SAG Factions Louder Than Ever

As the June 9 vote approaches, factions are getting more vocal with their ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ opinions.

Last Updated: June 8, 2009 @ 11:20 PM

One of Hollywood’s most engrossing soap operas will either end with a bang or a cliffhanger.

The nine-month battle within the Screen Actors Guild over its expired TV and film contract has brought us all of the ingredients for good drama: celebrities, lawsuits, a political coup, millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs hanging in the balance.

The battle will be over when SAG members vote on June 9 whether to ratify or refuse their latest contract with the AMPTP. The decision rests in the hands of 110,000 guild members who received ballots May 19. 

Although SAG and AFTRA members overwhelmingly approved a new contract covering commercials on May 22, the political and emotional battle over the TV/theatrical pact is boiling over.

At a SAG town-hall meeting in L.A. on May 21, Ed Asner, former guild president and a member of the national board’s minority faction known as Membership First, reportedly likened the contract’s effect on SAG members to “taking the Jews out and shooting them.”

SAG president Alan Rosenberg, whose 2005 election was backed by Membership First, has loudly denounced the contract. He recently told the L.A. Times that the contract’s provisions “are just going to kill actors.”

And the moderates who took control of SAG’s national board this fall under the name Unite For Strength are just plain weary of the fighting that has been raging inside the guild since the 2000 commercials strike.

“All I want to do is get this damn contract passed,” Sam Freed, SAG’s 2nd vice president and president of the New York board, told TheWrap. “It’s not the infighting that’s prevented us from having a contract. The demise started when [former SAG national executive director] Doug Allen’s first move was to go against AFTRA. It was their acts alone that created the situation we’re in. Finally, we got political rule and we’ve moved on.”

Membership First and the guild, which promotes the moderate majority’s point of view, are now waging campaigns to persuade the members’ votes. The union has the funds and resources to reach out to its eligible voting members mulling over their ballots. Their site boasts a “statement of support” signed by 500 actors, including high-wattage names like Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Sally Field, Alec Baldwin and Rob Lowe.

Membership First has taken a more grassroots approach by staging daily protests, sending mass emails and writing blogs.

Both sides are circulating online videos featuring A-list and working actors touting their party’s line. Ironically, viral videos have become the chief weapon in a war over pay and residuals for content on the Internet. 

In SAG’s corner, Hanks, Kate Walsh, Bruce Davison, J.K. Simmons, Corbin Bernsen, and dozens of rank-and-file Hollywood actors have appeared in “vote yes” videos. Their consensus is that the contract isn’t perfect, but as Hanks points out, “no contract ever is.”

But the two-year contract’s three percent wage increase and .5 percent increase in pension and health contributions will help assuage some financial burdens brought on by the ruined economy and runaway production.

As for new-media, the moderates contend the contract’s residuals give the guild a toehold in the medium that will be entertainment’s future, but studios are still making their big money on TV and in films.

For example, Hulu’s 2008 gross revenue in the U.S. was $70 million, which is only $4 million more than “The Dark Knight” made on its opening day and roughly equal to the cost of 23 Super Bowl commercials.

Freed said the new-media residuals are approximately the same as the residuals SAG actors receive for DVDs. 

In Membership First’s videos, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Rob Schneider, Elliott Gould, Charles Shaughnessy, Nichelle Nichols, Nancy Sinatra and others calling the contract “an attempt to destroy the union,” “the worst contract in 50 years” and a “death sentence.”

Rosenberg has not appeared in any of the videos, and Anne-Marie Johnson, Membership First’s spokesperson and SAG 1st vice president, is also noticeably absent. Contractual obligations might prevent Rosenberg from appearing in the videos, and Johnson might be focusing on her run for a seat on AFTRA’s board. 

The radicals argue that the contract endorses non-union work because it does not cover all made-for-Internet content, but only those that employ union workers and/or are budgeted over $15,000 per minute or $300,000 total.

They also argue that movies and shows made before 1974 will not receive residuals for Internet streaming and includes no provisions for product placement. They also caution that the guild will be stuck with this contract’s new residuals for a long time. The guild has yet to improve the paltry DVD residuals that were first contracted in the 1980s.

If SAG members vote down the contract, the guild’s leaders will be forced to ask the AMPTP to re-negotiate their “last, best and final offer.” If the studios refuse, SAG’s board would likely seek strike authorization from its members and possibly walk out.

But does Membership First have a chance of defeating the contract given the economic crisis and nationwide drought of film productions? 

Stephen Diamond, an associate professor of labor law at the Santa Clara University School of Law and a former candidate to be SAG’s executive director, said actors will most likely approve the contract.

“There is little doubt that the momentum is strongly in favor of ratification,” Diamond wrote on his blog, King Harvest. “If the membership votes ‘no,’ then they are back to square one: no contract, no strategy and a leadership that wanted to cut a deal … If they vote ‘yes,’ they get, finally, the modest gains made by the WGA and AFTRA in their deals including the first unionized presence in new media content.”

“There’s a chance it won’t, but I think ratification is going to happen,” Jonathan Handel, entertainment attorney and digital-media blogger, told TheWrap. “Membership First will drive the ratification percentage down into the 60s. They make some good points about gaps in coverage.”

“But negotiations are about getting the best contract achievable, not the best imaginable,” Handel added.

To read the complete TV/Theatrical contract – including Membership First’s minority report — click here.