DHD publishes part 1 of SAG/AMPTP series

by Paul William Tenny

I know you are, but what am I?
Nikki Finke published the first part of a three-part series on the SAG/AMPTP (Screen Actors Guild/Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers) negotiations on Friday and while there's lots of sage observation in the piece, there are still a number of misplaced assumptions and theories that I think ought to be considered subjective opinion rather than fact, if not outright wrong. Things like who has the upper hand, the corporations or the unions, because wherein the truth lay, you'll find the future of an industry that is talent driven rather than business.

That question and many others shape the debate and give us entirely new perspectives on where these negotiations are headed, but also other talks in the future.
In Part I, Finke gives a broad overview of why SAG and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) are at each other's throats, why it was pointless and how it doesn't matter, and where the two unions stand in their independent negotiations with the AMPTP. She begins by reminding everyone that the only people in Hollywood that aren't on edge right now are the billion-dollar-babies, the CEOs of the largest studios and networks that have no personal stake in the success or failure of these talks, and she's right on that point. These CEOs are making tens of millions per year while their anti-union boards have their backs, and these companies are so well connected by their corporate parents that it's impossible to expect any personal or professional consequence for screwing things up.

This is a country that rewards failed CEOs with tens of millions in stock options, deferred signing bonuses, and other perks that guarantee a retirement windfall no matter how badly they perform. Now this doesn't mean that these companies are invulnerable -- the movie and television divisions still have to make their product even if at a loss, otherwise there's little point in the parent company keeping that division around -- but they are in fact very well insulated against almost any scenario imaginable.

Finke believes that SAG could do itself a world of good if they could a way to unite with AFTRA, even if AFTRA was dead set on going its own way from the very beginning, since the only real power a union ever has is unity, just as the only real power the corporations have is to divide and subsequently conquer. We're talking about basics here, that life is easier when people work together towards a common goal, but one lesson that these two unions seemed to have forgotten.

Either that, or one (maybe both) have goals other than getting newer, better contracts for their members. That should be of huge concern to each unions membership but thankfully is once that is easily solved by putting new leadership into power, but for that to happen these people have to realize that one of their largest obstacles comes from within.

That said, I don't believe that you should "reflect on everything you knew surrounding the writers strike, and then throw it all out the window." SAG has always had a stronger hand than the writers because their job is in the instant, meaning they aren't necessary until the very moment they are necessary, and having a lack of them at a critical moment (which is basically everything between pre and post production) will shut everything down. If they want to walk, business ends on that day, at that very moment, across the entire country as far as movie and television production is concerned. Some of that power has been gifted away by the SAG/AFTRA infighting because now anything that takes a vote is going to be a fight to get, but the theory still applies: if SAG does call a strike, everything stops right then and there, and there is nothing the AMPTP can do about it.


That power can't be squandered unless hardliners within SAG push the unpleasantness so far that they lose the ability to gain a strike authorization. With the 40,000 members already shared with AFTRA, there's no way that SAG will get the 90%+ authorization that the WGA got, and that number is going to fall by the week. Better to get that out of the way sooner rather than later, but at this point based on what Finke reports, that's not even on the back burner today. From a purely strategic point of view, a well crafted auth vote is a signal to the AMPTP that things have gotten serious and that there is enough support within the union to walk, so timing is everything and it's a weapon you only get to use once. But if it's not even being considered, it has to make you wonder what else in the war room is going wrong.

At this point there is a troubling contradiction that somehow needs to be addressed. We're being told that there are no plans to seek a strike authorization vote once the contract expires tonight and that negotiations are continuing. Says Finke about what will happen after midnight tonight, "in all likelihood the two sides will continue bargaining." The only problem with that assessment is that the two sides haven't been talking recently and aren't talking right now. A few paragraphs after the above quote, Finke writes "as for the negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP, they are at a complete standstill" and quotes SAG national executive director Doug Allen as blaming the AMPTP for forcing it to start at ground zero and bargaining upwards just to achieve what AFTRA already has, even though there seems to be a consensus that AFTRA's deal is utter garbage.

I just don't understand how you go from both sides not talking to each other to expectations that talks will continue after the contract expires tonight. What it actually sounds like is the AMPTP effecting its second lockout of a union within a year and that a strike is anything but off the table. It actually sounds like very likely at this point unless you figure that the AMPTP intends to give in to some of SAG's demands -- even if only by a little -- but plans to run them through hell for as long as possible, just for the fun of it, as they did with the WGA.

If this sounds like a rerun of what the industry just went through last year and into February this year, I'd certainly lean towards agreeing with you. It appears as if the AMPTP had a generic plan for dealing with the unions this cycle and has stubbornly stuck with it even though the WGA strike cost them far more than it did anyone else, and they still ended up losing.

Not sexy, certainly less drama, but really those things are signs that things are going all wrong. You don't want drama or sexy, you want a bunch of stiffs sitting at a boardroom table haggling over formulas, clauses, phrases, declarations and catches that nobody but the lawyers understand. Neither side walks away happy but if both walk away pissed, then they both probably got something out of it and that's the way you want it to go. That's the definition of a successful negotiation; both sides get something but not everything.

Otherwise it's just dictation.

After writing about the CEOs taking a step back to let the AMPTP organization handle things for now -- the exact opposite of what ended the writers' strike for what it's worth, and something I have no real opinion on -- along comes news that Hollywood agents have forgotten who they work for and what their job is. It was extremely inappropriate for them to step into the middle during the WGA strike and act as intermediaries. It may have been necessary as an equally extreme circumstance, but that doesn't make it right. If anything, having agents stand in the middle trying to bring the two sides together is a strong ethical violation by a profession that exists only to service and satisfy writers (and of course actors and other talent.) Agents don't work for the studios and networks and regardless of how they view their jobs, so long as the talent is the one signing their paycheck, that's who their bosses are.

That was bad, but this is intolerable.

Firstly, it's one thing to give a source anonymity because they can't reveal their information any other way, but Finke ought to know better than to give anonymity to people who simply wish to express an unpopular opinion to escape personal repercussions. It is not warranted and benefits no one other than the coward who wants to say something publicly that would probably get them fired or at the very least a lot of well earned resentment. We're not talking about government whistle blowers revealing information that the public benefits from having, but a child that doesn't want his boss (presumably an actor(s)) to fire him after he said "If I could break the union, I would." Given that the source is anonymous, I have no reason to believe that this person is an agent, in fact for all the public knows it could be planted from one of the CEOs or even made up entirely. There isn't even a note about where this person works or if their sentiment is shared (and hence independently verified) by others.

I don't know how agents think and I don't especially care; so long as they are making their living off the backs of what writers, actors, and directors earn, they are employees of that person. Period. Any agent like the coward above ought to be run out of town on rails.

Or hired as an AMPTP CEO.

Finke, who has written a wonderful piece so far except for a few misconceptions, then lands on the matter of leverage and which side has the power in this fight. The answer is, unquestionably, the Screen Actors Guild. Just as it was with the WGA over the winter, whether they realize it or not, whether they exercise it or not, unions have all the power in this country. It may be a hard concept to grasp because we see unions being crushed by multi-national conglomerates all of the time, but that speaks to the failure of those unions to serve the point of their very existence. It does not mean the winning side has the power or the leverage, not in this fight, and not in any other.

Corporate management has power over the individual; I'm not arguing otherwise and I doubt that anyone else would either. Collectively, the side that supplies something, though, always has more power than the side that demands. From the price of gas to international arms sales between allies to the give-and-take between a parent and their child, the result is (almost) always the same: suppliers have all the power. Like children, the AMPTP companies can stamp their feet, hold their breath, and wreck their bedroom and it won't change anything. The AMPTP companies need actors more than actors need to work for those companies. Worst comes to worst, they can find other jobs because human beings don't exist for a singular purpose.

Companies do.

If Viacom wants to keep making money making movies and TV shows, they'll have no choice but to cave eventually. That does raise the question over which side can last longer, which is obviously debatable, but it is not an absolute out for those companies. There are levels are which people are pared to exist if it gets them what they want, and if they want it bad enough. It's a universal truth. If the WGA had been willing to strike for four years instead of four or five months, they could have gotten everything from the AMPTP that they ever wished for. Granted, there might only be a couple of thousand writers left to enjoy those gains, but that doesn't change the equation. It might make it extremely unrealistic and maybe not even worth it, but it does prove the point. If the actors are willing to strike, and remain there for as long as it takes to get what they want -- they probably aren't -- then they'll win by default. Even the most vertically integrated companies can't exist forever without revenue. At some point, be it six months, a year, or even ten years, Viacom, News Corp, and all the other congloms at the top would have to make the decision.

Cave unconditionally, or liquidate the studios and networks and do something else for a living.

As I have already admitted, that scenario is bordering on fiction, but you can't ignore it just because it's unlikely or difficult. Which side you sit on, on the question of who has the ultimate power, defines the debate which decides the outcome. If actors and writers accept in their heart that they have less power than the AMPTP, they'll have written their own failure in stone. If they act like the most powerful party in the talks -- because they are -- that changes the debate fundamentally and may in fact get them most of what they want without having to actually prove the point.

Consider it purely academic if you wish, but I think taking the false and refutable view that the AMPTP is the one with all the power is self destructive both morally and literally. And this at a time when moral is already sorely in demand.

If you disagree with me or Nikki, I welcome your thoughts in the comment section below.
in Film, Labor, Television


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