The decision by SAG president Alan Rosenberg and executive director and chief negotiator Doug Allen to delay the Strike Authorization Ballot originally scheduled to start January 3rd should be recognized as the smart move to make now when SAG’s solidarity is splitting down the middle. It is a mature recognition that both sides on this issue raise valid points and deserve to be heard before anything with the word “strike” on it is considered by members.The “Yes” camp believes that actors will be stuck with what is inarguably a lousy deal undermining residuals not just for the next three years but perhaps forever given Big Media’s historical refusal to contractually revisit new technologies. The “No” camp thinks that a Strike Authorization will inevitably lead to an ill-timed strike in this economic recession and that SAG should join the other Hollywood guilds in 3 years to try to negotiate better terms with the AMPTP.

So what was supposed to be a January 24th weekend National Board meeting has now been moved up to January 12th and 13th. It’ll constitute one of the two plenary face-to-face confabs held each year. The NY Division and the Regional Divisions should have no trouble traveling to the Hollywood division’s backyard with so much advance notice. The point of this decision to delay is to ensure a fair airing of all views. (It even takes into account the “No” vote petition supposedly signed by ”well-known” actors even though the list includes no mechanism for verifying the names posted on it.)

I believe that SAG now has a unique opportunity to bypass a strike authorization altogether and place itself in an even stronger negotiating position by following a third and less risky course of action: to vote on the AMPTP’s June 30th contract proposal.

Therefore, I urge SAG to drop the Strike Authorization Ballot for now. That 75% “Yes” vote threshold would be tough to succeed even if the economy were fine, TV and movie productions plentiful, and the big actors union had gone first instead of last in this contract negotiation. But it is what happens if the Strike Authorization Ballot fails that shows even holding the vote is a risk that’s too great to take. SAG would be left weakened, divided, and without any leverage to go up against the AMPTP. In that situation, SAG would have no choice but to accept the AMPTP June 30th deal now on the table.

So, SAG, take advantage of the choice that is still yours. I say the National Board should send out the June 30th AMPTP contract proposal as is and let the members decide to ratify it or not. Only a 50% threshold is necessary either way. To further heal the divisiveness, SAG’s National Board can refuse to offer a recommendation one way or the other about the deal. This would truly allow for the most democratic vote possible. Under normal circumstances, the negotiating committee would recommend the contract to the National Board, which would then stamp it with an endorsement. I’ve checked the SAG rules, and nothing there prevents the contract from being sent out “neutrally” for ratification now.

If the contract would have to be judged based solely on its merits or demerits, then the employers would find themselves hoisted on their own petard. Because the scapegoating of Rosenberg and Allen and even the negotiating committee would have to stop. Even SAG’s own focus would change from the infighting to the deal, which is where it belonged in the first place.

So let’s say the contract is sent out for a vote now. What happens next?

If the contract is ratified, then SAG holds its fire for three years and I predict the mother of all strikes by two or more guilds will hit Hollywood at that time. Basically, Big Media is swapping big pain now for much less hurt down the line. They’re betting that their cartel will control even more of New Media. As for SAG, it’s clear that the reality of working under its own contract or AFTRA’s will leave even affected members bitter at having been bullied into a bad deal.

But if the contract is rejected, then the AMPTP and Big Media would have to realize that this isn’t just Rosenberg or Allen shooting their mouths off about the rotten terms. Instead, SAG members themselves would have said “No” to the deal. It would also send a message to the moguls that leaving these negotiations in the hands of the labor lawyers didn’t work. And Carol Lombardini’s “tryout” for Nick Counter’s job as AMPTP presidet was a big fat failure. The Hollywood CEOs would have to start engaging in backchannel negotiations just like they did during the WGA strike. Now SAG could bargain from a position of real strength. Because they would be representing the will of their members. As for a Strike Authorization Vote, that could still hang out there as a last-ditch resort which hopefully proves unnecessary.

This is not my fight. But this is my website. I’m not presuming to act like a know-it-all. But like any journalist covering the business of Hollywood, I spend all day talking to very smart people (as well as a lot of mouthbreathers) who make up all facets of the entertainment business. But no one whispered in my ear what to post here. Occasionally, during the writers strike, I offered suggestions (like bringing in the agents, which ultimately proved helpful). So I respectfully urge SAG to consider my proposal. Or not. Again, your choice.

Here is Doug Allen’s letter to SAG’s National Board announcing the delay:

Dear Screen Actors Guild Member,

A number of National Board members have expressed concern about the organized opposition to SAG’s vote “yes” campaign to encourage members to authorize the National Board to determine whether to call a strike in the TV/Theatrical contracts. While almost 100 high profile members and 2524 total members have endorsed the strike authorization vote mandated by the National Board, more than 100 high profile actors and 1373 actors have lent their names to the opposition campaign. This division does not help our effort to get an agreement from the AMPTP that our members will ratify.

Accordingly, President Rosenberg and I have decided to call a special face-to-face National Board meeting in Los Angeles, during the week of January 12, to discuss how we can address this unfortunate division and restore the consensus demonstrated by the National Board at our October meeting.

The Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the Commercials Contract W&W plenary in New York the first week of January, preclude scheduling such a meeting before the week of January 12. In accordance with our Constitution, this special meeting will constitute one of our two face-to-face plenary meetings for 2009.

In light of the subject matter of this special meeting, the strike authorization balloting will be re-scheduled to take place over a three-week period immediately following this special board meeting. This will provide us with more time to conduct member education and outreach on the referendum before the balloting.

This meeting will replace the January 24, 2009 plenary and will occur in Los Angeles all day January 12, and part of January 13.

Sincerely,
Doug Allen
National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator

And here is the AMPTP’s latest statement:

The last year has surely been a challenging one, but after long sessions of hard bargaining, all of the Guilds and Unions in our industry, except one, have reached new labor agreements. These agreements contain meaningful economic increases and first-ever new media rights and residuals. We are proud to have made such important agreements even as the national economic crisis has worsened almost by the day. We sincerely hope that, before too much time passes in 2009, we will also reach a labor agreement with the Screen Actors Guild. For that reason, we are continuing to urge SAG members to study the Producers’ offer at AMPTP.org, and make an independent decision as to whether it makes sense to strike over a deal that will raise wages, raise benefits, add new residuals and establish jurisdiction in new media for the first time.”

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.