The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Memo to SAG members: Just say no

December 18, 2008 |  6:27 am

If you had any doubt about the depth of trouble the Screen Actors Guild is in right now, you only had to pick up Wednesday’s LA Times op-ed page, where Melissa Gilbert, a former SAG president, basically read the riot act to the current SAG administration, calling their upcoming strike authorization vote a "foolhardy move that endangers not only the union, but our entire entertainment industry." While acknowledging that the deal on the table has its flaws, she asked a pertinent question, in light of the fact that unemployment in California is expected to reach 9% next year: "How can any SAG member vote to knowingly put so many people in our industry into further jeopardy during the largest financial crisis since the Depression?"

Sag_2It’s no secret that SAG is now a guild divided against itself, with a hugely influential group of stars having joined a growing legion of rank-and-file realists who are now firmly aligned against any kind of strike. Living in its own dream world, the SAG leadership is still steaming full speed ahead, Titanic-style, oblivious to all the icebergs in its path, with its plan to send out strike authorization ballots January 2nd.  The guild needs a 75% approval by those voting to forge ahead with a strike. However, in her piece, Gilbert revealed just how serious the union’s divisions are by introducing an explosive new phrase into the contentious debate, a phrase that must have sent chills down the spine of SAG president Alan Rosenberg.

Boldly predicting that many working guild members are not only determined to vote against a strike but “will not honor if one is called,” she used the phrase you only hear when a union is starting to splinter—“financial core.” Known in guild parlance as fi-core, it is the way dissenting members give up their guild membership but retain their union protection while opting to work during a strike. The fact that Gilbert even voiced the phrase tells you that Rosenberg and SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen have managed to thoroughly alienate a host of guild stalwarts with their capricious leadership.

After being rocked by a lengthy strike by the WGA earlier this year, no one in Hollywood, from the highest-salaried studio boss to the lowliest office temp, wants to suffer through another work stoppage, especially with studios already having firing hundreds of employees in recent days. Knowing it has been painted into a corner, SAG is going with its one last option—call for a strike vote, hope to win an overwhelming mandate and then, using a strike threat as leverage, try to wrangle a few face-saving concessions from studio negotiators. “Studios Avert SAG Strike: Deal Sweetened With 11th Hour Compromise ” would be the way Variety would headline the pact.

There’s only one problem with SAG’s strategy. It’s increasingly unlikely that it will get a 75% vote, much less an impressive majority. And even if it does, the studios won’t play ball. Infuriated by the guild leadership’s refusal to accept a deal every other union took earlier this year, buffeted by all sorts of bad economic news and worried that DVD sales will continue to crater in the coming months, the studios aren’t planning to do any more negotiating. Rightly or wrongly, the deal they put on the table isn’t getting any better. It’s take it or leave it time. The doves in the studio firmament are hoping the guild will toss out its current leadership, paving the way for a more pragmatic team to take control. The hawks simply want to crush the guild like a bug. As Variety recently reported, 20th Century Fox has already acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out switching its current TV series from SAG to AFTRA contracts, a move Warners said it could make as well. AFTRA has said it wouldn’t participate in such a move, but it was another crystal clear message that the studios plan to play hardball. Using the current economic troubles as a handy excuse, they’d like nothing better than to rollback some of the gains the guilds have made in recent years.

Apparently oblivious to what a bad hand they have in this poker game, SAG is playing into the hard-liner’s hands, threatening to undue many of the impressive gains the Writers Guild achieved during its strike. The WGA didn’t just win some valuable concessions from the studios, it persuaded many industry observers that a show business guild could be a responsible player in the game, flexing its muscles, handily trouncing the studios in the PR battle and sticking up for its members without tossing them all off a cliff. It’s hard to fathom what the SAG leadership’s game plan is right now. To use a metaphor that Doug Allen, a former negotiator for the NFL players association might understand, SAG is like a football team deep in their own territory at the end of the fourth quarter, down a couple of touchdowns, without their best players on the field.

Taking a strike vote in the middle of a deep recession is like tossing a Hail Mary pass on fourth and long. There’s really only one way the game can end and it’s not pretty.