In case you were not aware, actors have been working without a contract for several months now, hoping that the producers and studios would suddenly have a change of heart and negotiate in good faith. That, apparently, is not going to happen and it has become clear that their objective is to break the union. Now the AMPTP has now added a new provision, which would require that any contract run for three years instead of two. This isn’t to make these disagreements less frequent. It is to disconnect SAG from the other unions, so that their contracts do not all come up for renewal at the same time. The 3-year requirement would eliminate the likelihood that the guilds could work together in any future contract negotiations with the studios and producers.
The Screen Actors Guild is not a union populated by spoiled rich actors who just want to make more money. In fact, more than 95% of SAG’s membership earns more than half its income from residuals, or money earned from repeat showings of programs. These are hard-working, talented people, many of whom you might or might not recognize. The dues paid by these members, which constitute the middle class of the union, are what keeps the Screen Actors Guild alive and able to provide crucial medical benefits and other services to the people working in this profession.
The single issue that prevents an agreement between SAG and producers has been payment of residuals for so-called “new media”. This, of course, refers to the internet, where many shows are already being made available by producers. Under the existing contract, actors are paid pennies for virtually unlimited runs of the shows in which they appear. Within the next five years, it has been projected that all re-runs will be relegated to new media and that the residuals working actors have earned for decades will, for all intents and purposes, disappear. With fewer actors able to pay their sizable union dues, the health of the union will steadily deterioriate and SAG will probably disappear entirely.
There are a few high profile members of SAG who have pushed for a softer touch in negotiations with producers. They are the ones who lobbied for the removal of Doug Allen, who had a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. These actors are not part of the union’s middle class. They are wealthy actor/producers who could not care less about residuals and health care costs or lowly working actors who are lucky to get two or three acting jobs per year. These highly recognizable stars talk about how this would be a bad time to strike because of the economic crisis, even though they live in $20 million gated estates or Italian villas. What they don’t tell you is that now would probably be the best time to strike.
The fact is, no time is a good time to go on strike. People have families to feed and clothe. However, when times are tough, it is much more likely that state and local governments would intervene in a major work stoppage and compel the producers to negotiate in good faith. On top of that, public sentiment would obviously shift in favor of the working actors. When times are good, studios have money to burn and can afford to bide their time and try to outlast the union. That is less likely during a severe economic downturn like the one we’re now experiencing.
I have been stunned by the lemming-like march of some SAG members toward the abyss of a weakened contract with producers and studios. If the union doesn’t come to its senses and get its priorities straight soon, the middle class of actors we’ve all enjoyed watching will be soon replaced by a pool of mediocre, unrecognizable talent that has chosen acting merely as a hobby. With the AMPTP’s current attempt to disconnect the guilds from each other by spacing out their contract renewals, it is clear that their agenda is to gut the unions’ power. Once that has been done, any past agreements which favored actors will be back on the table.