Well, they saw reason.
SAG leaders Alan Rosenberg and Doug Allen made the choice to postpone the authorization vote, and wisely so.
Unfortunately, they seem to be pursuing a strategy of convincing the no voters that they really ought to vote yes.
Ain’t gonna work. The circumstances simply haven’t changed. The deal hasn’t changed, the economy hasn’t changed, and last I checked, AFTRA hadn’t disappeared in a poof of smoke.
For all of my disagreements with Patric Verrone and David Young, I always knew why they were doing things. I often disagreed with their underlying assumptions, but their actions had an internal logic.
I have no idea why Alan and Doug are doing what they’re doing right now. Their behavior and decisions all feel like reactions, and none of it seems to fit into a coherent strategy anymore.
The strange thing is that there’s really only one possible outcome left, so the machinations are taking on a bit of a sad tone.
Regardless of how the next few weeks play out, I do hope that SAG does find a way to heal itself (and AFTRA along with it). The rest of us need SAG to find her practicality and proactivity once again.
Over the course of the last week, things have gone from “difficult” to “dangerous” for the Screen Actors Guild.
Here was the difficult status quo. The WGA went on strike, the DGA made a deal, the WGA took that deal, then AFTRA chose to split off and bargain on its own. SAG failed to reach an agreement with the AMPTP, at which point AFTRA stepped in and took what was basically the DGA/WGA deal.
Months ensued, and despite the presence of window-dressing a federal mediator, SAG still refused to accept the DGA/WGA/AFTRA deal.
SAG’s election cycle brought a weakening of the political influence of Alan Rosenberg’s militant faction, but SAG’s negotiating committee, which had been appointed by a prior Rosenberg-led SAG board, responded by requesting that SAG call a strike authorization vote.
At that point in the story, things went quickly from difficult to dangerous.
In the span of just a few days, an open, sizeable and organized revolt began. It started with letters from individual SAG members like Jason Alexander asking their fellow actors to vote “no” on the authorization vote. Then the New York SAG Board officially came out against the authorization.1 Alan called a compulsory national meeting to address this schism, then apparently realized he couldn’t actually compel that, and so he withdrew that meeting. This was followed by a statement against the authorization by 130 actors, including George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Steve Carell (who supported the WGA very valiantly during our strike), Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz and many others.
Then Alan and SAG E.D. Doug Allen traveled to New York to meet with the actors out there, and they ran into a buzzsaw.
On top of all of that, NBC opted to eliminate an entire block of prime time programming and replace it with Leno, lopping away WGA and SAG jobs in the process. And Fox was rumored to be considering doing more–if not all–of its new television programming under AFTRA contracts.
There are bad weeks, and then there are bad weeks.
This was a terrible week for SAG.
Why is this happening, and what should they do?
Militant voices tend to presume that unity is everything. If something good happens, it’s because the membership was unified and demanded it. If something bad happens, it’s because the membership was fractured. Ergo, membership dissent leads to failure, and membership unity leads to success.
And sometimes that’s true.
Not this time.
The arrow of causality points both ways. When you have a just, compelling and reasonable casus belli, the membership will unite. When you do not, they will fragment.
When the WGA asked its members to authorize a strike, consider what we were being offered. No residuals for New Media. Rollbacks in separated rights. A proposal to move to profit-based residuals. Armageddon, basically. That’s one reason I supported the WGA strike authorization.
SAG doesn’t have a compelling reason to strike right now. Three of the four creative unions have accepted the AMPTP deal. Subsequently, the financial markets melted down and the world economy slid into recession. Add to the mix the reasonable perspective that the AMPTP can’t afford to undermine future negotiations by improving upon deals that they’ve already made with the other unions, and then throw in the precarious and shifting political sands underneath Alan Rosenberg’s feet, and it’s pretty clear where this is going.
There’s also the problem of the authorization vote rhetoric.
Union leaders will tell everyone that voting yes on a strike authorization IS NOT THE SAME AS VOTING TO STRIKE!!! They will put it in caps and repeat that over and over and over. Yes, that is technically true.
Except that’s what the WGA told everyone, and then we struck a few days after the “Yes” vote came in.
No one believes for a second that Alan and Doug won’t fire the missiles if the membership gives them the launch codes.
But even if they do manage to pull off the difficult 75% threshold on their SAV, it won’t matter. Too many very high profile actors have already lined up against this publicly. Melissa Gilbert, a former SAG President, has raised the spectre of a fi-core rebellion. And AFTRA is likely licking its chops at the prospect of pulling more television under its jurisdiction…and thus putting actors to work in the middle of an actors’ strike.
No, the SAG strike is dead. You can smell the rot from here. So what can Alan and Doug do?
First, they need to shift into reverse as quickly as possible. No sense in mailing out those SAV ballots. Call off the vote, let everyone know that they’re being responsible leaders and that they are listening to the diverse voices in their union, then sit down with the AMPTP and take the DGA/WGA/AFTRA deal.
It’s the only deal they’re going to get, strike or no strike, and I think they’re starting to realize that.
Second, they need to claim the recession as a face-saver. Hell, you couldn’t have scripted a better one. They were ready to fight the companies tooth and nail ’til the bitter end, but since the economy collapsed and good working people are already hurting, they’ve decided to postpone that fight until they know that the only blood they’ll draw is corporate blood. That’s reasonable.
Third, they need to assure their militant base that this isn’t the last bite at the apple. And that’s not spin. New Media is mostly vapor. For all the Sturm und Drang, the AMPTP companies aren’t making real money on made-for-internet stuff, and they’re not making real money on streaming either. The deal that the DGA got sets critical precedents for us all, though, and it doubled the DVD rate for EST. That’s the basis from which we can negotiate if the revenue stream becomes clearer. Remember…leading up to the WGA strike, the writers assumed that internet sales was all-important, and internet rentals was of secondary value. Then iTunes came along, and the value of sales and rentals flipped. Point? The future is cloudy. We can attack the companies on principle, or we can attack them on specifics. I’d rather go for specifics, and I think a lot of actors would agree.
Call off the SAV, cite the economy as a face-saver, make the deal, and prepare for the next round.
This one’s pretty much done, and for good reason. It’s not the dissenters that killed it. It’s the facts and circumstances.
Before I get started, here’s a little background for those of you who haven’t been following the exciting serialized story known as “The WGA’s Fight To Organize Reality TV.”
In 2004, Patric Verrone began a crusade to organize the workers of reality television. He was not President at the time, but he was an officer of the WGAw and the chairman of the Organizing Committee. David Young was not the Executive Director at the time, but the head of the Organizing Department.
Here’s how Patric’s theory went.
In order to get a good contract for writers like, say, me, the WGA needed a better strike threat. In order to have an effective strike threat, the WGA needed to take away the wedge of non-union reality television, which would help fill programming hours during a WGA strike. In order to take the wedge of non-union reality television away, the WGA needed to unionize the people who made reality television and bring them in under the WGA MBA. In order to unionize the people who made reality television, the WGA would have to step away from its traditional role of representing people who create “literary material” as defined in our constitution, and start representing people who didn’t…like producer-editors, story producers or, well, just editors. And in order to represent all of those people, the WGA needed to do what it’s never done before and get a “union standards” clause, which would bind the companies to require all of their suppliers to be union shops. And in order to get alllllll of that….the WGA needed to run a corporate campaign which would attack the companies, in order to alternatively shame and pressure them into signing over all of reality to the Guild.
Oh, and somewhere in there, I think we had to start breeding unicorns and farting pixie dust, but I was always sketchy on that part.
In 2005, Patric became President. David Young became Executive Director, and David brought in his old boss from his seamstress union days to be the head of organizing. That man, Jeff Hermanson, was subsequently elevated to the number two position at the Guild, assistant executive director.
Since 2004/2005, here’s what Patric, David and Jeff have accomplished in the effort to organize reality television into the WGA.
Well, let me take that back, because it’s not exactly true. We have accomplished some things.
We convinced the writers of America’s Next Top Model to go on strike. The strike failed, those writers lost their jobs, and ANTM hasn’t employed a single writer since.
We personally antagonized some of the people we have to negotiate with (Les Moonves and Dawn Ostroff come to mind) without actually achieving anything other than ill will as a result.
We launched DOA websites protesting product integration that we were told would “go viral.” Hint: if you design something to go viral, it almost certainly won’t. No exception here.
We hired dozens, if not more, new staff members to help achieve our organizing goals.
We bussed and flew and housed lots of people to San Francisco and Puerto Rico in an effort to stop people from watching American Idol.
We spent millions and millions of dollars, all provided by the dues of working writers.
Last but not least, we actually did strike without having reality under our contract. And even though Verrone had suggested this would make us a toothless dog, we proved that we don’t need reality.
Here’s what we haven’t done.
We haven’t organized a single true reality show1, much less an entire production company or network or industry.
Not one. In four years.
After millions of dollars.
So…what to do? Time to abide by the old Einsteinian saw and cease doing the same thing, expecting a different result?
You see, this reality organizing strategy refuses to die. You can shoot it, stab it, feed it poisoned cakes and throw it into the icy river, but like Rasputin, it just won’t go down.
Unlike Rasputin or the Terminator, it doesn’t try and sway your monarchs or kill Sarah Connor.
It just eats money.
Day after day, week after week, fiscal year after fiscal year…this beast burns through our dues, accomplishing nothing, making no dent…
But you came to find out about the pamphleteer.
A few weeks ago, Jeff Hermanson, along with three other staffers, was arrested at the Hollywood & Highland Mall for handing out fliers protesting American Idol. The charges were likely baloney…trespassing or what have you. But that’s not what caught my eye. What caught my eye was that Hermanson was out there doing this. Still.
Union staff salaries are public record. Jeff Hermanson makes about a hundred and fifty grand, and this is what we have him doing? Standing on corners handing out leaflets? Is that what it’s come to? The number two staffer in our union is doing something that pointless, that ineffective, that useless?
I’m sure the arrest itself was something of a high note, as it might have given the whole affair a patina of old-time labor heroics, but the old-time labor heroes actually got stuff done. We’re not.
Now I’ve taken many pains to suggest that people who actually do the job of writing on these shows are being mistreated. They do deserve the benefits that come with union representation. That’s why we should drop this nonsense of using them as a strike wedge against the companies, and just do the job of organizing them show by show under a separate collective bargaining agreement. By not doing that, we’re holding all of those people hostage to our own misguided strike strategy.
Meanwhile, we’re not only failing reality writers, but we’re failing our own members. It takes TEN MILLION dollars of earned income to generate the dues to cover Mr. Hermanson’s salary each year.
Ten million dollars.
I should think that for the ten million dollars of earned income, we’d be getting someone who is spending his time either revamping a complete failure of a strategy, or creating a new and effective strategy for other areas we sorely need to organize, such as basic cable. But standing on a corner handing out pamphlets to tourists? Because we actually think that’s going to make a dent in American Idol’s ratings? Like zombies, the reality organizers keep stumbling through their old routines, not realizing they’ve been dead for years.
I submit that Jeff Hermanson is passing out fliers to anyone bored enough to reach for one because he really doesn’t know what the hell else to do.
It’s a sign, don’t you think?
As a dues-payer, I really feel like we deserve better.
Reality writers really really deserve better….and fast.
Cleaning out my e-mailbox, I came across a copy of the WGAW’s electronic members’ newsletter, WRITE NOW, from December 3.
In the upper right hand corner was a box, that said:
DID YOU KNOW … that MBA [sic] covers writers on ‘Reality’ television?It went on:
To better understand this point, one must simply be aware of the WGA’s historical jurisdiction along with a few simple definitions within our MBA.Murderlized syntax aside, I was intrigued. Since the reality production process was specifically designed to skirt the Guild’s historical jurisdiction — in no small part, by exploiting definitions within the MBA intended to prevent non-writer employees from encroaching on the compensation and benefits won by writers for writers — I wondered how Guild organizers were going to prove their thesis. So I clicked on the READ MORE link, which took me to a hidden page in the “If You’re a Member” section of the WGAW’s website.
According to the article:
The WGA has always covered the ‘reality’ genre …Really?
Odd, then, that in the last negotiation, even after Guild negotiators had yanked off the table things like increases in DVD residuals and premium cable residuals and eliminating the discount for the CW network and other things that directly affect writers who work under MBA, the Guild nonetheless still had us all picketing in support of a demand to cover reality.
If the WGA has always covered the ‘reality’ genre, I mean.
But, okay, the article’s thesis is, the MBA covers writers in “Reality” television, and the first proof is, the WGA has always covered the “reality” genre. Continue:
… although historically these shows have been called comedy-variety, quiz and audience participation, documentaries, docu-soaps, and competition shows.Huh. I recognize “comedy-variety,” “quiz and audience participation” and “documentary” as areas of employment covered under Appendix A of the MBA.
“Competition” and “docu-soap,” though ..? Those words are sometimes used to describe different types of reality shows, sure — but they are not areas of employment that the Guild has ever covered.
Historically speaking, that is.
The article then goes on to draw a false syllogism. Take a look:
For example, Star Search was covered under the MBA. Thus, it’s disconcerting when reality-producing giants, like FremantleMedia, refuse to admit that there are professional writers on a hit-show like American Idol. Indeed American Idol’s show concept is the same as that of Star Search. The reality is simple: writers existed on Star Search and they exist on American Idol.See what I mean?
And, as far as I understand the terms of the MBA, none of ‘em do.
But, then, that’s why I wanted to read the article. Because it promised it was going to help us Guild members simply understand a few simple definitions in the MBA. So, first up:
Article 1.C.1.a. (1) of the MBA states:Yes, that is the definition of “writer” from the general television definitions of the MBA. Somebody who is employed by a production company to provide services writing literary material as defined in the MBA.
A “Writer” is a person who is engaged by the Company to write literary material as defined herein (including making changes or revisions in literary material), when the Company has the right by contract to direct the performance of personal services in writing or preparing such material or in making revisions, modifications, or changes therein.
But, since the Guild’s reality organizing campaign keeps running smack up against the fact that reality prodcos don’t employ people to provide services writing literary material as defined in the MBA … this doesn’t really prove that the MBA covers writers in reality television.
But, wait, now we come to the “professional writers” portion of our edumacation. This is a key point to the article’s argument, so here’s what the article offers up, in full:
The MBA covers PROFESSIONAL WRITERS defined under Article 1.C.1.b of the MBA, which states:Hey, hold up — that’s not the entire definition — oh, you’re not done? Sorry, go on.
A “professional writer” means any person who has received employment for a total of thirteen (13) weeks as a television, motion picture or radio writers…
Explains the article:
Basically, a professional writer is a writer who is hired for at least 13 weeks of employment to provide literary material as contracted by a Company who has the right to direct the performance of the personal service in writing such material or in making revisions therein.Basically?
Basically that’s how the MBA defines “professional writer”?
Only if “Basically” is being used here to mean:
“Ignoring the language in the contract, the bargaining history of the contract, and the Guild’s history of enforcement of the contract, and presenting only part of the definition out of context while ignoring everything and anything else that does not support the argument –”
– then, sure, “basically,” that’s what a professional writer is.
But that’s not even close to what “professional writer” actually means.
The term “professional writer” in the MBA means — in both the television and theatrical articles — someone from whom a signatory Company acquires or licenses the rights in literary material written on spec, who meets one of a number of criteria that entitles to him (or her or they) to all terms and rights in the MBA as minimum terms in the sale/license agreement.
One of those criteria is, if the Company acquires literary material written on spec from a person who “has received employment for a total of thirteen (13) weeks as a motion picture and/or television writer, or radio writer.”
That means, if a spec writer has at any time in the past been employed for an aggregate of 13 weeks in any of those capacities — whether under Guild jurisdiction or not — then the Company must acquire or license the spec material subject to the MBA.
(The other criteria are: has received credit on the screen as a writer for a television or theatrical motion picture; has received credit for 3 original stories or 1 teleplay for 1-hour or longer live television program; has received credit for 3 radio scripts for 1/2-hour or longer radio programs; has received credit for 1 professionally produced play on the legitimate stage, or 1 published novel).
The most interesting thing about the definition of “professional writer” as that term is used in the MBA?
Anyone who is covered under the MBA as a “professional writer” is, must be, and can never not be, a non-employee for the purposes of the spec literary material being acquired or licensed.
The fact that the material is written outside any employment or work-made-for-hire arrangement is what makes it spec material, and is exactly the reason why the Company must acquire or license the rights in it.
The Guild’s argument that the MBA covers employees in reality television that Guild organizers call writers is founded in a term of the MBA that is wholly inapplicable to any employee of Freemantle, or Mark Burnett, or any other company that produces programs in any “genre,” including reality.
But, there’s a bigger issue here.
This article is posted on the WGAW website, it was linked to from the WGAW members newsletter, and it is targeted at Guild members.
The article intentionally misrepresents the very definition of the work writers are paid for under the MBA … to the membership whose professional interests the Guild is supposed to represent.
This article is intended to misinform the membership about fundamental terms of the contract that has major impact on our professional careers.
This article is endemic of the willful ignorance toward the MBA that has plagued the WGAW for the last few years — a willful ignorance that allowed networks to exhibit entire episodes of tv shows on the internet as “promotional use” without the Companies ever applying for waivers or the Guild billing them for clip fees … that encouraged Guild members to call other Guild members “scabs” and “strikebreakers” for providing services that are not covered under the MBA and, in some cases, specifically and explicitly excluded from MBA jurisdiction … and that ultimately resulted in a contract that …
… well, for now, let’s just say that when WGAW President Patric Verrone called it “the best deal this Guild has bargained for in 30 years,” his use of the word “best” had the same relationship to the actual meaning of the word “best” as the article’s use of the word “basically” has to the meaning of “basically.” More later.
There’s no excuse nor justification for the Guild publishing this article, or doing anything else, that demonstrates such monumental disregard and disrespect for its own collective bargaining agreement.
Because, you know … if we do that, then the studios may get the idea that its okay for them to do it, too.