Monday, December 01, 2008

Ask the Biz Rep

Since I'm on this union negotiation thing, how about a longer answer to the age old question ...

Q: So why are SAG and the WGA so much more militant than the DGA and the IATSE?

It comes down to, I think, the history and make-up of the different Hollywood labor groups.

Like for instance, it's sometimes noted how SAG and the WGA negotiate closer to contract expiration dates, and often go out on strike. At the same time, people are aware how the Directors Guild and the IATSE hit the bricks about as often as elephants fly. The IA pulls lots of organizing strikes (I've participated in some of them) but no job actions over the Basic Agreement. And in the last fifty years, the Directors Guild has struck once.

For fifteen minutes.

Striking over contract issues is not part of the DGA's and IATSE's institutional memories ... or mindsets. Another reason they go the early negotiation route is the composition of each union's membership. If you're an active, dues-paying, voting member of DGA or IATSE, the odds are high you are working, or soon-to-work. Or you've just finished a job. Your livelihood and principal sources of income is derived from the entertainment industry.

But if you're a member of SAG, the odds are ninety to one that you make most of your living expenses someplace else. You might be an executive, a schoolteacher, or a real estate agent. You could be retired military. Whatever it is, if the Screen Actors Guild goes out tomorrow, you know that you're good for the rent and grocery bills, because -- while the residual checks are nice -- your financial backside is covered by your other gig, even with a lengthy job action. Which makes it much easier to hold out for Truth, Justice and the Best Deal Possible.

With the Writers Guild, the motivations are more mixed. Writers know that, like professional athletes, their careers in the Screen Trade are likely to be short. And as a former WGAw lawyer told me sometime back:

"Most of the writers I've known are frustrated and think they're getting screwed. This tends to make them unhappy."

Now, that's not my particular experience, but I've certainly brushed up against writers who fit the lawyer's profile. Me, I think the militancy comes from a knowledge that their professional life spans are apt to be short so fight for the best agreement possible; also an awareness that job actions have been part of the Writers Guild's DNA for like ever, and they're willing to contribute their layer of nucleic acids to the mix.

Added to which, writers are unemployed here and there.

Anyway, those are my pet theories about why half the Hollywood unions are more pugilistic than the other half.

Which style works best? It's hard to make a complete judgement until you see the outcomes from each. And even then people will debate the final resultts.


Anonymous said...


The common argument made by SAG and the WGA is that the new media residuals they are fighting for is for us also.

They point to the pattern-bargaining agreement that says whatever new agreements are made by one union and the employers are subject to add onto other unions like ours.

It's a convenient argument but I'd like to ask about residuals and new media. I know us in the IATSE get residuals that pay almost 55% of our pension and health benefits. But if audiences trends move to purchasing our movies on itunes, wouldn't that increase the burden for us to pay higher dues to make up for less residuals?

Steve Hulett said...

Union dues are separate and apart from Pension and Health coverage. They pay the costs of IA unions, not health and pension.

Pension and Health benefits through the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan are now paid from three sources:

1) Employer contributions ($230-$265/wk, atop wages; these are hourly contributions based on a 40-hour week).

2) Invested income in Plan Assets (Down 15% in 2008).

3) Residuals (Post '60s and Supplemental markets -- the IA's residuals are somewhat different than SAG, DGA, and WGA.)

The problem for the health plan right now is shrinking assets and ballooning hospital-physician costs. The recently concluded IATSE-AMPTP negotiations were largely focused on addressing the health plan's deficit.

The New Media piece of the talks followed the formulas of AFTRA, WGA and DGA.

Hope this helps to clarify things.

Anonymous said...

I think the answer is obvious. Writers and actors strike because they can. It's the "L" word you keep bringing up, Steve; leverage. Acting and writing are the the two jobs that can neither be outsourced nor automated. That makes striking a viable tactic for those groups, sometimes to the detriment of the other professional categories. Is Film Roman contemplating eliminating Simpsons lay-out artists for the first time in 20 seasons to help pay for the voice actor's substantial raises? To quote a certain smart-aleck bunny; "Hmmmmmmm, could be."

Anonymous said...

"Most of the writers I've known are frustrated and think they're getting screwed. This tends to make them unhappy."

There is much more to this than just a feeling of being screwed. I don't know a single person working in Hollywood, or working for any other major corporation for that matter, who doesn't feel/know that they are getting screwed as an employee.

With writers in particular, but actors as well, there exists an elevated perception of ones contribution to a project. Writers come to the table believing that their contribution is of significantly more value to a production than other artistic contributions down the production line, and view compensation as a payoff for their turning over authorship and copyright of their ideas to the producers, even despite their explicit designation as work-for-hire just like every other swinging d*** in the trenches. Now we can talk an eternity about what exactly an original idea is, but what I know personally about them is everyone has them and everyone would have a billion dollars if they only know how to BLANK (insert particular craft here.)

Part of these expectations about compensation stem from the endlessly disputed concept of authorship, part from simply being closer to the front of the train and having day-to-day exposure with studio producers who do get compensated enormously for their own contributions, corporate and creative alike. They resent suits who pull in massive bonuses for handing down notes from on high on the work writers do, then get promoted to the land of media moguls and corporate jets, despite whether a project succeeds or fails.

The truth is that execution is as or more creative as the origination of ideas. Unfortunately, studios own both outright from DAY ONE and turn the screws on both aspects just as hard to get what they want. In fact, the most original work is that which is created and executed all at the same time by the same person. That's why we all give people like George Carlin credit for his work - he's indisputably putting his own reputation in front of audiences, and writing it while he's doing it to boot. That's true accountability.

Hired actors perceive their work as elevated as well, and if they are lucky enough to land themselves in a spot in the limelight or partial limelight of a production, they know (or more accurately their agents and managers know) that they have the leverage to bleed more from management to improve their lot, something no other creative person on a production has the opportunity to do. Simply, like Bob Hope, they are the ones that, at the end of the day, get to stand up in front of the audience as a symbol of the production. They are the messenger and they know it. They are like the 50 or so San Pedro dockworkers. They can shut it down because they can, not because they really contribute that much. In fact, quite the opposite is true. (This is the sad, ugly, and repulsive side of labor that no one wants to talk about, the philosophical paradox that the Verrones and Rosenbergs put out of their minds to sleep at night.) For TAG's sake and the rest of the BTL'ers in this town, I would bet that Tom Hanks doesn't liken himself to a dockworker. That's the only thing that helps me sleep at night.

The people who complain that they did not get credit and compensation for something they wrote in LA are the same ones that take it gladly for something they did not.

Anonymous said...

'Acting and writing are the the two jobs that can neither be outsourced nor automated.'

Except in animation. Why else do they like it so much? When they make a deal with Brangelina to do his/her pet project, they package his/her paycheck with animation as one of a three course meal. Cut her voice as family fare, send him/her on an all-expense paid junket to wax about how his/her twelve kids really wanted him/her to voice a kitty cat, and hire artists and community college Maya folks to make the puppet move. It's cheaper than directing and shooting Brangelina straight up, and the back end payoffs are impossible to beat. They leverage these knucklehead A-listers like Bear Stearns mortgage-backed securities.

Uh oh. What happened to Bear Stearns anyway?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the point was too simple. I was referring specifically to the opportunity to use or threaten striking as a negotiation tactic. The producers are implying that the union locals that negotiated their contracts somehow consist of members with finer character traits than actors and writers. My point was that writers and actors can strike because their skills are harder to replace, outsource or automate. There is no cheaper substitute third world "Brangelina" who can take her place. If you want to sell the tickets using her name, you need the real thing. Below-the-line set workers have seen their jobs migrate to Vancouver. If the animators strike, it just means that the employment rate goes up in places like India and Viet Nam. I hope our new president has a solution for this problem. I personally don't have any rebuild-the-infrastructure skills.

Steve Hulett said...

Writers and actors strike because they can. It's the "L" word you keep bringing up, Steve; leverage.

Funny you mention the "L" word, Stevenem, because I'm thinking that SAG pissed a lot of their leverage away when they refused to merge with AFTRA.

Because the Screen Actors Guild now faces a rival union of thespians that can disembowel SAG without breathing hard.

And, with the help of the entertainment conglomerates, will.

SAG's ultimate idiocy isn't the war it's waging now. It's the marriage it refused to consumate a half dozen years ago.

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