Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better

After lengthy negotiations, Hollywood’s two biggest actors unions have agreed to a merger. The parties reached a tentative pact on Monday, January 16, after being holed up for nine days at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. A vote by SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members is expected as early as April, and if 60-percent of each union agrees, they will become known as SAG-AFTRA.

Although the merger is expected to be ratified (more the result of apathy and resignation than exuberance), there is still some trepidation among SAG’s rank-and-file, because they know that “bigger” isn’t always “better,” and that sometimes “less” is “more.” If you want to win a track meet, you find one guy who can jump 7-feet, not seven guys who can jump 1-foot.

Like so many unions that opted for ill-advised “convenience mergers”—and then came to regret those decisions—these SAG members fear that by merging with AFTRA they will become marginalized and diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. There’s a time-honored axiom in organized labor: The bigger and more diverse a union, the less chance of it going out on strike.

I asked a well-placed and knowledgeable SAG insider for his views on the proposed merger. Because of a “non-disparagement” agreement that forbids union board and committee members to speak negatively about the proposal (How’s that for old-fashioned freedom of speech?), and because getting acting jobs in Hollywood is tricky enough without sacrificially identifying yourself as a “malcontent,” he requested anonymity. Here is his overview:

My biggest concern with the merger is the unknown impact it will have on SAG’s pension and health plans. A 2003 study suggested that merging SAG’s plans with AFTRA’s would result in the diminution of SAG’s overall package. A comprehensive study is imperative before we vote on this proposed merger.

SAG and AFTRA have been negotiating together since 1981. Some might say that the weaknesses that exist in key areas of our respective contracts today demonstrate that so-called ‘leverage’ doesn’t count for much if there is little evidence of a willingness to use that ‘leverage’ when needed.

I hope both unions agree to send out an objective ‘pro’ and ‘con’ statement included in the merger referendum. And I hope they agree to commissioning a feasibility study prior to the vote. Members should have access to all of this information prior to voting. From what I’ve read and what I know, this merger will not provide members with either what they are demanding or what they are expecting.

Historically, SAG, which has about 125,000 members and represents mainly actors, has been the stronger, savvier and more prestigious union. In addition to actors, AFTRA (which got its start in radio and has about 70,000 members) also represents emcees, hosts, comedians, television news personalities, DJs, sports and entertainment announcers, singers, dancers, professional pitchmen, etc. Approximately 40,000 people belong to both unions.

Both SAG and AFTRA negotiate with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), which means that the team of negotiators that sits across the table from the union at a contract bargain represents the interests of the producers. So it’s actors vs. producers. Artists vs. bean-counters. Guild vs. Alliance. Management vs. Labor. Surfers vs. Ho-dads. Any way you cut it, it’s your classic adversarial showdown.

Except for one detail. Some of the most influential card-carrying union members in Hollywood (Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, et al) happen to be producers themselves. Nothing against any of those men—they’re good guys and excellent actors, every one of them—but such an arrangement is bound to raise questions about a conflict of interest.

Another troubling detail: Agents who represent professional actors are allowed to have equity in the projects being discussed. In other words, an agent who’s paid to get an actor a fair fee for a role in a movie is allowed to be a profit-taker in that same movie. He may be one of the movie’s producers. Again, that raises questions about a possible conflict of interest.

These and other anomalies are what make Hollywood labor relations so difficult to navigate. And not to whine about the media, but they haven’t been helpful. In fact, they’ve been an impediment. In 2008, the media unfairly characterized SAG’s Membership First negotiators as “hard-liners,” which was not only inaccurate, but, sadly, indicative of the depths to which people’s expectations have sunk. Apparently, we’ve reached the point where all it takes for workaday actors to be labeled “hard-liners” is to request that wealthy producers give them a fair shake at the bargaining table.

It’s now obvious that unions across the country are being assaulted, and that the middle-class is being systematically dismantled. And it’s equally obvious that Hollywood—glamorous and fabled as it is—has jumped on that bandwagon. What those Membership First officers were trying to do in 2008, despite a decidedly labor-hostile environment, was provide SAG membership with the best contract they could possibly deliver. And isn’t that the job of a labor union?

If this were a big-time industrial union, those Membership First folks would be regarded as nothing more or less than your garden variety union negotiators. Management pushes, they push back Only in the movie industry would they be depicted as subversive. Yet, given Hollywood’s unique labor dynamic, maybe none of this should surprise us. Maybe it should be expected. In fact, maybe it comes with the territory.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.