Opinion

Ed Asner on SAG's choice

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"If you stand together, you cannot lose. Actors cannot be beaten except by actors. The guild is for you, and you must be for the guild. Stand together."

Eddie Cantor, president, Screen Actors Guild, at the guild's first annual membership meeting, El Capitan Theater, Hollywood, May 13, 1934

The guild is for me, and I am for the guild.

One of the singular privileges of my life is having served as president of my union. No laurels ever bestowed upon me meant as much. I love my union, and it has taken good care of me throughout my acting career.

But I now fear for the future of the Screen Actors Guild and for the acting profession.

Over the years, I've been accused of being crusty, crotchety, curmudgeonly and stubborn. And those were the nicer adjectives. Today, I embrace such descriptions, speaking with both my brain and my backbone.

Our guild has been trying for several months to get a realistic contract signed with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers -- an association representing the eight global conglomerates that control movies and television. Meanwhile, the question "Why not just take the deal?" is being uttered from all corners.

We can't take this deal because it will destroy the ability of actors to earn a living. Not top-earning stars, of course, but the hardworking players whose faces you see in countless television shows and movies. I can't in good conscience stand down and let that happen. Almost all informed actors, including some recent outspoken A-listers, agree that what's being offered is inadequate for SAG members. But many of them still won't vote to authorize a strike. Do they realize how their "go along to get along" attitude will affect their brothers and sisters?

What all of those with weak knees fail to acknowledge is that the business plan for new media is being written right now, and that what we agree to now will become the "template" that the industry will cling to going forward, with no obligation to make charitable revisions. Why does that matter so much? Because right now, you can go to your local Best Buy, purchase a big-screen TV with a direct Internet connection and download television online programming with the touch of a remote. It's happening now.

Actors simply can't afford to be cut out of the emerging revenue stream. The offer in new media is a lot of zeros, unfortunately not lined up in a row. It includes zero minimum compensation, zero overtime, zero residuals structure, zero forced call consideration -- pretty much zero everything. This deal will take billions of dollars out of actors' pockets in the same way our bad deal in home video and DVDs has cost actors $4.5 billion in lost compensation over the last 27 years, according to estimates compiled by the Writers Guild of America.

In addition, the offer on the table guts the contract of its force majeure provision, which has been a protection since the first contract was signed more than 70 years ago. The provision ensures actors get compensated fairly if a production shuts down because of an "act of God." (And by "God" I don't mean the wealthy CEOs who run the media conglomerates or their attorneys at the AMPTP.)

Now that you have the background, let me directly answer the question that is on everyone's minds with eight solid reasons, one for every conglomerate we're collectively disputing:

Why now? Because this really isn't the renegotiation of an old contract but a business plan for an all-new one. Once the plan is organized and instituted, it will be almost impossible to radically change it.

Why now? Because the rollbacks to our contract are immediate. What working person would willingly give away protections they've always had? Or give up an income source (in this case, residuals) they've always relied on to make ends meet?

Why now? Because otherwise we neuter our ability to bargain not just this contract now and in the future, but other contracts as well. Strong shows of union solidarity are what we need desperately in these uncertain times.

Why now? Because the illogical optimism out there about SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists uniting and the economy being better in three years doesn't hold. We have no guarantees of either, although I have high hopes that actors will find a new resolve as we face common threats.

Why now? Because we are tactically in a better position now than if we wait. The moguls will have a lot of explaining to do to their institutional investors if a strike occurs that they easily could have headed off.

Why now? Because if we accept this deal, we knowingly give up future income important to our survival, particularly in the form of residuals, which we'll never get back as television and other media transition to new media.

Why now? Because the worst-case scenario now is not nearly as bad as the worst-case scenario for the future. Would you rather be out of work temporarily or squeezed out of the profession entirely because it no longer pays a living wage?

Why now? Because they want to sow doubt and fear. If we play into it, it will be the seminal moment that marked the dissolution of our union. We will look back with terrible regret for having stood by and done nothing.

When it comes to union negotiations, the only negotiating strategy that makes sense is to get the best deal for your members. Nobody at SAG has called for a strike, just an authorization to be used at our national board's discretion. Nobody at SAG wants a strike. We just want a fair deal for actors and the same opportunity to negotiate as any other guild. We want a deal that doesn't include rollbacks, addresses our specific needs and that allows us to share in the success of new media when that success inevitably arrives.

One of our former guild presidents recently wrote that it's not the right time to strike. She may feel that taking that uncertainty for management off the table is an effective form of negotiating. There are a lot of us who are older and wiser, and who know better.

Fortune has smiled on me, and I have had a good run. The same opportunity may not be there for tomorrow's actor.

I am for the guild, and the guild is for me. Let's stand together.

Ed Asner has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild since 1955 and served as its president from 1981 to 1985.

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