Now is not the time to strike

Melissa Gilbert was SAG president from 2001 to 2005.

The Screen Actors Guild, under the leadership of President Alan Rosenberg and its board of directors, has asked members to authorize a strike. This is a foolhardy move that endangers not only the union but our entire entertainment industry, the economy of the communities in which we work and our country as a whole.

Now is not the time for a strike.

I say this not just as one of the guild’s 120,000 members, or as one of the millions of Southern Californians who would be affected by a strike. I offer this perspective as a former SAG president who, between 2001 and 2005, oversaw five successful negotiated contracts.

Even if it were advisable, SAG is in no financial position to bear the burden of a work stoppage at this time. The 2005 TV/theatrical negotiations, which took only a few months, cost the guild about $200,000. The cost of the current negotiations, which have dragged on since the spring, must be approaching $1 million. The guild reports that it has about $48 million in reserves, but nearly every penny is already allocated for operating costs. Where are the millions more needed to fund a strike, including the staff overtime and travel expenses that are inevitable?


Just mailing out the ballots Jan. 2 will cost the guild $120,000. A PR campaign and more town hall meetings, like the one tonight in Hollywood, will add to that tab.

To be sure, most SAG members who have read the producers’ contract proposal are not happy with every point of the deal. And true, actors’ needs differ from those of our fellow artists. But it’s also safe to say that there is a deal to be made, just as there was for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

I am not swayed by arguments that, given the current economic conditions, now is a good time to strike. How can any SAG member vote to knowingly put so many people, in our industry and in myriad associated businesses, into further jeopardy during the largest financial crisis since the Depression? Unemployment in California is expected to hover around 9% in 2009, and home values here still haven’t hit bottom. A strike would bring Los Angeles to a grinding halt, and the economic damage would ripple across the county and the state.

On top of that, NBC -- one of the largest buyers of scripted programming -- announced last week that it will put Jay Leno in its 10 p.m. slot five nights a week. This represents a pink slip to numerous craftspeople who would have worked on the one-hour dramas that traditionally have lived in that slot.

Each day brings another reason not to strike. And yet -- strangely -- SAG’s leaders keep insisting that a strike authorization is the only way to show the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) “that we mean business.” Really? Is that really what we think?

On Monday, about 300 guild members in New York rallied in support of a strike, just as 400 did in Los Angeles last week. But many thousands of members, here and across the country, were not cheering. In fact, I hear from many working guild members that not only will they vote against a strike authorization, they will not honor a strike if one is called. The words “financial core” -- a way of declaring oneself covered by any union contract even as you give up voting rights and other membership obligations -- are on more lips. To see this kind of rift in the guild is horrible. But it’s happening.

A growing number of programs -- on network, cable and the Web -- work under AFTRA contracts. It was hardly the time for SAG to distance itself from that sister union. Yet, SAG leaders did just that last spring. They ended our joint-negotiating relationship with AFTRA, which then quickly struck its own deal with the AMPTP. With SAG leaders now saying they’ll “show the AMPTP” by calling a strike, whose contract do you think will get more use going forward on new productions?

SAG’s national board must convene an emergency meeting to officially reconsider and retract the motion to send out strike authorization ballots. It must remove the members of the contract negotiating committee who have been unable to make a deal, starting with chief negotiator Doug Allen. The guild would be in much better hands with SAG senior advisor John McGuire leading the charge. McGuire has been part of more negotiations than anyone on the staff, and just as important, he has a deep understanding of the U.S. labor movement and the broader context for these negotiations.

At the very time our county has chosen a philosophic peacemaker over an impatient warrior, SAG is on the opposite course. Rosenberg lacks the qualities -- thoughtfulness, probity and, frankly, strength -- needed in a union leader at this difficult hour. Now is not the time for a strike. And yet Rosenberg is leading our union to the edge of that cliff. Members need to reflect on the path he is recommending; is it one of negotiation, patience and discipline? A true desire for peace and for the greater good?

I’ve been a member of this guild for more than 30 years, and I have never seen it so torn. Truly, I hope the guild survives this challenging time. I can only think that we will, but we must each be willing to take a hard look at our leadership and, if made to chose, vote no on the strike authorization. We cannot do it. Not now. Not in these times. But if we avoid the disaster of an ill-timed strike, we can, and will, live to fight another day.