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More Than Just a Phase

0816talkbackshimerman_bw Four times a year, the Screen Actors Guild holds a national plenary session. This is where all the elected officials -- or their alternates -- convene to make major decisions for the membership. This body is the supreme voice on all things SAG. At the last one, on July 28, the body took up the question of whether or not to continue upholding the 1981 SAG-AFTRA agreement to negotiate as equal partners in contract talks with producers and advertisers. This agreement is called Phase One. Though there has been much rumor that our elected representatives here in

Hollywood wanted to curtail the agreement, I am happy to announce that wiser heads prevailed, and Phase One still stands. Thank you, SAG national board.

Why is this important? How does it affect an actor's life and career? Shouldn't SAG have more say in contract negotiations than AFTRA does? These are all good questions and worth knowing more about. During contract negotiations, the unions' negotiating team is mandated by Phase One to be composed of an equal number of voting members from SAG and AFTRA. Both sides bring proposals to the negotiations and both sides decide on producer counterproposals, but after much private intramural debate, they appear at the negotiating table as a united front and speak with one voice in advocating wages and working conditions for all performers. Phase One is essential if actors are to stand up to producers, keep their benefits, acquire new ones, and not be whipsawed by their own unions.

The adage is that we must study history or be cursed to repeat it. In late summer 1980, after the two unions had been on strike against motion picture and television producers for three months, the membership of AFTRA's

Los Angeles local voted by show of hands to reject the contract settlement (AFTRA members voted in person then). SAG's mail referendum was expected to produce ratification. In the days until the AFTRA vote was eventually ratified, as other locals across the country met and voted, the unions had a good long look at the possibility that AFTRA would stay out while SAG members went back to work. Staff executives of both guilds knew that situation could be ugly for both, so Phase One was formulated. A national vote was taken and disaster was averted.

In the 1990s the actors in Vancouver were not so lucky. The national actors' union of Canada is the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. But because of the tidal wave of work that went north to Vancouver, a new actors' organization was created solely for British Columbia, called the Union of British Columbia Performers, to protect and negotiate for the locals. UBCP had no substantive ties to ACTRA. Like SAG and AFTRA, the members of UBCP were for the most part also members of ACTRA. Nonetheless, these Canadian entities competed with each other in Vancouver for jurisdiction, which is the lifeblood of any union. The result was that UBCP continually undercut ACTRA contracts, and then ACTRA undercut UBCP. British Columbian actors saw their salaries slashed, despite the fact that actors were paying dues to both organizations to protect them. The producers loved it. It may be part of the reason why so much of Los   Angeles' production moved north. Happily, these Canadian unions merged and now act as one.

But, with the growth of digital (or nonfilm) production, which AFTRA and SAG both claim jurisdiction to, and because there are no Phase One–type talks on cable contracts, the kind of salary/benefit slashing that happened in Vancouver is now happening here. Anyone working in cable TV production under an AFTRA contract is aware that they are getting less. AFTRA defends this by saying "better a weaker contract than no contract at all." In the past five years, union competition for cable jurisdiction has heated up. SAG's cable terms are better than AFTRA's but not as strong as they could be, and the guild has lost a lot of jurisdiction to AFTRA. Surprisingly, cable is listed as part of the Phase One agreement. But negotiations have not been held under Phase One because there haven't been "industrywide" negotiations -- meaning producers don't come as a group to fix union standards in cable; they come individually looking for separate deals.

Phase One must continue to exist. It is the only protection -- short of merger -- that each of us has against our paychecks being cut by warring unions fighting to gain/maintain jurisdictional sway. Lacking Phase One, one union could go out on strike and the other union might say to its nonstriking professionals that it's all right to cross the picket lines. That scenario is crazy, but without Phase One it would be very much a possibility as it was in 1980. As long as there are two unions that haven't got an ironclad agreement on how to determine which entity oversees which kinds of work, there is cause for alarm. Where Phase One controls contract negotiations, both unions are kept in harness with each other. That is the wisdom of the 50-50 split in negotiation voting. As long as both unions feel they have an equal say, both sides will continue to abide by Phase One. If SAG were to insist on a majority of votes, AFTRA could surely pull its team out and open up its own separate negotiations with producers as it does in cable and other contracts. Almost immediately, we'd see a loss in pay and benefits as union contracts competed for jurisdiction. Recent outcries about contract poaching only fall on deaf ears. So I say thank you, to the SAG national board for its continued maintenance of Phase One.

More can be done. Isn't it logical to assume that SAG and AFTRA should expand Phase One negotiations to all mutual contracts, like cable, Internet, new technologies, etc.? If this were done, the consequence would be that each union would have to concede some power, but members would be better protected. A bright new morning of solidarity, strength, and wage improvement would dawn.

Sadly, however, the SAG board both giveth and taketh away. While preserving Phase One, our elected officials also decided to remove each SAG contract negotiator's right to vote his conscience or speak her mind at joint SAG-AFTRA Phase One conferences. At this last plenary, SAG inaugurated a policy of bloc voting whereby a majority of SAG members establish what SAG's policy is going to be before discussing it with AFTRA. Then, in joint union contract talks, all SAG members are compelled to vote the SAG majority opinion. Fellow actors in AFTRA will no longer be able to convince their brethren in SAG of the rightness of a negotiation choice before the final joint vote on priorities and strategies is taken. This new policy is in violation of the spirit if not the binding language of the Phase One document that mandates that members of the Phase One negotiating committee "be responsible to their respective Board of Directors and to the Joint Board." The Joint Board is the governing body composed of all the elected representatives of SAG and AFTRA. In other words, the actor-negotiators are required to serve both actors' unions.

The question is: Why was this new policy implemented and how will it affect SAG-AFTRA relations? Isn't the old saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? I hope this wasn't a result of the growing division that now beleaguers our unions and undermines actors' negotiation strength. Recently we've all read about the tough stand producers are taking on residuals for new technologies and network programming. We actors need Phase One; our unions must continue to maintain it. We need unity; our unions must strive to improve it. We don't need partisanship.

-- Armin Shimerman

Armin Shimerman, in addition to decades as a working actor, was a member of the national board of the Screen Actors Guild, serving on many of SAG's national negotiating committees.

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