It’s no secret SAG has been playing hardball, late Thurs rejecting Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ “final” contract offer. But AFTRA, which ratified its labor deal last week, has taken a different road and even repelled a SAG-sponsored effort to convince AFTRA members to vote down their own agreement. Why do AFTRA and SAG look at things so differently? We caught up with Holter Graham, AFTRA vp and co-chair of the negotiating committee, to get his take.

No one seems to think SAG will really strike at this point. What are your thoughts?

I agree with the sense that SAG will not strike. The main reason SAG’s LA leadership—the sole group behind virtually all the “strategy” and rhetoric coming out of the Guild these days—went after the AFTRA deal with their failed Vote No campaign was because they also knew that the membership at large sees no reason for a strike at this time. SAG’s constitution requires a membership vote of 75% to authorize a strike, and the likelihood of that is very low. Between the immense damage of the WGA strike, the nominal gains won by the WGA after their strike, and the lack of any real issues currently being held out as “strike-worthy,” the chances are pretty low. That does not, however, preclude the Guild’s LA Leadership from spending time and money trying to ‘educate’ their members in a manner that would stir up a strike frenzy.

Sadly, this entire negotiation has become hostage to an internal power struggle at the Guild. SAG LA is populated by a group called Membership First, who are coming to the end of a long period in power where they used aggressive rhetoric and fear tactics, yet produced almost no real gains. They are a group of actors who have lost touch with the realities on the street, both for performers and in the sense of the wider economy and world. They get voted in because they play upon the dangerous constituent mix of ignorance and self-preservation—telling a group that doesn’t understand the subtle budgetary differences between cable and network, for instance, that they will fight to the death to get cable rates that equal broadcast rates. These promises and stances make people feeling an economic pinch feel good, when in fact the stances Membership First has taken have historically been well out-of-line with reality, almost always unachievable, and, in the end, bear little or no resemblance to the actual deals achieved.

You can look to the White House in recent years for a similar growth pattern. I am not poking any fun at our membership—the entire nation has a large problem with voter indifference and ignorance. So in that sense SAG is just like everyone else.

But, to get back to your main point, Membership First has finally used the rope they’ve been given to hang themselves, and so their most-likely last attempt to stay in power they don’t deserve has been their most potent. But even in the face of their control of the LA Board and their holding the strings above new and inexperienced Executive Director Doug Allen, reality seems to still reign, and so the membership will not follow them into a strike that would damage the general members significantly more than it would damage the members of Membership First.

SAG put enormous pressure on AFTRA members to strike down the deal with producers. Why do you think their arguments didn’t resonate with the majority of AFTRA members? And what are the prospects for SAG-AFTRA unity in the future?

The SAG LA campaign failed for the reasons I stated above: More and more people are actually getting informed about the truth of our industry. Flexibility and a sense of partnership with management—from the UAW to modern shareholder-based conglomerates—are the ways of the future for employee success. If every major entertainment company has been merging in the past decades, then we need to use that same mentality on the Labor side—merge our unions as well as partner with our employers to guarantee job security and profitability for the product moving forward. The members sense that, and so would not follow SAG LA’s lead.

As for merger and unity, I have an incredibly positive outlook on merger of all the performer’s unions in this country. The only real bar to that is the Membership First faction of the Hollywood leadership. If they are voted out of office by their members, the merger process will start almost immediately. They espouse a “one union for actors” rhetoric that tries to hide under the same shadow as “merger” but is really more elitist and archaic—trying to carve out a specialist union for LA-based film and TV actors. But nobody’s really buying that. We need unity and strength through as large a labor-base as possible within the “do your job in front of the camera or microphone” workforce, and that is what AFTRA and the vast majority of SAG’s leaders are pursuing. It is, to some extent, one vote away from starting to happen. And that vote is in LA this fall.

But how worried are you that nearly 40% of AFTRA’s membership sided with SAG?

The numbers in the AFTRA ratification don’t worry me, really. My other union—SAG—spend a lot of my dues money sending out bad information delivered by supposedly “good” sources (sadly, people believe celebrities just because they are celebrities) and so a huge percentage of the “success” of SAG LA’s Vote No campaign was simply the success of fear tactics mixed with a start-struck constituency. I don’t blame members for being scared about their jobs, and thinking maybe someone on a successful TV shows has the answers. Sadly, it isn’t always true. It just shows AFTRA’s leadership that we have a job to do in keeping our members informed of the facts at all times, and trusting that the majority will always help us do the right thing in protecting them.

What are the main benefits of the AFTRA deal and why did leadership view it as prudent to use the writers’ deal as a model rather than fight for more concessions?

I will answer this backwards. Our ratified deal is based on the “pattern” of the WGA, DGA, and AFTRA Network Code deals that went before. That’s just the reality. Management stated a long time ago that there were very specific parameters within which they were going to work on new deal for the entertainment industry. Even after a 100-day, 2.3 billion-dollar-loss strike, the WGA did not get any movement off of that pattern. The labor negotiators at AFTRA saw very wisely and very early that the best way to get the best deal available was to adhere to the general tenets of the pattern, and spend our diplomatic and strategic capital getting performer-specific improvements in that pattern. We did this very successfully in the Network Code—which covers our day-time, talk-show, and other non-prime-time dramatic TV. We took the pattern and pursued from within bumps, protections, and structures that would most benefit our members. When we came out of that negotiation, we all felt thrilled at the amount we had gained in a single contract talk: our decision to stick to the pattern and fight for tweaks from within had paid off handsomely.

So we get to the Prime-Time deal, and we use the same tactic, and it works beautifully. To me, the huge gains of this contract come down to two things—money and protection. I know, it sounds like a mafia scheme, but here’s what I mean: We got more than a 10% raise over the course of the contract in an economy shrinking faster than Cheney’s sphere of influence. We got our employer-pay-in to our Health and Retirement plan raised to 15%, one of the highest in the country. We got bumps in certain categories that will allow a larger group of performers to immediately be lifted to a higher bracket. AND, most important, we got jurisdiction in New Media. New Media is the gorilla in the room. The employers patently do not understand it, are terrified of it, and sense that—like the record companies before them—there is as large a chance of their revenues fleeing because of it as there has been from any threat to their way of life in decades. AFTRA understands those fears, and fought to get the protection of union status for an immense percentage of the work the employers do in New Media moving forward. There is a tiny area of small-budget experimental work where they can avoid union protections, but if even one person on that shoot falls under a broadly-defined category of “covered performer,” then that whole production becomes union, as well.

So we got our members more money in a crappy economy and we got them protection and pay structures in what almost everyone agrees is the mode of the future. And, to top it off, we got a Sunset Clause on our New Media agreements, so that on the off chance we all misjudged and the New Media deal doesn’t cover entertainment jacked straight into your skull via satellite downlink, for instance, we can wipe the slate clean in three years and renegotiate to our heart’s content.

What do you see as the future of labor relations? What will be the hot issues in the future? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

I am optimistic because, even though SAG LA spent huge amounts of my dues money and spent huge amounts of their political capital, it seems like the membership in the majority understand the shifting world on information and entertainment we now live in, and the membership at large is seeing that the leaders of AFTRA and the Guild outside of LA have their fingers on the right pulse.

The two big areas moving forward for us will be our next two contracts—commercials and interactive games. We may need to undertake great change in the former and great strides towards truly equitable pay in the latter. But in terms of media on screens in this country, I see this contract and the resulting three years of work, growth, and learning, as a hopefully quiet period where we will all have the opportunity to get back to our jobs, and watch closely as the industry continues to evolve so that we can evolve with it. I think the growth of really fine dramatic programming on cable, coupled with AFTRA’s growing influence there and a growth in union coverage on cable at large, will all be harbingers of better quality and better product in the years ahead. We will keep fighting for wider jurisdiction in cable markets.

(Graham is the Local President of AFTRA New York, a national VP of AFTRA, and was co-chair of the negotiating committee for AFTRA’s exhibit A contract. He has also been a member of the Network Code negotiating committee and a vested member of SAG).

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