Today will be a definitive, if not a make-or-break, day for negotiators in the contract talks between striking actors and the producers of commercials for television and radio.
With the elements of a classic labor showdown already in place—high stakes, dedicated ideals, divergent interests, federal mediators, press coverage and only the faintest trace of real optimism—negotiators are heading into the Sept. 22 talks knowing that precious little progress has been realized since discussions resumed on Sept. 13.
Press reports notwithstanding, sources say that an essential disparity between the two sides in the commercial actors strike remains, and that the actors and producers are still far apart in their approach to the various residual payments for commercials.
Thus far, the actors' commercial strike has been a dramatic, five-month ordeal. In addition to the losses suffered by actors and producers and their corporate clients, agencies, post-production services and other businesses that depend on commercial production have suffered tremendously.
Throughout the contract talks and the commercial strike, a sense of "precedent fever" has been evident on either side of the bargaining table. With at least three key issues; the residual scheme for commercials broadcast on traditional networks, the future of cable residual rates and, finally, Internet commercial residuals, the actors and the producers are in perfect sync: Neither side wants to establish a weak precedent at this point in time. The strike has also brought out the best and most determined efforts from both sides. Ira Shepard, lead negotiator for the commercial producers told Playbill On-Line that, in terms of his career, this negotiation easily ranks among his "personal top five" endeavors.
On the actors' side, voiceover and on-camera talent have been involved in energetic "all-hands" efforts to disrupt commercial shoots, perform outreach to non-union talent, man daily picket lines and organize rallies. In recent weeks, top talents like actor Paul Newman have also brought their fame to bear in an effort to influence corporate advertisers publicly.
The fame campaign by SAG has proven interesting. It instantly brought prestige and discipline to the largely ad hoc style of the union's strike effort, and further legitimized the guild's position. A quick series of celebrity packed rallies and demonstrations began with a Sept. 7 event at Broadway's Royale Theatre but, after motivating its membership and jump-starting media coverage, SAG has pulled back somewhat in the past week, ostensibly because it wanted to avoid overexposure and media dilution of its stars.
That said, the union may have sensed resistance in negotiations and opted to hold its top talent in reserve. Rather than embarrass stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Philip Bosco, Blair Brown, Skip Suddeth, Alec Baldwin, Celeste Holm, Olympia Dukakis and many others by having them on the front line if this week's talks do become strained, the union side stepped and instead announced that a major boycott of Proctor and Gamble was likely if negotiations broke down.
Still, SAG's big names have been visible on the street. On Sept. 21, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joe Piscopo and even elder statesmen like Harry Belafonte carried union placards and shuffled up and down the block on Sixth Avenue and 53 St. in front of DDB&O Advertising.
Behind the scenes, there are serious political issues developing within the union that are likely to have some bearing on the guild's contract negotiations. At its best, SAG is experiencing a profound galvanization. Yet, while the strike has contributed a certain sense of necessity to that process and furthered it along, the union was already in the middle of its own (often) difficult transition.
Before the strike was called on May 1 and as far back as 1998, the democratically run guild has been active politically. To understand SAG's make up is to better understand the guild in relation to its dealings with the commercial producers, a group that is assumed to have studied the union's profile carefully.
Earlier this year, actor William Daniels assumed the role of SAG president from fellow actor Richard Masur after a hotly contested presidential election. And, at the guild's highest staff level, the familiar negotiating team comprising SAG executive director Ken Orsati and associate national executive director John McGuire was reorganized after Orsati (who has been battling cancer) announced that he was retiring. McGuire is considered Orsati's heir apparent and continues to lead the commercial talks.
In other developments, reports of serious internecine squabbling have come from various union sources. SAG's New York Branch president and second national vice president, Lisa Scarola, who is approaching the mid-point in a two-year elected term, has generated controversy and some degree of animosity regarding her absence at strike actions (logging just three appearances), for making unusual demands of SAG staff and inappropriate behavior. At board meetings, when addressed as "Lisa," Scarola has reportedly said, "Excuse me, you will refer to me as president Scarola."
While Scarola is technically third in line to run SAG in an emergency, the "Scarola issue" has become a hot topic even on the picket lines. Elected with 5,000 votes from the possible 27,000 members living under the jurisdiction of SAG's New York office, Scarola's political base is made up of what one source said are largely "members of the background (extras) community" which campaigned aggressively for the successful merge of the former Screen Extras Guild with SAG. At least three credible sources close to SAG have described Scarola's tenure as troubled and additional sources confirm that funds are being raised privately to block her from building a majority position on SAG's national board in next year's elections.
Calls to Lisa Scarola and Ira Shepard had not been returned at press time.
-- By Murdoch McBride