THE BIG PICTURE
By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN December 1, 2008
For years, people in Hollywood have casually dismissed the Screen Actors Guild as the craziest union in creation. Apparently, they weren't exaggerating. As my colleague Richard Verrier has reported, after getting nowhere during months of on-again, off-again talks with the studios, SAG has now opted to pursue a strike authorization vote from its 120,000 members. (The union has been working without a contract since June 30.) If this is meant as some kind of threat designed to drag the studios back to the negotiating table, SAG is even more deluded than anyone believed possible. SAG's goal is pretty obvious. The guild hopes that by getting a strike mandate from its membership -- a strike referendum requires 75% approval from members who cast ballots -- it can use the threat of a disruption of the Academy Awards to force studios to negotiate a better deal. But according to most insiders I have spoken to, no one takes the threat seriously -- they don't believe the strike will happen.
1) As James Carville once famously said: It's the economy, stupid. As it is, most SAG members don't work regularly, at least not at acting. They've got real jobs, whether it's at Starbucks, waiting tables, doing construction, teaching or running small businesses. Whatever the gig, they know -- like the rest of us know -- that the economy is in the toilet. No one wants to risk losing the jobs they have that actually pay the bills. So, fewer people have the pie-in-the-sky attitude that usually fuels SAG strike votes from all those members who aren't working TV or film jobs. Normally they'd say, What have I got to lose by a strike? I'm not working anyway. But too many members are clinging to their side jobs, which has a sobering effect on anyone considering the value of a misguided strike.
2) I was a vocal supporter of the Writers Guild of America strike because I felt it was in the right. The writers weren't asking for the moon, and the studios, having boasted for so long about their profitability, had the money to give. But in the midst of a dire economic crisis, SAG is asking for concessions that no other union got in their negotiations last winter. They have been standing firm in seeking an increase in acting residuals from DVD sales, a demand that the studios will never agree to. It's foolhardy, not to mention unrealistic, to expect that SAG members will join the guild leadership in what is obviously a kamikaze mission.
3) The WGA was united. The actors are divided. On one flank they have AFTRA, a more conservative sister guild that is quietly poised to recruit more actors and gain more clout for future negotiations. On the other flank, they have a contingent, endorsed by such respected, high-profile SAG members as Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and Sally Field, who've made it clear that they want nothing to do with a suicidal strike in the midst of hard times. There are even more stars who haven't issued public declarations for the dissidents who privately support their cause. If necessary, the stars will exercise their clout, blitzing members with reminders of the folly of a showdown with the studios.
4) When the WGA went on strike, there was a true sense of solidarity with other guilds, notably SAG, based on the feeling that the studios had pushed things too far. In early negotiations, it looked as if what the studios really wanted was a rollback in residuals and other guild benefits. The WGA had the high moral ground. SAG today doesn't have similar support. The Writers Guild will surely offer soothing words of solidarity, but the true believers aren't there this time around. SAG will have to go it alone. But timing is everything. And you don't have to read a newspaper or watch TV to know that the timing for a Hollywood actors strike couldn't be worse. The WGA got tons of support from the media, not to mention regular Joes who identified with their cause. But with more people losing their jobs every day, SAG is about to discover that most people will view them as rebels without a cause.