With representatives of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expected to conduct an informal sit down on Jan. 22, the industry continues to brace itself for labor actions this summer. The talks have been scheduled well in advance of formal negotiations over salary and credit issues connected with the writers’ Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA).
A snapshot of media coverage of the entertainment labor situation as of Jan. 16 tells quite a bit. In The New York Times business section ("Entertainment Writers Weight Strike"), Bernard Weinraub said the WGA was "threatening to strike on May 1." In Variety, Dave McNary wrote about the "growing dread that a strike is inevitable."
A review of recent coverage leaves one question unanswered: Does either side have the mettle to endure a major entertainment strike, the second labor action in a year?
From Broadway to Hollywood, the speculation over the January sit-down ranges from those who believe both sides will use the chance to become familiar with one another and outline their positions, to those who believe it is unrealistic to expect anything to come from a relatively short, two week discussion of substantive issues. In any case, the talks starting on Jan. 22 will provide some insight into the process. “After that, we’ll see if there’s a 'second date,'” a WGA source said.
Sabre rattling aside, there is a certain "mettle fatigue" evident with both labor and producers. The early flurry of trade reports this week presumes that more writers are querying the wisdom of a strike, or what they feel is a premature commitment to strike. At SAG, management concerns and post-strike issues have the union's rank and file in a perpetual state of turmoil. As for business, the drop off in advertising revenues is hitting home even with big entertainment companies, like NBC, which is expected to trim its staff by 10 percent, or 600 people. It appears that for all the real commitment and other posturing in the entertainment press over possible strikes by writers, actors and directors over the next 18 months, many people are thinking long and hard about actually jumping up to vote for a work stoppage in a slowing economy.
Part of this may be wisdom from the recent commercial strike by actors. The Screen Actors Guild’s (SAG) six-month-long commercial strike was a protracted and stressful exercise. While the strike focused on the issue of residual payments, the residual effects of the process are just beginning to be seen. An informal post-strike sampling reveals at least one instance of reported drug relapse, several reports of depression, new strife between SAG and talent agents, heated debates over the penalization (or lack of) for scab activity, stalled careers and general burnout among some of those involved in the labor effort.
SAG spokesperson Greg Krizman has told Playbill On-Line that if there is a theatrical work stoppage the burden would be shouldered by those who work in theatrical [rather than in commercials.] “It’s a different set of people from those who worked on the commercial strike,” Krizman said.
One highly placed strike organizer at SAG told Playbill On-Line that the union's big name talent, which came to the aid of their commercial brethren in 2000, would be even stronger in a theatrical strike. "They just have so much more direct influence with those theatrical producers," the source said. "They mean millions of dollars to producers in movies, whereas their influence in commercials is not so direct."
Krizman said he was not aware of specific preparations for a strike. “The SAG board could fund [a strike] to any degree they wished within financial reason,” Krizman said. Reminded that many of last year’s individual six figure donations to the commercial strike fund came from big-name theatrical talent, Krizman said, “All those donations from performers went out to help other performers in need, not to defray the union’s cost of running the strike. Their donations went to strike relief. I’m under the impression that all the money collected has been given out.”
Krizman maintains that the union is more mobilized than it was a year ago. “There is a general awareness of what happened and how,” Krizman said, “and that would make it easier for [strike funding] to occur again.”
Another source close to the union told Playbill On-Line that in terms of a strike fund, “We have no money.”
In theatre, a writers' and actors strike in television and film could have indirect meaning, with film actors becoming more available for theatre. Working actors for film and stage are currently doing as much high-paying film work as possible in case there is a strike this spring.
The current MBA deal between WGA and producers expires on May 1. The SAG contract with theatrical producers expires June 30.
One leading film and television actor, who played a leadership role in the commercial strike, was recently asked by Playbill On-Line about being ready to assume a similar role during a theatrical strike in 2001. Reflecting the demanding nature of that effort, the actor made a soft wince and said, “We’ll see.” Asked if there would actually be a 2001 strike the actor said, “I hope not.”
—By Murdoch McBride