Here is an e-mail I got from SAG that addresses many of the questions that members might ask about why we should authorize a strike right now. It is especially persuasive when discussing the raw deals actors got back in the 80s about 'home video' and 'cable TV' when those mediums were new and experimental (a la "new media"/internet right now) Those deals were never renegotiated even though now DVD sales is HUGE for the big studios, and more than a quarter of all television ad dollars are spent on basic cable shows. So, to think that years down the road, the media moguls will be willing to give more in regards to New Media seems pretty absurd.
I don't agree with everything they say, but some very valid points are made. Anyway, here are the Q's and A's:
Why should we vote to authorize a strike?
We need to show management that we are willing to fight to preserve our ability to earn a living as union performers; otherwise, management will take that away from us. Nearly half of our earnings as union performers come from residuals, but management wants us to allow them to make programs for the Internet and other new media non-union and with no residuals. This means that as audiences shift from watching us on their televisions to watching us on their computers and cell phones our ability to earn a living will go away and future generations of actors may never be able to earn a living through their craft. This change will happen faster than you think.
To add insult to injury, management also insists that we eliminate force majeure protections from our contract. These protections have existed since the first SAG contract in 1937 and protect you when production stops as the result of an “act of God” like a natural disaster or a strike by another union, such as the WGA strike earlier this year. This is an enormous rollback that will leave actors without one of the most basic protections of a union contract.
What is the effect of voting “yes” to authorize a strike?
Voting “yes” does not mean that there will automatically be a strike. A strike authorization is a tool that gives us more leverage in negotiations and we intend to use it to try to get a fair deal. If we receive “yes” votes from at least 75% of the members who vote on this referendum, the National Board will have the ability to call a strike, but it must vote to do that, and that won’t happen before we attempt further negotiations to reach a deal with management.
Why does management believe we should endorse non-union, residual-free work in New Media?
Management claims this bad deal is necessary because they need to “experiment” with new media and they claim they will renegotiate these terms with us in the future. We have already agreed to most of management’s new media terms, however, and have proposed, in the areas where we still disagree, extremely flexible terms for new media based on our successful low budget theatrical contracts and our nearly 800 made-for-new media contracts with independent producers. Our terms will allow management the latitude to experiment using union actors.
And how can we believe that management will ever improve these new media terms when they still won’t improve the home video residual formula after 22 years? Right now all the actors on a given cast share 1% of the revenue generated through DVD sales because of a formula we agreed to in 1986 when management needed to “experiment” with home video. In this negotiation, we have asked only that management at least make pension and health contributions on DVD residuals, rather than making us pay them ourselves out of our paltry 1%. They have refused even that! The basic cable residual formula was also negotiated early in the history of that medium to reflect the then “experimental” status of basic cable programming and pays only a small fraction of network television residuals. It is now over 20 years later, 27% of all television ad dollars are now spent on basic cable, and the basic cable formula still pays only a small fraction of network television residuals.
Management simply does not have a history of ever ending their “experiments” and paying us fairly. The reality is that management is opportunistic and they believe they can force these concessions on us because they believe we are weak and divided. We need your vote to prove them wrong.
Don’t all these terms just go away at the end of 3 years anyway because management has agreed to a “sunset clause”?
All the “sunset clause” means is that if management wants to maintain in future negotiations the bad new media deal they want to force on us now, they must write those terms down on a piece of paper and give it to us as a proposal. Do you really believe that this will provide us with any protection in a future negotiation if management decides that they like making non-union, residual-free programs in new media? The fact is that once management establishes a business model that relies upon non-union, residual-free production, it will be even harder to change their minds. Just look at how hard they continue to fight to avoid improving the home video formula, well after DVD’s have become their richest source of revenue.
Haven’t the other Hollywood unions accepted this deal already? Why do we need a better deal?
We are not looking for a “better” deal. We are looking for a deal that is different and that recognizes the unique needs of actors. No other union represents the actors who appear in motion pictures or the actors who account for over 95% of the earnings in primetime network television. While management likes to pretend, when it suits them, that “pattern bargaining” is somehow obligatory for unions in this industry, the fact is that we have a legal right to negotiate our own contract. And for good reason—the “pattern,” in many cases, affects us differently: The impact of sanctioning non-union made-for-new media programs is different for us.
Many performers must rely on the collective bargaining power of the union to obtain fair terms of employment. Unlike the writer or director, a day performer or background actor may not have the leverage to negotiate fair terms for themselves. Performers, especially stunt performers, also have health and safety issues on the set that aren’t shared by writers or directors and they rely on the union to look out for them. And unlike writers or directors, our union faces a significant threat from non-union performers who want to provide producers with an alternative workforce they can use to make their product without having to comply with union terms and conditions. Allowing our employers to make non-union new media productions will allow these non-union actors to gain credits and experience, which will make non-union production easier and more attractive and thereby reduce the opportunities for union actors like us to get work. Allowing residuals-free new media production also impacts performers differently.
Unlike writers and directors, most performers don’t earn enough in initial compensation to live on. Instead, we rely on residuals to get us through the lean times. As production inevitably shifts from traditional media to new media, the lack of residuals in new media will eventually choke off that vital source of income that enables us to stay in the profession even when we aren’t working so that we can audition, hone our craft and remain available for new roles. In such a world, many of us will be reduced to amateurs working day jobs to support our acting habit. There are already lots of differences between management’s new media proposal to us and their deals with the DGA and WGA. For example, management has agreed to set minimum payments for writers of made-for-new media programs, but refuses to do so for actors.
Why doesn’t the pattern apply to this critical issue? There are other differences. The minimum residual for a TV show rerun on the Internet for six months is over $600 for a director or a writer, but only $22.77 for an actor who works as a day player. On the other hand, use of clips of an actor’s work on the Internet requires consent by the actor, but a director’s or writer’s work can be used as a clip on the Internet without their consent. Is that better, worse or just different? Management talks about their new media template like it is exactly the same for each union and can’t be changed. In fact, management has proposed varying new media provisions to different unions when it suited them, but they have refused when we have proposed reasonable and modest changes, like making sure all made-for-new media productions are done union and pay residuals.
Are we sure that we have exhausted every opportunity to make a deal before asking for this authorization?
We shouldn’t have to exhaust every opportunity to make a deal before asking for a strike authorization. Most successful unions ask for a strike authorization early on, sometimes before they even start bargaining, because management is more likely to take the union seriously if they know the members are willing to fight. We didn’t do that this time because the WGA strike had just ended, but our union needs to get back to the routine practice of approving a strike authorization well before we get to the expiration of the current contract. Actors elected by the membership to the SAG National Board decide by a vote if and when a strike should be called.
As it happens, we have absolutely exhausted every possible opportunity to make a deal before asking for this authorization. We spent 42 days between April and July in hard bargaining with the AMPTP. In the months that followed, we bargained informally, met with CEO’s and educated our membership about the issues. Finally, we asked for a federal mediator to intervene. After nearly a month, management agreed to return to the bargaining table for a marathon mediation session that ran late into the night on two consecutive days until the mediator finally declared that it was pointless to continue. After all of that, management’s positions on the fundamental issues at stake in this negotiation are the same as they were on the first day of bargaining. On the other hand, we have pared down our demands, made painful concessions and offered compromise after compromise, all to no avail. It is crystal clear that without the support of our membership for this authorization, we will have no choice to but swallow whatever management sees fit to give us lock, stock and barrel.
Is a strike really feasible considering how bad the economy is right now?
The bad economy hurts management just as much as it hurts us. As uncertain and anxious as our employers are about the future of their businesses and of their own jobs, the prospect of a SAG membership willing to go to the mat and fight them is the last thing they want. Yes, the bad economy means that it will require more of a sacrifice from some of our members if in fact a strike becomes necessary, but remember that this union was founded and obtained its first contract during the depths of the Great Depression. Hard times do not mean that we stop demanding fair treatment from management.
What can I do to help?
Vote “yes” on the strike authorization referendum. It’s our best hope of obtaining a fair contract. Talk to your fellow SAG members wherever you can find them and convince them to vote “yes” too. Read your email and visit the SAG website to stay informed and learn about town hall meetings and other events in your area and make sure you attend. Better yet, bring another member with you. If you can’t attend, or prefer to express yourself in writing, email your thoughts and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We read every email that comes in.