On the cusp of a crucial strike authorization vote by members of the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood's biggest union is wrestling with rising discontent among its members over the prospect of an imminent showdown with the studios.
The union representing 120,000 actors is spending more than $100,000 on an "education campaign" to muster support for a strike authorization vote, which union leaders say is necessary to give them leverage in negotiations with studios that have gone nowhere for months. The sides are sharply at odds over how actors should be compensated in the digital era.
But the campaign is facing mounting opposition from many of the union's own members, who question the wisdom of holding a strike vote in the midst of a deep recession that has forced widespread layoffs and cutbacks across the entertainment industry. Others fear that a strike would give only a leg up to the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which has already negotiated a contract with the studios and has been signing more shows in prime-time TV.
SAG has a long history of internal bickering. The union's hard-line and moderate factions have been wrangling for much of the last year over negotiating strategy and an ill-fated campaign to defeat the AFTRA accord. But the tensions reached a tipping point last week when SAG's New York board publicly took the unusual step of calling on the union to scrap a planned strike authorization vote, citing the deteriorating economy.
SAG leaders faced a near open revolt from New York division members Monday night during a testy town hall meeting in Manhattan.
After a raucous three-hour meeting, SAG members said the union remained more divided than ever. New York members used the forum to lambaste the union's leadership for its handling of the contract negotiations.
Actor Alec Baldwin said after he left the New York meeting that the current leadership had failed and should step down from the negotiating committee.
"Nothing against them personally," he said. "I respect them. I think they did the best that they could. I'm just very curious why three other major unions came to terms with the [studios] and we haven't. We're not negotiating effectively because we are too fragmented ourselves. . . . They have failed as negotiators."
After the meeting, an exhausted-looking SAG President Alan Rosenberg emerged saying he remains just as determined as ever to hold a strike authorization vote and blamed the internal divisions on a historical divide within the union.
"There's always been a war between New York and Los Angeles, and it's tragic," he said. "I think they had the room pretty much stacked against us. . . . [The studios] know about the differences between New York and L.A. and they just wait for us to disintegrate. As long as we have this refusal to march together, we are going to be hard-pressed to make a good deal on any contract."
The New York members got a boost Monday when more than 130 actors -- several of whom also are producers -- including Tom Hanks, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe and George Clooney, called on the national board to reconsider the planned strike referendum, which is scheduled to begin over a three-week period starting Jan. 2.
The high-profile actors endorsed a letter that Rhea Perlman and her husband, Danny DeVito, recently wrote to SAG's officers calling on the union to accept an imperfect agreement and save the fight for a later day when the union has more leverage to get a better contract.
The actors included many of the same celebrities who backed the dissident group known as Unite for Strength that won key seats on the national board in recent board elections, tilting the balance of power away from a hard-line group that had backed Rosenberg.
In the tug of war for high-profile support, SAG announced its own "solidarity campaign." The union said about 50 actors -- including Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook and former SAG President Ed Asner -- had signed a "statement of support."
"We must arm our negotiating committee with the collective unity and strength of the Screen Actors Guild members," the statement read. Some of the actors, including Asner and Sheen, have recorded video testimonials that will debut on the union's website.
Nonetheless, the split among high-profile actors comes at a bad time for SAG leaders, potentially undercutting their efforts to present a united front as they seek to wrestle for better contract terms from the studios.
Doug Lory, a former New York board member and national board alternate, said the mood inside the Manhattan meeting room was "angry and exasperated and confused and passionate. . . . It's fair to say that the large majority of the people in the room are not comfortable with the national leadership," adding that he believes both Rosenberg and SAG Executive Director Doug Allen should resign. "I have no faith or confidence in their capacity to lead us through a strike."