SAG Strike Now Longest In Union's History But Commercial Production Still at 85 Percent

News   SAG Strike Now Longest In Union's History But Commercial Production Still at 85 Percent Hoping to gain ground in a war of attrition with striking actors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a trade group for advertisers and advertising agencies now claims that the production of commercials during the month of July 2000 was equal to 85 percent of the volume of commercials produced during the same month last year, when there was no strike.

Hoping to gain ground in a war of attrition with striking actors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a trade group for advertisers and advertising agencies now claims that the production of commercials during the month of July 2000 was equal to 85 percent of the volume of commercials produced during the same month last year, when there was no strike.

The trade group, the Joint Policy Committee on Talent Union Relations of the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (JPC) also claims a soaring increase in "non-union session fees." The production figures were released on Aug. 3.

"I hate to see this escalate," said SAG board member David Jolliffe. "It's not good for us, it's not good for the advertisers and it's not good for the economy." Jolliffe had a statistic of his own to cite: Aug. 4 marks the 96th day of the SAG strike, which makes this labor action the longest strike in the union's history. Jolliffe suggested that the JPC numbers actually reflected "solidarity in the union ranks" because higher non-union fees simply means that union talent is honoring the picket line.

Jolliffe said that the SAG strike also marked the first time in the history of his union where there had been a unanimous vote to strike. "That's how bad the deal they offered us was received," Jolliffe explained. "The vote to strike remains unanimous to this day, which marks the longest strike in the history of SAG. I wonder if the support is unanimous among advertisers, and if it's worth it to them. For instance, the new 2000 model cars are getting ready to ship and there have been no celebrity car commercials."

The thrust of the Aug. 3 JPC announcement, which celebrates commercial production in the face of SAG and AFTRA's (American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) best efforts to halt it, was obvious. JPC reports that the industry produced 1,725 commercials from July 3-28, 2000, 85 percent of the 2,035 commercials produced during the comparable period in 1999. Looking ahead, Jolliffe agrees that the SAG strike and the contract that will eventually come of it will involve fundamental issues of remuneration and royalty, for cable, network and Internet uses of commercials. The conflict seems to be whether or not creative talent should be paid commensurately for the specific and successive use (or re-broadcast) of their work.

"They know the deal they offered is lousy, and it comes down to a concept of accountability," Jolliffe said. "Whether someone is paid by the hour, or weight, or for how many miles they drive, they should be careful if their bosses come and say they are not going to pay them that way any more, and instead they will be paid the lowest rate possible and that everyone will be paid that amount."

There are also issues of administration that the union wants addressed. "This is the only billion dollar business that's done on the honor system," Jolliffe added. "We've asked them for a system to make it more accountable and they have shunned us for 20 years. We talk about monitoring and they say monitoring is not 100 percent effective. Well, even if it's only 50 percent effective, we say, 'Hey, you're only getting caught half the time.'

"There are so many balls up in the air with this one contract," Jolliffe said. "There's the issue of establishing royalties for web commerce. And then there's the SAG theatrical contract looming ahead in June of 2001. Bill Daniels [actor, SAG president] met with the A.F.L.C.I.O. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and they pledged their undying support for this cause. They always do that when another union is in a conflict, but they also realize what it means if people start going after the unions in general. They're just not going to let it happen, especially in this economic environment."

Asked if SAG was also working through legislative channels to seek some sort of forum or exposure during the upcoming Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Jolliffe said, "Oh, absolutely."

In their Aug. 3 announcement, the commercial producers represented by the JPC figured that "the session fees paid to non-union talent in July 2000 totaled $3,590,114, compared to $200,712 during July 1999. Session fees paid SAG members in July 2000 totaled $143,168 compared to $3,599,663 paid in July 1999. This $3.45 million decline in SAG session fees is a 96 percent drop off from July 1999 and will translate into multi-millions of dollars of lost residuals. SAG actors are making less than 4 percent of the session fees they made in July 1999. This is a further decline from the 75 percent decline in SAG session fees reported for the May 15 - June 15 strike period."

In a prepared statement, Ira Shepard, counsel to the JPC said, "The numbers speak for themselves. The industry is continuing to operate effectively and efficiently, notwithstanding the SAG/AFTRA strike. We hope the union will return to the bargaining table and join with us in modernizing the contract and returning as the industry's partner in television and radio commercial advertising."

Jolliffe believes that the union genuinely wants to work with its bosses and not against them. He cites the cable deal of the '80s as an example of the union's effort to work together in a fair environment. That fairness is now lacking, the union chief feels, particularly on the other side.

"In the '80s they asked us to work with them," Jolliffe said, "and we said we'd be happy to if they would give us a little taste of whatever their deal is. Then, in the late '90s we found that they had started dealing with each other—selling shows for $1, or at some other reduced sale price, say $25,000 instead of $50,000 [theoretically] which in turn damages us because the actor's fees are based on that sale."

In terms of cable residuals, Jolliffe concedes that the union got into "terrible deals" with the cable industry in the '80s. "It was a huge mistake," Jolliffe said, "but at the time it was a way for unions to work with producers. The producers said they saw cable as a fledgling industry. They said, 'Can you work with us?' And the unions said, 'Absolutely, yes.'"

Future negotiations notwithstanding, Jolliffe says, the union would never give back anything on residuals. "If we give an inch on commercial residuals," Jolliffe predicts, "when it comes time to negotiate with the theatrical producers next year, they will point to this contract and say that the Guild capitulated. They'll say, 'If they did that on the commercial contract, there should be no reason why we can't take them to the cleaners on ours.'"

For now, the strike continues. "This is a celebrity-driven business and our high-profile members are showing up in droves because they're pissed off about all this," Jolliffe said. "They all worked in the trenches before they became stars."

-- By Murdoch McBride