Saturday, March 14, 2009

When Leverage Erodes

Talk to any veteran animator in the business today, and they'll tell you (if they're willing to talk at all) that they aren't making near the money they earned thirteen or fourteen years ago. As markets and competition drove paychecks up then, so are the same forces are pushing wages down now.

And so it is with labor unions.

Case in point, the Screen Actors Guild. A few days back the Nikkster bemoaned the spinelessness of SAG's new, moderate regime. To wit:

[T]he newly installed SAG leadership has zero interest in bettering the lousy terms of the AMPTP's "Last, Best And Final" TV/Theatrical contract offer made to the Guild on February 18th. Not the New Media terms. Not the issues of residuals or jurisdictions. Not anything except the expiration date of the contract.

[M]y own insiders and even the LA Times' sources say the new SAG leaders are only bargaining the issue of the contract's expiration date ... So the sole dispute between the Hollywood CEOs and the SAG National Majority right now is about whether the pact runs only 2 years or 3, and only that because it could prevent a SAG/AFTRA merger.

So tell me, SAG members: is that the only dispute between you and the Hollywood CEOs worth talking about now? ...

Nikki, you see, is agitated that the new SAG leadership doesn't get out there and improve the crappy New Media/residual terms to which the other guilds and unions -- most particulalry the horrid AFTRA -- have already agreed.

She's got no skin in the game, but hey. She's outraged. And she'll urge the players on from the quiet safety of her internet perch until the last picket sign falls.

But here's a good part of the reason SAG isn't more militant and aggressive with New Media ... and everything else save the contract expiration date ... in the way Nikki Finke would like:

The looming possibility of a SAG strike and the lure of the less-expensive and more-flexible digital production has accelerated the transition from film to digital. The union affiliation for a pilot and the subsequent series is determined by the method of filming: film for SAG and digital for AFTRA. That is firmed up after directors are hired, and with all pilot helmers in place, the final union pilot tally is coming together.

Sixty-six of 70 pilots this season will be AFTRA-affiliated, up from a handful last pilot season ...

See, there's this other union representing actors that has a three-year deal ... with the crappy New Media and residuals language that Nikki and a lot of SAG members hate. (And maybe it is crappy, who knows?)

But the problem is, crappy or not, the AFTRA deal is a ratified reality, and in place for years to come. And every studio in town has the option of signing onto it, whether SAG likes it or not.

And now it comes out that many studios are, at the ratio of eight or nine to one.

So SAG can rend its garments, dump ashes on it head, and weep and wail all it wants. But it gave AFTRA the finger when the smaller union attempted to merge with its militant sister a half dozen years ago, and now SAG is paying the price.

Because if you don't control the workforce, you lose leverage. And without leverage, you lose. Just ask the animators who were making four thousand dollars a week in 1995.

Add On: I notice, now that I've put this up, that Craig Mazin at Artful Writer has posted on the same topic from a slightly different angle. And his angle is well worth reading.


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