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Why those striking actors just can’t get respect — or a contract

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
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If anyone should be able to understand both sides in this struggle it is Keast, who years ago was a producer for an ad agency. But as he recalls the advertising business, ”Talent was such a small part of the cost -- I don‘t see why you’d give short shrift to the people selling the product.“

Some, like ”Tom“ from Hollywood, have not been able to adapt as quickly as Keast. In most recent years, Tom‘s income has been about half from theater, half from commercials. With residuals now drying up, he had to turn to the union’s membership assistance fund to meet his modest $525 rent last month. He voted for the strike because ”It‘s getting harder and harder“ to make a living and because, after having been shortchanged on ads he did manage to snag, he feels strongly about the question of monitoring. While this issue has been less prominent than that of network and cable residual rates, it’s a sore point with some; Tom says he caught one agency running one of his commercials 12 times while presenting him with payment for only seven. After that, he e-mailed friends around the country, asking, ”Please let me know whenever you see me.“ If the negotiations don‘t yield an agreement to fund monitoring, Tom says, SAG itself should underwrite it. A SAG study last year monitoring 20 advertisers showed about $150,000 in residuals owed to 81 performers -- an underpayment of almost $2,000 per actor.

The strike has been as hard on technicians as on actors -- perhaps harder, since many technicians don’t have the fallback occupations actors have developed over years. In an industry where cooperation among unions has only been intermittent, the erosion of job opportunities due to runaway commercial production has weakened the technicians‘ sense of solidarity with fellow film workers. One veteran gaffer, now working as an electrician at about half his former wage, worries that producers now sampling Toronto and Vancouver as locations may never come back. A longtime lefty who did his student film about a strike, he’s hungry enough that he won‘t rule out crossing a picket line -- though he hasn’t had to make that choice yet.

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Ambivalence is clear in the comments of cinematographers from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 600 published in the August issue of their bulletin ”Camera Angles.“ ”We need to honor SAG‘s position because we’re labor, too. One day the shoe could certainly be on the other foot,“ says Robbie Greenberg. ”But for workers who are losing their jobs . . . it‘s tough to be principled when you’ve got a family to feed.“

For specialists in commercials, the problem is most acute: ”If the strike goes on for another three months, I will lose my house,“ predicts first assistant Allen Betrancourt, father of a six-month-old baby; his health insurance could lapse if he falls below a minimum number of hours worked. Technicians whose daily bread was not commercials are suffering from a ripple effect. ”Folks who primarily work in commercials are starting to compete in my market for jobs in episodic and features,“ says first assistant cameraman Lex Rawlins. Nonetheless, Rawlins adds, ”I support SAG. The actors are really getting abused.“

Leaders of the striking guilds praise the assistance they‘ve received from other union leaders. ”It’s remarkable, given the Guild‘s history of not really being involved,“ says a SAG board member. The national AFL-CIO, he says, provided experienced organizer John Cox; the United Auto Workers backed up actions against General Motors (targeted because it is an advertising-association power); Teamsters have spotted and called in locations of non-union shoots. Executives and activists from entertainment guilds have played a prominent role locally in rallies and on picket lines, adds AFTRA’s Pam Fair.

But some industry unionists are fainter with their praise of labor‘s performance. ”Hollywood unions are not as united as they should be, especially when we’re at risk of losing the industry to globalization,“ asserts Earl Brendlinger, business manager of the Studio Utility Employees (a local that includes set-construction workers and landscapers). Some unions are reluctant to get involved, he says. And on the strikers‘ side, outreach has been lacking. Aside from appearing at an L.A. City Council hearing to curtail non-union shoots on city property, says Brendlinger, he and his local haven’t been asked for any specific help. An official of an IATSE local says some labor leaders are asking themselves if this was the right fight at the right time. It might have made more sense, he suggests, to stay loose until the completion of a pending industry-wide study on residuals in the cable industry. He questions the new-guard SAG leadership‘s tactical judgment. ”There wasn’t a lot of planning, and only in the last month were they getting up to speed. If there‘s another breakdown,“ he worries, ”the shift to Canadian shoots could bring about a whole new paradigm.“

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