Labor and the 1%: Oscar is Not Hollywood’s Most Fateful Vote

Should I read all those pages of Ballot Materials -- or Just perform the quick-and-easy Clooney-Hanks Test?

On February 27th, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) will send over 130,000 mail-in referendum ballot packages to their respective members.

The members will have a seemingly simple task — to mark their ballots Yes or No. “Yes” is a vote to implement a very complex plan to merge — permanently, irrevocably — the two unions of “media performers” into a single “Successor Union” to be known as “SAG-AFTRA.” (( documents. ))

In order that readers may fully appreciate the brilliance, the exquisitely simple elegance of the Clooney-Hanks Test, I must provide a lively, Hollywood-historical context.

The Merger vote is the most momentous SAG referendum since the union’s founding in 1933. And it’s not a great stretch to say that the gravity of the vote exceeds any other development in Hollywood since the town was split over the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and ’50s.

There’s a similar split today, between those who demand “labor peace” and those who still carry on the fight for “labor justice” (sometimes referred to as “class warfare”). Within Hollywood’s labor unions and in its trade papers, the camps are identified “as the Moderates” and “the Militants.”

Historically, without question, the town’s most militant unions (with occasional lapses) have been the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild. AFTRA, which has its roots in New York radio and live television, and in the recording industry, has a well-founded reputation for maintaining a moderate (cooperative) posture toward management.

Today’s merger drama began soon after the failure of the last merger attempt, in 2003. Merger has never been attempted when a Militant party governed SAG. Merger is always a “Moderate” project. Without fail, the Moderates promise that performers (most of whom are film and TV actors) will gain greater “leverage.” The conjoining of the two bodies will result in “more bargaining strength” for their members, say the Moderates.

In an apparent paradox, the moderate, “peace” parties have never demonstrated any appetite for the kind of “bargaining” which would actually require “strength.” The words “strength” and “strike” are rarely spoken in the same sentence by “Moderates.” In fact, “strike” doesn’t appear to be in the Moderate vocabulary, except as a distasteful pejorative.

The merger effort of 2003 was rejected by SAG voters. AFTRA voters — including talk-show hosts, news anchors and field reporters, sportscasters, recording artists, radio announcers, and many other “work categories,” in addition to actors — voted for merger in much greater numbers.

With the 2003 failure, AFTRA lost its hope of a SAG rescue from a delicate economic situation AFTRA had found itself in. The economic stress and AFTRA’s feelings of rejection by SAG were the catalysts for a subsequent string of AFTRA violations of labor solidarity and jurisdictional ethics.

In order to improve its finances, AFTRA began to invade jurisdictions traditionally under SAG contracts, beginning with cable TV. This revenue-enhancing tactic was tried-and-true and easy to implement. AFTRA simply offered producers more favorable “sweetheart” terms than SAG’s. One of their most enticing offers was to waive “residual” (or royalty) payments to actors, in exchange for modest “buyout” fees. AFTRA actors had no choice but to forego their residuals and accept the buyout.” ((AFTRA accepts deal,” Variety and “AFTRA ratifies contract that includes fee for streaming games,” Los Angeles Times.)) (Note: I still receive $15 residual checks [every six months or so] for my first SAG job, as an extra, in The Way We Were, 1972. When I get that check, I’m glad I wasn’t forced to sign a buyout agreement.)

The Militant faction which set SAG policy at the time (2005-2009) refused to engage in competitive under-bidding for their members’ services.” ((Actors guild, studios to extend talks,” Los Angeles Times.)) The Militants failed to challenge AFTRA’s invasion of SAG jurisdiction before the National Labor Relations Board (the Bush era NLRB, which might have ruled in favor of the management-friendly AFTRA).

(Uneasy readers should be informed that my dramatic history is almost concluded.)

By the end of the Militants’ rule, AFTRA was aggressively and successfully conquering the former SAG stronghold of primetime network television. Management, represented by the AMPTP, was happy to lower their labor costs with AFTRA, and to punish SAG at the same time. Both unions charge their members a “base” dues, as well as a percentage of member earnings, above a certain threshold. More and more of those “earnings dues” were going into AFTRA’s treasury, at SAG’s expense. SAG was also losing employer contributions to its pension & health funds.

The Moderate SAG regime (2009 to present) has never protested AFTRA’s invasion and has never challenged the aggressive, under-handed takeover of more and more SAG turf. (SAG Moderates, of course, formulate strategy, privately, of course, with the ruling AFTRA Moderate party, the AFTRA Leadership Team.)

Now, in 2012, a seriously weakened SAG, with confused and demoralized members, seems ripe for the fatal merger, which is what AFTRA, the SAG Moderates, and the AMPTP have been planning for, since 2003.

When the fateful ballots are mailed to the members of SAG and AFTRA, the packet will contain a 3-page, 1,000-word Opposition Statement, crafted by the militant 12% who still remain in the SAG National Board of Directors.

The packet will also contain the 29-page Merger Agreement, the 52-page successor-union Constitution, a 36-page Feasibility Review (of possible pension & health plan merger), as well as the Board of Directors pro-merger statement, and their (unrebutted) Rebuttal of the Opposition Statement. (( documents.))

The Dilemma and the Clooney-Hanks Solution

Should I read all of the material in the ballot packet? Should I skim the material and try to spot the juicy bits? Or should I content myself with reading the majority pro-merger statement, the Opposition Statement and the majority rebuttal of the opposition?

The factual accuracy of the Opposition Statement has been officially verified by SAG pro-merger lawyers.

And the common sense logic of the statement is, by several accounts, obvious.

But what if I’m too busy and too tired to read any of the statements?

What if the real, day-to-day struggle to make ends meet has me hopelessly distracted and unable to focus?

How can I decide whether Merger will be good for me, or bad?

Fortunately, there’s a simple test I can use that requires no reading and not much concentration.

It’s called the “Clooney-Hanks Test.” (It’s similar to the “1%-versus-99% Test” in the wider world.)

Here’s how it works: If a proposal is approved by Clooney-Hanks, and if I’m not in the 1% myself, it’s almost a 99% certainty that it will be bad for my wallet and my health.

George Clooney firmly endorsed the SAG-AFTRA merger recently, at the SAG “Actor” Awards. ((“Thesps talk Merger on red carpet,” Variety, January 29.)) It should be noted that this is the George Clooney who carries solid Hollywood Liberal credentials.

Tom Hanks has also firmly endorsed merger. Recently, Hanks has maintained a lower political profile (since intimations of conflict-of-interest lapses, vis-a-vis SAG internal politics). But he is on record as an ardent backer of SAG’s ruling “Unite for Strength” party and their signature campaign for merger (“Unite!“). Sadly, Hanks’s video endorsements of Unite for Strength and merger have been removed from YouTube.

Clooney and Hanks, the actors, have no need for any sort of union. The passage or the defeat of merger will not affect them as actors. And Clooney and Hanks will not be depending on the SAG pension fund in their later years. They will never have to worry about clearing the threshold to qualify for the SAG Health Plan. (And who would begrudge them their good fortune?)

But Clooney and Hanks aren’t just actors. Clooney heads the film and TV production company, Smokehouse. Hanks’s company is Playtone. Smokehouse and Playtone do business with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). (They may actually be members of the AMPTP, but that organization refuses to declare publicly who their “over 350 member companies” are, and Clooney-Hanks haven’t declared either.)

The AMPTP can afford the very best legal and accounting minds. And Clooney-Hanks have their own lawyers and accountants.

The biggest selling point of the pro-merger forces is “more negotiating strength.”

More negotiating strength for actors would be a grave concern for the AMPTP, Smokehouse, and Playtone. The producers’ alliance, and individual production companies, depend heavily upon the AMPTP’s ability to calibrate, with precision, the “negotiating strength” of its labor adversaries.

So I, the SAG voter, can be sure that AMPTP, Smokehouse, and Playtone have evaluated the claim of “more negotiating strength.” Clooney and Hanks don’t have to read the Merger Agreement or the new SAG-AFTRA Constitution. They have lawyers and accountants to do that. They have the AMPTP to do that.

Clooney and Hanks’s lawyers and accountants, and the first-rate minds at the AMPTP have already evaluated the pro-merger claim of “more negotiating strength.”

If Clooney’s advisers had informed him that merger really does mean “more negotiating strength,” Clooney would have maintained a discreet silence on the red carpet, or said, in effect, “You know, it’s such a momentous issue, it would be wrong for me, as a producer, to comment on it.”

(In addition to legal and accounting advice, Clooney-Hanks can call on the advice of the best public relations firms in the business. If Clooney-Hanks were led to believe that support of merger would tarnish their images, they’d avoid it.

Since Clooney’s advisers, in all likelihood, informed him that merger would not significantly increase actors’ bargaining strength, Clooney could stand, on the red carpet, in front of the cameras, declaring his full support: “It’s important to do,” he said, and “You don’t want actors to suffer.”

So, if I were too busy, too tired, too worried and too distracted to read the Opposition Statement, then I would apply the Clooney-Hanks test to the question of merger.

And I would vote No.


Breaking news: As if a deus-ex-machina had suddenly descended to prove the validity of the Clooney-Hanks Test, the eminent trade rag Variety, has just published a list of Merger Endorsements by many other one-percenters. Now The Test could bear a poetic, godfatherly hyphenate such as DeNiro-DeVito, or any of dozens of combinations of the neon names of Hollywood’s 1%.

Dave Clennon can be reached at: Read other articles by Dave.