Short of discovering teamster legend Jimmy Hoffa alive and well, the American labor movement could not have dreamed of a more dramatic series of events as occurred today during the SAG/AFTRA talks with commercial producers in New York City.
There, three of IATSE's top officials, representing that union's eastern and western regions as well as local members in New York City, announced that, from this point on, the national IA would honor the SAG/AFTRA picket lines both in the United States and Canada.
IATSE's move boosts SAG and AFTRA, which have been trying to halt the production of commercials by holding out acting talent from the production mix. Now, with IA's camera operators, grips and stagehands holding out as well, producers seeking to do a commercial shoot must contend with hiring non-union talent on both sides of the camera.
Speaking deliberately and with profound effect, an IA official promised commercial producers that his union would do "everything necessary...and I mean everything (pause) within the law" to support the actors' effort.
Following this pledge of support and in a direct confrontation with John McGuinn, lead negotiator for commercial producers, the IA official added, "And I think, John, that you and I are both sophisticated enough to know what that means." With those few words, IATSE may have caused a sea change in the five month-old commercial strike by actors. The announcement certainly rattled the commercial producers' cage, as John McGuinn quickly announced that he would like to confer with his superiors at the Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The surprise support from IATSE and McGuinn's subsequent call for a meeting precluded an otherwise almost certain walk- out scheduled for Sept. 27.
The walk-out was considered a foregone conclusion by the unions, which had already booked a room and prepared a major celebrity press conference for 2:30 PM at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. One SAG source cited the IATSE pledge saying it caused the commercial producers to "blink."
In context, IATSE support means the actors' could have a strong enough alliance to effectively shut down commercial production or make it so costly or so frustrating to produce a decent spot that producers will be compelled to hasten the end of the strike.
Chronologically, the events of Sept. 27 continued to unfold in a matter-of fact fashion, although a certain objective discipline was required in order to keep things straight.
At the midday meeting, members of the full negotiating committees of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA) and the commercial producers' Joint Policy Committee (JPC) met on the fifth floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel to recap exactly where their negotiations stood. Before adjourning, each side presented trenchant summaries of their positions and shared their understanding of the other's proposals. It was clear that positions were being stated for the record (all discussions at the negotiating table are "citable"), initially in expectation of imminent action, ie., the planned walk out. Reports suggest that these summaries were given in measured tones and that there was anticipation evident, not only in the voices of the speakers, but throughout the room. Perhaps 50 people gathered to witness the Sept. 27 meeting including such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss, Treat Williams, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Miguel Ferrer, SAG president William Daniels and others.
After several minutes spent establishing positions on either side of the table, the statements from lead negotiators John McGuinn (for the commercial producers) and John McGuire (for SAG) were supplemented by the IATSE announcement. In short order, the meeting adjourned, and the JPC team met briefly on their own before leaving the Crowne Plaza to consult with the full JPC.
IATSE's support was made even though that union does not have a "strike clause" governing its members' work in connection with the actors' commercial strike.
Earlier on Sept. 27, Playbill On-Line had learned that SAG's most recent proposal, which featured a 7.39 percent increase over the three-year term of the new contract, had been nixed by producers late on Sept. 26. The Joint Policy Committee (JPC) representing commercial producers has been crunching numbers since the proposal was submitted by the union late Sunday or early Monday.
The SAG offer was higher than that proposed by the JPC. Producers had offered a five percent increase, which union sources said was inadequate and did not reflect the good work and consistent performance of its work force. For the last contract between these groups, an eight percent increase was negotiated over the three-year term of that pact.
Shortly after 2:30 PM, SAG and AFTRA rolled out twenty of their prominent members together with another fifty of their rank and file members at a fourth floor press conference in the Crowne Plaza's Broadway Room.
Following a pattern established over the past few weeks, SAG and AFTRA's top actors spoke to the press in an effort to attract media attention while portraying the union as advocating the needs of the working actor.
SAG president William Daniels said, "We are still there, ready to bargain in good faith. This contract is a commercial contract for cable television among other issues, and it doesn't actually concern the people who you recognize sitting in back of me and to the side of me. The contract concerns the rights of our members who are having trouble making a living and putting food on the table. The stars behind me are here to show support. They empower our union and they are showing their support and solidarity for our union and for that we are all deeply grateful."
AFTRA president Shelby Scott predicted the unions would remain strong and then gave the selected prominent actors a general introduction.
Richard Dreyfuss said, "This is a deadly serious business. It has to do with the economics of families and children, with people who spend their lives in an ironically invisible way in this most visible of industries and in this most visible of unions. They are the people who are overlooked, they are what have been referred to today as 'rank and file.' Well, I am rank and file now, I was rank and file at the beginning of my career and I will be rank and file at the end of my career. Actors have spent countless hours trying to come to a fair, decent deal, sitting out at the table for hours at a time trying desperately to be fair. There is no one here in this room who has been working on this contract, not just for the last six weeks, but for the last three years who have been trying to manipulate or take advantage of this industry. This industry can afford an honest wage. They can afford a good deal. We have met here day after day and night after night for 20 hours at a stretch and we are not going away unless they go away first. We are not going away until we get a fair deal."
Tim Robbins also spoke, describing the talks as being at a "critical juncture" and confirming that Sept 27 was a "critical day."
Several other celebrities were on hand including Matthew Modine, Julia Roberts, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Morrow and others, like Treat Williams who said the issues came down to "basic human decency."
Rosie O'Donnell sparked controversy by saying, "I have a very 'advertiser friendly' program. And as much as we are in negotiations with them, it is important to keep in sight that they are not, in fact, the enemy. They are not. It's not us against them, because corporate America makes it possible for many of us to make our money. Now, I think that the people at Proctor and Gamble and some of the other sponsors that we have on our program have been unbelievably philanthropic to our show and to the community as a whole——not 'actor-specific,' but, when we needed millions of dollars——and I am talking millions, as a result of our show and corporate sponsors——in four years, we've raised $45 million for charity. So, I know that these people do not have hearts of stone and I know that they will be able to come to the understanding that, if there is a 'cap' to be had, it should be had on the backs of the people who are famous. If you have made over $100,000 on a commercial, maybe you should stop getting residuals. But, if you have made under that, I think you are entitled to get residuals to have your family be fed. I think that's sort of a fair way to do it. All of the K-Mart money that I made, we gave away. It was over $10 million. There is money out there in corporate America and they do give it up when you ask them nicely. I've asked them nicely for four years. They've been unbelievably supportive. I know that they will come and they will make a deal. I know that they will do it. That is what I chose to believe. I don't think it benefits anyone to have an us against them mentality because we all are in this together. I am a firm believer in this union and I am a member of this union. I used to do commercials before I was famous and I will support you to the end in any way that I can. But I also think that we should all know that they are able to step up and do the right thing and they have done it before and they are capable of doing it now."
Later, outside the hotel, some actors reacted angrily to O'Donnell's use of the term "cap," suggesting she was pandering to her influential corporate sponsors. Nevertheless, her remarks drew strong applause and an impromptu rejoinder by Richard Dreyfuss, who has been intimately involved with the talks and had attended them daily since Sept. 22. "I think Rosie is absolutely right," Dreyfuss said, "These people are not our enemies. We just have to figure out those incredibly subtle ways to remind them of that."
Susan Sarandon, perhaps the most consistently visible and well known activist among the prominent actors gathered at the press conference said, "I'm here as rank and file. I started in commercials after living in this city. I was born in this city and I'm connected to everyone in this room. The only thing I can add that they couldn't say is that I'm a mom, and I'm a mom just like a lot of other moms in this union. There are moms out there that are trying to send their kids to decent schools, trying to hold on to their houses, their health care, their pension funds and that's why we're here today and why we're gonna win. The other thing that is necessary to know, as Treat (Williams) said, is that this is about what is just. This is not about money, but what this is about is one more time when the little guy is not going to roll over for corporate America."
Sarandon also hinted at the real possibility of a future boycott involving the general public.
As reported earlier, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) would likely play some role in future events, but this has not been defined. The government agency will certainly be reporting directly to the White House on any break in talks. The FMCS chief reports directly to the White House routinely and, this close to a presidential election, political intervention—perhaps by democratic candidate and Vice President Al Gore—cannot be ruled out.
[Just after this story was filed, SAG and AFTRA broke off the talks after all, at approximately 6:30 PM EST, after receiving an offer from the commercial producers that was described by one SAG source as "absolutely unacceptable." See separate story.]