There has been a major development within SAG tonight that makes a strike even less likely than ever. DHD readers know that back in December, I urged SAG to bypass a strike authorization altogether and place itself in an even stronger negotiating position by following a less risky course of action: send out the AMPTP’s June 30th contract proposal and let the members decide to ratify it or not by the necessary 50+% threshold. (See my previous, DHD To SAG: Forget Strike Authorization Ballot! Vote On AMPTP Contract Proposal.)

Well, imagine my surprise when, after Monday’s and Tuesday’s 30.5-hour marathon SAG National Board meeting, sources began telling me that a movement was underway to do the above. I waited to post about this significantly new development to see if the idea took hold. Well, it has.

Now SAG National Executive Director & Chief Negotiator Doug Allen has announced to the National Board and Alternates that he will spend the next days pushing for this contract vote by the membership instead of the strike authorization ballot. “I will convene an Officers’ call this week to discuss this suggestion and how it might be considered and implemented. I encourage all board members to discuss these issues with the Guild officers or with me in advance of the call,” Allen wrote. (See below.)

I view this as great news for the entertainment industry because it introduces a new dynamic when SAG’s solidarity is splitting down the middle over anything with the word “strike” on it. (And once again the trades and Bloomberg got it wrong by claiming SAG President Alan Rosenberg would now keep pushing for the strike authorization vote…).

I suggested that SAG’s National Board could refuse to offer a recommendation one way or the other about the AMPTP deal as a way to 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’d checked the SAG rules, and nothing there prevents the contract from being sent out “neutrally” for ratification now.) But Allen is proposing that the offer be sent out with Pro and Con statements from National Board members and that otherwise the Guild would remain neutral during any member debate regarding ratification. Sounds good.

But here’s the kick in the head: Allen proposed all of the above inside that marathon National Board meeting Monday and Tuesday. And for some reason, not everybody wanted it. In fact, my sources tell me that the National Board members who were overwhelmingly against it belonged to the Unite For Strength (U4S) and New York Regional camps who are on the same side of most issues because of their common loathing of the Membership First faction. I thought U4S and NY Regional saw themselves as “moderates” (at least that’s how the Hollywood trades and LA Times keep referring to them, and to Membership First as “militants”). But, tell me, how is it a moderate position to want to keep a Strike Authorization Ballot on the table with all that it implies? And how is it a militant position to want to send out the June 30th contract proposal to the membership for a vote when that’s what the AMPTP has been asking SAG to do for months and months?

Therefore, I must ask whether the same factions of SAG National Board members and alternates who sought to throw out the agreed-upon meeting agenda and SAG’s constitutional rules on Monday and Tuesday in order to focus solely on their anti-Membership First feud, are now putting their own agenda ahead of what’s best for all SAG members and for all showbiz? “Doug offered them this compromise and they said ‘No, because we don’t trust you’. That’s it. No further discussion. Now they are in a bind,” one of my insiders explains. “Because if they don’t take this offer seriously, they will be the people who left the Strike Authorization on the table. But if they agree and Doug at el were successful in getting the AMPTP or the CEOs to sweeten the deal and maybe the membership to ratify it, then MF and Doug are heroes. And that’s political suicide for U4S/NY.”

I’ve said all along no matter if it was SAG vs AFTRA, or MF vs U4S, or Hollywood Division vs New York Division: the focus by the big actors union’s entire leadership should be on the contract, not on actor vs actor disputes. (Nor on Doug Allen. I recall how, during the WGA strike, the trades and the LA Times also targeted and villified that guild’s “outsider” — chief negotiator Dave Young who came out of the garment business’ union organizing — as the root cause of everything that was wrong. Only to later praise Young for his role in helping manuever the strike’s end game. In fact, the moguls who’ve sat down with Allen tell me he seems “calm and reasonable”. )

So it’s time for SAG members to hold ALL their leadership’s feet to the fire: Demand that your guild’s National Board table the Strike Authorization Ballot. Demand that you get to vote on the AMPTP contract now. 

Allen proposes that, before a membership ratification vote, SAG “meet immediately with the AMPTP to determine to what extent, if any, they are willing to improve their last offer, to maximize its chances for ratification”. Heck, maybe pigs will fly and sanity will prevail and the Hollywood CEOs will have the good sense to order the AMPTP to show good faith and make the current contract proposal that more likely to pass now (as opposed to months later). Everyone knows on both sides that certain demands will be dropped at the 11th hour. This means tweaking French hours and force majeure and DVD bumps and some other impossible-to-get issues which we all know the two sides were planning to do anyway when a vote got closer. (Or was the plan by the AMPTP’s labor lawyers all along to make a big show of only giving in to the so-called “moderates” once they came into power in order to make them look all that much better compared to the “militants”? Nice to know that SAG’s recent National Board meetings are following the AMPTP’s script to perfection.) So simply do it now rather than later. Hasn’t the AMPTP punished SAG’s leadership enough already without SAG’s leadership punishing itself and its members?

I must remind SAG members that the AMPTP presented AFTRA with a virtually complete contract that wound up little changed. But the AMPTP made SAG negotiators start from scratch — literally — and negotiate up from the bottom issue by issue, term by term. It was a loathesome tactic. And it’s the primary reason why AFTRA’s negotiations took just a few weeks, while SAG’s bargaining dragged on and on and on… Those are the facts which no amount of spin by Big Media, or the AMPTP, or the anti-guild media can change. 

I’d hate to think that SAG’s U4S or NY contingent won’t approve sending the contract out for a vote simply because they don’t want Membership First to get credit for making the strike threat go away. This isn’t about petty considerations like that. This isn’t about winning because the whole entertainment community is losing as this uncertainty drags on. The time is now for everybody to stop fighting and open their minds and consider the following: 

If the contract is ratified, then SAG has decided that now in the midst of another Great Depression is not the time to fight. So the guild holds its fire for three years at which time I predict the mother of all strikes by two or more guilds will hit Hollywood. Basically, Big Media is swapping big pain now for much less hurt down the line by betting that their cartel will control even more of New Media by 2011. As for SAG, it’s clear that the reality of working under its own contract or AFTRA’s will leave most members bitter at having been bullied by a bad economy into a bad deal.

But if the contract is rejected, then the AMPTP and their Big Media bosses would have to realize that this isn’t just Alan Rosenberg or Doug Allen or Membership First militants 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 their labor lawyers didn’t work. (And Carol Lombardini’s “tryout” for Nick Counter’s job as AMPTP president was a big fat failure.) The Hollywood CEOs would have to start engaging in backchannel negotiations just like they did during the WGA strike. Then SAG could bargain representing the will of the majority of their members. 

Here is Doug Allen’s letter to the Board: 

Subject: Message from Doug Allen, SAG National Executive Director

January 14, 2009

Dear SAG National Board Members and Alternates,

Because the executive session of our recent extraordinary National Board meeting occurred without my presence in the room, I want to directly communicate several points to all board members and alternates.

I began and ended my report to the National Board on January 12 by stating that I have followed and always will follow the directives of the National Board expressed by a unanimous or majority vote. Under my leadership all SAG staff has complied and will comply with those directives as well. I also said that I am by SAG constitution and by employment contract accountable to the board for my performance.

I welcome your review of that performance and respectfully request only that, in the interest of fairness, such review include the opportunity for me to discuss with the board any comments, questions or issues you wish to raise, not in lieu of executive session discussion, but prior to such discussion.

It is unfortunate that the important matters contained in the National Board meeting ag enda were not accomplished at the meeting January 12 and 13. I know that opinions vary sharply on why that happened. From my perspective, to the extent AMPTP positions or actions are the problem, the solution cannot be determined by how intensely you fight among yourselves.

Regarding the TV/Theatrical negotiations, and the sharply divided opinions on the board about how to proceed, I offered the following suggestion to a cross section of Guild leaders during the period of the executive session. I asked that they discuss the suggestion with other board members in attendance. I proposed that the strike authorization referendum be suspended and that management’s offer be put to the membership in a ratification vote. I also proposed that, before that membership ratification vote, we meet immediately with the AMPTP to determine to what extent, if any, they are willing to improve their last offer, to maximize its chances for ratification. I further proposed that the offer then be sent to the members with Pro and Con statements from National Board members and that otherwise the Guild would remain neutral during any member debate regarding ratification. This process will give Screen Actors Guild members the opportunity to formally express themselves on the bargaining issues.

This suggestion was communicated to some, but not all board members in attendance, and apparently was rejected by some who heard it, at least in part, because they believe I could not be “trusted” to implement it. Since I am the one proposing it and since I have never acted contrary to the directives of the National Board, that is not a reasonable objection. In any case, if it is the decision of the National Board to proceed as I have proposed, I assure you that the staff and I will carry out your decision faithfully and diligently.

I will convene an Officers’ call this week to discuss this suggestion and how it might be considered and implemented. I encourage all board members to discuss these issues with the Guild officers or with me in advance of the call.

There are no more important issues before us than the conclusion of the TV/Theatrical Contract negotiations and the initiation of the Commercial Contract negotiations. Super-heated rhetoric through the press will not contribute to our success on behalf of the members. Working together to resolve your differences will.

Doug Allen