Actors don’t plan to take directors’ cue
When Alan Rosenberg was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2005, he vowed to take a hard line against the Hollywood studios. After years of moderation and pragmatism, Rosenberg argued, the union needed a more aggressive leadership to square off against the corporate behemoths that could undercut actors in the new era of digital entertainment.
Now, with movie and TV directors agreeing on a contract with the studios this month and striking writers nearing an accord of their own, the actor who frequently has played a lawyer on TV faces a different challenge: making good on his campaign promise to win advances for his 120,000 members despite being third up at the negotiating table, at a time when the economy is heading south and Hollywood is suffering from strike fatigue.
What’s more, SAG is in a turf war with its sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The two organizations have jointly negotiated contracts for decades. But long-simmering tensions now threaten to trigger a divorce between the labor groups, allowing the studios to pit one against the other.
Even so, Rosenberg is hanging tough, and SAG officials, underscoring their resolve, are disparaging the directors contract and hinting that the writers could come up short too.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I have some real concerns,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “We’ve seen things pretty much the same way as the writers and we have a very happy relationship. But if they make a deal that is unsatisfactory to us, we’re not going to go along with it without fighting.”
SAG leaders vow to push not only for increases in residuals from new media but also for a larger cut of revenue from DVDs -- one of the issues that nearly sparked a strike in 2001. As Hollywood’s largest and most powerful union, SAG wields enormous leverage because it can instantly shut down all production.
Saber rattling is typical preceding labor negotiations. But it comes for SAG at a precipitous juncture. Writers Guild of America officials have begun their second week of informal talks with the studios in an effort to reach a new contract that would end the 3-month-old strike. The parties are making headway, though key differences remain.
SAG isn’t sitting in the wings. On Tuesday, the union sent an e-mail to members expressing deep reservations with the directors’ new contract. The move suggests that SAG leaders fear that their future negotiations could be undercut by the writers because of “pattern bargaining,” in which the first union to reach a contract sets the standard.
However, SAG’s executive director and chief negotiator, Doug Allen, dismissed the idea.
“People assume these are cookie-cutter agreements,” Allen said. “But . . . this is not something that’s going be imposed by anybody.”
SAG’s leaders could have strong support from the rank and file, most of whom don’t work regularly and could be more inclined to support a walkout. Like the writers, many actors see the talks as historic.
“There’s this whole new invention called the Internet, and we need to fight for the little bit of residuals we can get for that,” said movie and TV actor Michael Hitchcock, who plays the announcer on “Mad TV.”
Actors have struck eight times in the union’s 75-year history, with the last film and TV walkout occurring in 1980. If SAG decides to strike this year, however, it would face a big hurdle in selling the idea. Many actors and production workers have been furloughed for months and have little appetite for another war.
“The strike has been devastating for so many,” said Nicollette Sheridan, who plays the scheming real estate agent on “Desperate Housewives.” “I don’t know that the economy could stand two back-to-back strikes.”
The guild will begin meetings with members this week to prepare for negotiations on a contract to replace one that expires June 30.
Rosenberg and his supporters swept control of their union more than two years ago, vowing to take a tougher stand in negotiations and improve pay for middle-class actors.
“I’m not a hard-line guy,” Rosenberg said. “But I do believe that every single negotiation since I became a professional actor has been about rollbacks.”
Rosenberg’s election saw the return to power of the same faction that had led the union during the 2000 strike by actors who work in commercials. He and the new board ousted former Executive Director Greg Hessinger, considered a moderate, and replaced him with Allen, a former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills and assistant executive director of the NFL Players Assn.
Allen, in fact, had been a candidate to be executive director for the Writers Guild of America, West, which hired another Hollywood outsider, former garment workers organizer David Young. But Patric M. Verrone, president of the WGA West, was impressed enough with Allen to recommend him to Rosenberg for the job of running SAG more than a year ago.
Verrone and Rosenberg had forged fast ties. They visited sets, shared bargaining strategies and walked picket lines together. This week actors and writers staged a rally at Fox studios attended by more than 500 people.
SAG is a “powerful institution in this town,” said the WGA’s Young. “Their support has kept writers from being isolated during this struggle.”
Last week Rosenberg and Allen invited Verrone and Young to a private dinner at an Italian restaurant on Melrose Avenue. Allen counseled Young and Verrone not to be intimidated by top TV writer-producers, known as show runners, who’ve threatened to go back to work if they fail to get a deal.
Allen compared the writers’ situation to his own experience at the NFL. He likened the team owners to the studios, noting how they would pressure the quarterbacks to return to work during a strike. Allen’s advice: Pay more heed to the linebackers -- the equivalent of rank-and-file writers.
Though some top writers have praised the Directors Guild of America contract, Rosenberg and Allen contend that it falls short because it excludes from union coverage low-budget content created for the Internet and offers meager residuals from shows sold or streamed online.
Actors, who rely heavily on residuals to carry them in the lean stretches between jobs, have complained that under the directors contract, a guest star on a one-hour network show would receive less than $100 when the show is rerun on the Internet, versus $3,300 for a network rerun.
SAG is especially unhappy that writers dropped their demand to increase residuals from DVD sales. Actors and writers have complained for years about their inability to improve a pay rate negotiated two decades ago, before home video sales boomed.
SAG could face competition from AFTRA, which has signaled that it is prepared to negotiate on its own. For 27 years the two unions have jointly negotiated their film and prime-time TV contracts, despite an often fractious alliance. SAG’s board recently asked members to reject the long-standing agreement between the two unions that gives them equal votes at the bargaining table. SAG has long complained that it must give up 50% of the votes even though it accounts for the lion’s share of actors’ earnings. SAG wants its votes to be proportional to the union’s economic clout.
Furthermore, SAG has complained that AFTRA has been offering cheaper contracts to producers in basic cable television that undercut SAG’s own deals.
“I believe they would rather compete than coexist,” Rosenberg said. AFTRA National President Roberta Reardon blasted SAG’s actions as a violation of their joint agreement and said AFTRA’s cable deals were in line with those of other unions. AFTRA represents 70,000 members, 44,000 of whom also belong to SAG.
“We are two separate institutions and we are not going to be a silent partner . . . relegated to the back bench,” Reardon said. “It surprises me that this is the time the Screen Actors Guild has decided to wage a war with us.”
The dispute has also reignited tensions between SAG’s Hollywood and New York branches. The latter is more aligned with the moderates in AFTRA.
“The timing of this couldn’t be worse,” said SAG New York branch President Sam Freed. “The studios will be able to play one union off the other.”
Times staff writer Andrea Chang contributed to this report.
Begin text of infobox
Screen Actors Guild at a glance
President: Alan Rosenberg
Executive director: Doug Allen
Secretary-treasurer: Connie Stevens
Membership: 120,000; 102,000 active paid
Headquarters: Los Angeles
Divisions: Hollywood, New York and 20 branches
Union affiliate: AFL-CIO
Jurisdiction: Covers working conditions, compensation and benefits for performers in film, TV, industrial videos, commercials, video games, music videos and other media.
How to qualify: Be in a principal or speaking role in a SAG film, video, television program or commercial. Also eligible are background actors who worked at least three workdays and paid-up members of an affiliated performers union.
Leadership: Rosenberg, an actor whose credits include “The Guardian” and “L.A. Law,” is in his second term as president. Allen is a former pro football player who also worked for the NFL players union. Stevens appeared in “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and many other shows.
Source: Times research