capitulated, settling for the DGA pattern.

Now, let's describe two key characters to our story.

Alan Rosenberg, SAG's President, is a well-known TV and movie actor. He's been a political militant all is life. During the 'radical' 60s, he was a member of the Black Panthers and was an active protestor of the Vietnam War. He's from a show business family and is married to Marg Helgenberger, also a well-known actor. In September 2005 in a hotly contested election Rosenberg was part of a winning slate of SAG Board candidates called MembershipFirst. Rosenberg beat Morgan Fairchild and Robert Conrad to become the new President of the Screen Actors Guild. The entire contest was an argument over the need to get tough in order to guarantee stronger contracts and higher residuals. A militant union activist, Rosenberg recently stated:

"Fair play doesn't pertain in bargaining. What matters there is leverage. Here (pointing to the crowd) is the leverage. Our leverage is that we're the product. We took a bad deal for cable 25 years ago. We took a horrible deal for VHS 20 years ago. We won't be fooled again."
Roberta Reardon, AFTRA President since 2007, was promoted from National Second Vice President by the AFTRA Board to fill the position vacated by a resignation. She had served two terms as AFTRA New York President from June 2003. Her performing career included daytime TV soap operas, commercials, voiceover work, industrial films, narration, and live theater. She also taught on the faculty of The School for Film and Television. In contrast to Rosenberg, she recently stated:

“AFTRA has a history of managing change. From radio to television, from broadcast to cable, from vinyl to downloads, from kinescope to video tape-and now to iPods, vPods, webisodes, and cell phones. The pace of change in technology is dizzying. AFTRA´s mission is to be responsive to those changes. The key is to ensure that professional performers have a foot in the door in the new modes of production. Our contracts will grow as those businesses grow.”
While SAG and AFTRA negotiated jointly with AMPTP the last time, they split this time. AFTRA negotiators accepted a contract proposal following the pattern established by the DGA the provisions of which many describe as barely a foot in the door. In light of the different characters leading the two organizations, it is not surprising that to date SAG has refused to accept that pattern.

As of yesterday, AFTRA's membership approved the contract by a 62.4% vote of those voting. So far, no information has been released on the actual number of voters. But because it was a hotly contested vote, one could reasonably assume about an 85% turnout meaning about 65,000 votes cast of which about 24,000 were negative votes. Assuming all the "no" votes cast were from members who are also SAG members, it means that only 55% of the SAG members opposed the agreement. To get approval for a strike, Rosenberg needs a vote of 75% of his membership. At this point, its clear he can't get it without inspiring his members.

Can Rosenberg stand on tables to give inspiring speeches that will get his members to walk out? If not, how can he persuade the AMPTP negotiators to give anything more than the AFTRA contract gives performers?

In the meantime, AFTRA and SAG are competing to represent performers in media produced for the internet. AFTRA has a contract, maybe not everything actors would want, but a contract means you can work.

Can Rosenberg star as a winner in Norma Rae Moves to Hollywood? Or will Hollywood workers become the new WalMart workers, like the rest of of the American labor force? The final chapter of this script has not been written. SAG has called for continued talks after receiving AMPTP's "last, best offer." AMPTP is slowly shutting down production, effectively creating a lockout, which will put tremendous economic pressure on the workers.

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