Saturday, November 22, 2008

Actors' Strike: Yes or No, How Would You Vote?

One has to give Screen Actors Guild (SAG) President Alan Rosenberg credit for a certain "put one foot in front of the other" tenaciousness. In fact, his march forward in the face of internal partisan challenges within his own union and from the rest of the union movement and tough external opposition is not dissimilar to the Obama campaign. Just keep explaining until your constituency “gets it.”

In a fortuitous confluence of events, Thursday Rosenberg was able to bring to the bargaining table a copy of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) request for arbitration about the very subject Rosenberg has been arguing. The WGA just now discovered they screwed up (again) when eight months ago they signed an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) following the Directors Guild of America settlement. As Rosenberg kept pointing out, the DGA/WGA contract provisions for new media residuals were flawed.

It’s easy to understand what’s happening. If you buy on a DVD a movie released prior to February 13, 2008, the screen writers get paid pursuant to the 2008 contract. If you buy the same movie as a download, the screen writers do not get paid. Apparently, this is the formula that applies to the director (and to the actors under the AFTRA contract), and it’s the formula AMPTP wants SAG to accept.

New media issues are where Rosenberg drew a line in the sand and started his long march towards a strike vote.

It is not complicated at all. If a pre-2008 movie or television show owned by General Electric Corporation (all the NBC Universal related studios) or News Corp (all the Fox related studios) in 2010 is being purchased mostly as an on line download, the corporation gets the money that historically would go to writers, directors, and actors. It’s a big and unjustified win for GE and News Corp.

In one news report we see the following:

“WGA West board member John Bowman, who headed the guild's negotiating committee, said the contract with the companies on electronic sell-through covers feature films produced after July 1, 1971, and TV programs produced after 1977.

"’The companies have reneged on this agreement and are taking the position that only programs produced after Feb. 13, 2008, are covered by the new provision,’ he added. ‘This may be their deal with the DGA, but that was never our agreement. Every proposal we made during negotiations made clear our position that library product was covered, and the AMPTP never objected to that position. The guild will not allow this to stand.’"

It has been hard to understand the overall situation as an industry outsider. I try to understand it based upon my experience with the media conglomerates as a buyer of electronic music media. So far, in our household we’ve been screwed out of the licenses for about 150 tracks of music during the period the conglomerates showed total disregard for the rights of their paying music customers. In the end, of course, they lost and unlicensed mp3 downloads are the norm. It was hard for them to sue the thousands and thousands customers who told them that their contract (license) sucked and proceeded to share music. But I’m still out about 150 licenses I paid for and certainly Sony doesn’t care.

Unfortunately, those who actually create the art, be it in music or movies or TV shows, are not in a position to protect their financial interest except through contracts with the conglomerates. And the last time, the writers and actors felt they got screwed in their contract provisions for DVD revenue.

This time around the writers, who went out on strike trying to protect their interests, were again screwed by AMPTP. But they were also screwed by their fellow workers and themselves. I guess that is because some members of these “guilds” don’t like to think of themselves as belonging to a union, so the writers and apparently a lot of actors don’t get the fact that the directors are not workers, they’re middle management who have a whole different set of interests and frequently do not depend on “union scale” set in the guild contract.

When, in the middle of the writers strike, the DGA started negotiations early and settled on a contract, the DGA - “middle management” - essentially sold out the creative workers and caused unprecedented pressure on the WGA to settle.

The rank and file of the Hollywood union movement failed to back the writers. After being out of work for several months and under pressure from some GE subsidiary for payments on debt, they wanted the writers to settle with GE so GE could make a lot more money on the backs of the workers.

While SAG members did walk around on sidewalks with picket signs supporting the writers, many still continued to work finishing movies and episodes of TV shows that had already been written. Yep, real solidarity there.

And there was really little Rosenberg could do as his own members owed money to GE Capital and they weren’t about to risk anything more than they absolutely had too. No “workers of the world unite” spirit there.

Now, of course, we’ll see what happens. This WGA dispute reminds one of the United Auto Workers situation in Detroit. It’s older writers and actors whose income depends on the residuals for films and TV series released before 2008. Just like it’s the UAW retirees who are frequently characterized as the burden on the U.S. auto industry.

If we could just dump these stupid unions and euthanize everyone over 55, our country wouldn’t be a drag on the international corporations. And the rest of us could watch movies and TV in total happiness.

Gee Rosenberg, as the writers struggled last year, the directors “got it”, the Teamsters and other trade union members “got it”, and finally the writers “got it” along with the AFTRA actors. Why don’t you “get it”? Even the majority of SAG members want to be reduced to WalMart class compensation. Or do they? We’ll see.

The rest of you. How would you vote regarding a strike authorization?

1 comment:

Stuart said...

I would vote "no". I think I understand the principles involved but this is not the right climate to stand on principles. The financial impact of this strike long term would be devastating -Stuart Sweet