Friday, December 19, 2008

"Yes" or "no" vote for a SAG strike authorization? It's all a matter of self-interest.

As the year comes to a close, most of the conversations I’m having these days have little to do with holiday plans, but, mostly, have to do with the SAG strike authorization ballots that are going out to union members just after the first of the year. I have been asked, a lot, about whether or not I think there will be a “yes” majority and if I think the chances of the authorization (if gotten) will, indeed, be used to force a work stoppage in the business of acting.

Tough questions; difficult answers to ponder.

This has been a very contentious year for SAG and, as the year ends, the union finds its members more divided than ever over this issue. In the process, SAG has also created an enormous public relations problem for itself, both internally among its members and externally among the general public. It’s a tough climate in which to call for and execute a strike – and receive any public sympathy for the cause.

In an era where the future of hard copy newspapers is in jeopardy, the Los Angeles Times has proven itself a valuable tool in this discussion. On December 16th, the paper published an opinion piece by actor and former SAG president Melissa Gilbert that has stirred much controversy. An opinion piece published today by LA Times columnist Patrick Goldstein puts much of it in perspective. They are both well worth reading. Regardless of where you stand on the strike authorization issue, these two columns do a good job of discussing the landscape in which this is all occurring.

You can read Melissa Gilbert’s article here.
You can read Patrick Goldstein’s article here.

Today I wrote an update on the Web site to chapter 8 in my book, The Business of Acting, about the union crisis we now find ourselves in. I hope you will read it.

As I wrote there, when the book was first published in 2002, the prominent union issue at that time was whether or not SAG and AFTRA would, could or should merge into one union to serve all actors.

The opinions on that issue were loud and strong. But, nothing seems to top the rhetoric over this current dilemma now facing the business of acting. It’s not just about the strike authorization vote SAG is seeking in an attempt to move along (and resolve) stalled contract negotiations with producers; it’s also about the core strategy the union leadership has opted to take in this bumpy journey.

A merger would have been a piece of cake compared to this one.

Clearly, this issue has gotten lots of people talking, not just union members, but the general public, as well.

In a conversation with a prominent working actor (who is a SAG member) the other day, I asked how concerned he was about the impact a work stoppage would have on other people and other businesses, many connected to acting (like talent agencies, management companies, and publicists and PR firms), but many not (like dry cleaners, coffee shops and restaurants). Most everyone is feeling the pinch from the recession we’re in; many simply couldn’t survive the financial damage a strike would do to them and their businesses.

This actor’s reply: “Fuck ‘em,” he said, “Let that be on the heads of the producers.”

My response: “Well what if the collateral damage includes your agent or your manager having to close their business? Doesn’t that matter to you?”

Again, the actor replied: “Fuck ‘em.”

Hmm. When last I looked, no one who has achieved any level of success was ever able to do it on their own. Given that agents and managers spent a tremendous amount of time and money representing their clients and given that most submissions don’t result in obtaining an audition for a client (or any commission income from a job that a client might be lucky enough to get), my unspoken response was, “Well who the fuck are you? Where is the respect and decency towards the people who are consistently pro-active in the interests of your career every day? Where is the appreciation for the amount of work they do for you that generates them nothing in dollars and cents? When you met with these people for the first time about working together, were you arrogant enough to both seek their assistance and let them know that you would toss them to the wolves if you had the chance to do so?”

“Fuck you,” I wanted to say out loud. But, I didn’t.

Instead, this exchange made me think about self-interest. Where do we draw the line, in both life and career choices? How much are we willing to risk?

Indeed, at the end of this day, the big question for those who will be given the responsibility of making this strike or not-to-strike authorization decision is “How much are you willing to risk?” and, when it’s all over and done with, either way, “How and where do you pick up the pieces that are left and reconstruct a working career in whatever the new landscape is?”

I admit, I’m a little pissed off from having had this conversation and wondering, really, how do we all financially survive should a strike really happen – and how do we all pick up the pieces, either way, and rebuild in a very uneasy environment.

Ah, the grinch.