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SAG: big union + small turnout = strike authorization?

December 6, 2008 |  7:50 pm

There is a saying in politics that whoever controls the turnout wins the election. That's as true in presidential elections as it is in Hollywood labor politics.

A key vote later this month by members of the Screen Actors Guild could push the entertainment industry toward another bitter strike nearly a year after screenwriters ended a 100-day walkout. The union's negotiators say they need the strike authorization vote to give them leverage in contract talks with the studios that have stalled for months.

The question is, why would SAG hold such an important vote over the December holidays, when much of Hollywood shuts down? Some union critics think the timing is suspicious and claim that SAG leaders would like nothing more than to see a low turnout, particularly among working actors who are the most likely to oppose a walkout.

But people close to the union's negotiating committee say the voting delay is necessary to give the guild enough time to conduct its "educational campaign" in order to build support for its cause at a time when the union remains sharply divided over the best course of action.

That's in marked contrast to the Writers Guild of America, which was firmly united when members overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization last year.

SAG, on the other hand, has been beset by feuds between moderates and hardliners over negotiating strategy, contract demands and strained relations with its sister actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. (AFTRA quickly reached a new contract with the studios and is poised to expand its jurisdiction into prime time TV shows typically covered under SAG contracts.) The 44,000 members who belong to both unions could play a key role in the strike referendum, given that most of them already endorsed the AFTRA contract, which is virtually identical to the one the studios are offering SAG.

While some prominent actors, including Rob Morrow and former SAG President Ed Asner, have declared their support behind the union leadership, other household names have openly challenged holding a strike authorization during the worst recession in decades.

Devito_perlman_k9j2bpnc_300 "We do not believe in all good conscience now is the time to be putting people out of work," wrote wife-and-husband actors Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito in a recent letter to SAG directors that was widely circulated. 

The sparring has extended into SAG's 71-member board as well. New York board member and former SAG President Richard Masur has blasted guild leaders for their handling of the failed federal mediation talks, which precipitated the strike authorization vote. SAG President Alan Rosenberg returned fire at critics, saying negotiators did everything they could to keep talks alive in the face of studio intransigence.

Meanwhile, studio executives aren't appearing fretful about the prospect of a strike -- as they were last year when the writers were ramping up to walk out -- because they're betting that SAG members will not vote for strike authorization given the recession, with its attendent widespread layoffs that is now washing over media companies.

Still, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, isn't taking anything for granted. The group has launched its own campaign targeting SAG members. The alliance took the unusual step this week of posting its final contract offer on its website and issued missives that attempt to portray SAG leaders as out of touch with economic reality.

While the economy will almost certainly be a factor in the vote, it's not clear how much of an effect it will have because of the divergent makeup of SAG's membership.

Working actors -- those who rely on work in film and TV for their primary source of income -- account for about 10% of the guild's membership. Instead, 90% of SAG's members earn less than $28,000 a year from acting work and -- putting aside the multiplier effect for a moment -- have less at stake if TV and film production shuts down in Hollywood.

Moreover, the faction that dominates the Screen Actors Guild, Membership First, has proven in the past that it can effectively mobilize support among extras and actors who only work occasionally.

"It's a unique feature of this particular union that there is a very large chunk of underemployed and unemployed and I think that could work in the union's favor," said David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University. "Still, I think getting the strike authorization will be a tall order given the economic crisis. That will be on many actors' minds."

So, short of SAG and the studios reaching an 11th-hour bargain, strike authorization ballots will be mailed out to about 100,000 eligible SAG members (those who are paid-up on dues) at the end of the month. Balloting takes three weeks. A thumbs-up to strike requires approval from 3 out of 4 members who return ballots.

Still, even if the members vote to strike, the final decision on whether or not to walk out is ultimately left to the guild's 71-member board. Moderates who hold a slim majority on the board aren't expected to support a strike unless there is an overwhelming mandate from members. That makes the size of the "yes" vote critical.

But, paradoxically, a small turnout could actually work to the advantage of SAG's leaders. By simple math, the fewer members who vote, the easier it is for the guild to meet or exceed the 75% threshold.  SAG referendums typically draw a turnout of 25% to 30% -- and a recent survey conducted by the union drew 10%. Of them, nearly 90% supported seeking a better deal than what the studios proposed in their "final offer."

Given the high stakes involved, and heavy campaigning on both sides, turnout should be considerably higher this time around. But holding the referendum over the year-end holidays could mean a smaller turnout by working actors, who often get their mail sent to business managers, whose offices will be closed.

But sources close to the guild's negotiating committee say the delay is necessary to give the guild time to make its case to members and build support through a series of town hall meetings, mailings, e-mails from SAG leaders and videos on the union's website. SAG also has invited publicists and agents to attend a meeting at the union's headquarters on Wednesday.

Said one board member: "We only have one stab at getting this right and we didn't want to rush anything."

-- Richard Verrier

(Photo: Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman courtesy Peter Kramer / AP)