The current nationwide commercials-contract strike is heavy on the minds of all members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), who are walking the lines with their fellows in the Screen Actors Guild. But, for Greg Hessinger, AFTRA's new national executive director, the commercials contract represents only the entrance to the beehive.
"We have a host of major contract negotiations over the next 15 months," Hessinger explains in an exclusive interview with Back Stage. "In November of this year, the staff newspersons agreements with the three major networks all expire, as well as a large number of broadcast contracts at local TV and radio stations owned by networks.
"In the spring, we'll be participating in primetime and theatrical negotiations, which historically we've negotiated jointly with SAG," he adds. "We'll also be exploring in June our sound recordings code, which covers singers. We negotiate it with the record labels, and in light of all the changes in the music industry, it should be challenging."
Wait. He's not through.
"Then, in November 2001, our network code expires, which covers all entertainment programming other than prime time."
These major contract negotiations will surely chalk up long days and little peace for Hessinger, who joined AFTRA in June 1998 as assistant national executive director for news and broadcast. The national board named him the acting administrative head earlier this summer, after Bruce York, the union's executive director for the past 10 years, announced he would be officially leaving in September. Hessinger was then named the new national executive administrator at the beginning of August.
Even without the immediate and pending contract issues, Hessinger has taken the AFTRA helm at an important time in the union's history. First, moving into a new decade of a new century, Hessinger must continue meeting the union's priorities, including responding to changing technology, progress in internal restructuring, and attempting to overcome a budget deficit.
"First and foremost, I must help insure that AFTRA members are full participants with the industry in the growth of new technological areas," Hessinger explains. "That means fair compensation for material that's produced for cable and the Internet, and, in the case of music, services like Napster and any new technologies that inevitably come along."
Napster allows Internet users to exchange music files via file-swapping software, a process which has resulted in the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) suing Napster for copyright infringement. A federal district court has ruled against Napster, but the firm has appealed.
In the lawsuit, AFTRA filed a court statement in support of the RIAA. "We filed the statement for two reasons," Hessinger says. "One, to the extent that music is distributed through piracy rather than legitimate sales, it impacts artists in their royalty payments, and, in the case of background singers, contingent scale payments. Also, health and pension contributions that would be payable on those amounts are lost."
AFTRA's internal restructuring has created a shift in concentration on "national strength and local service," a phrase created by Hessinger's predecessor, who administered AFTRA's national affairs for 10 years.
Where does Hessinger fit in to the national-local equation?
"It's very important that I provide strong leadership that our locals can have confidence in," he stresses. "While AFTRA has undergone a significant amount of restructuring, our union still relies in large part on the ability of national and the locals to reach consensus on things, and work together to achieve objectives. That demands both strong leadership at the national level, and a willingness to listen to concerns of the locals and be willing to adapt to those concerns.
"I believe the locals have adjusted well," he adds, "and have really extended a great deal of effort to try and make this new structure work."
Dueling with the Deficit
For the sixth straight year, AFTRA has reported a deficit, the figures for the last fiscal year showing a $3 million loss, and projections of a $1.6 million loss this year. Hessinger is taking a practical approach, which includes a new national dues structure members have approved—a formula replacing the old dues levied at the local level.
"The deficit is a problem that we must take seriously and must address," Hessinger emphasizes. "We will need to make some cuts once the dues structuring is complete. We phased in the national dues structure over a period of years. It's not yet at the point where everyone will pay the full rate.
"While we're looking at cutting costs, we're also looking at bringing in funds through growth. No union will survive unless it's growing; and the number of members you have goes hand-in-hand with the amount of power you have."
Hessinger feels AFTRA "will take two years to turn around the deficit problem."
Another Strike in 2001?
Hessinger, of course, is dealing daily with the current commercials strike. And, like his board, members, and staff, he reads news reports of the studios preparing for another SAG-AFTRA strike next year when negotiators bargain a new feature film and TV contract. But Hessinger isn't buying those reports.
"Frankly, based on my conversations with the leadership at other unions, we all believe a strike can be averted if the industry is prepared to seriously address the issues that are important to our members; and if both sides are willing to be flexible and try to craft solutions.
"Clearly we will need to study the compensation structure for programming. We'll have to address the use of cable, the Internet, and that includes not only what is appropriate compensation for reuse of product, but also coverage of original programming produced for the Internet."
Then, to clarify, Hessinger adds, "I don't want to create the impression that I'm not concerned about the possibility of a work stoppage next year. Clearly it's a possibility, but we need to go into negotiations with the mindset that we'll try to avoid it."
Media Mergers, Management's Mindset
Labor advocates have expressed dire concern about the recent media mergers, and the possibility that the vertical integration of entertainment companies could stifle freedom of creative production, jobs available, and compensation for creative product.
Perhaps no one understands the impact of the mergers, and management's mindset, better than Hessinger. He has, in fact, been there-done that, having worked as a corporate lawyer before deciding to join the labor movement. As an attorney at Westinghouse Broadcasting, he took part in the merger experience when his firm linked up with CBS.
"The media mergers are built upon financial assumptions that there will be efficiencies achieved through the merger," Hessinger says. "So the corporate leaders are under tremendous pressure to generate those efficiencies.
"The challenge for the unions is to recognize the tremendous pressure the companies are under, and to be flexible and try to address the efficiencies. But they need to demand, in exchange for that flexibility, that their union members are going to fairly share in the growth that is generated by increased efficiencies. That's our challenge: To assure that our members are sharing every step of the way in the successes that these companies are able to realize."
As for concern over creative limitations, Hessinger notes AFTRA's consistent communication with the Federal Communications Commis-sion (FCC).
"We've taken positions a number of times with the FCC that loosening restrictions on ownership is bad for creativity, bad for diversity in programming, and bad for diversity in hiring. Nevertheless, we need to accept that the FCC has allowed some of these mergers to occur, and we need to find ways to address those issues in a meaningful way."
An attorney who graduated with honors from St. John's University's law school in 1990, Hessinger practiced as a labor lawyer from 1990-94 at New York's Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. In '94, he joined Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which later merged with CBS, Inc.
At Westinghouse/CBS, he negotiated and drafted numerous collective bargaining pacts with entertainment industry unions, including AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
A Look Inside
As the interview nears its end, the conversation turns toward personal values. In this capitalistic society, can't a corporate lawyer earn a lot more money than a labor-union executive?
First, there's Hessinger's soft laugh, and then the single-word answer: "Yes."
Then what is it in AFTRA's new executive's make-up that made him walk away from that and into the labor movement?
"I didn't immediately know, coming out of law school what area I wanted to practice in," he reflects. "When I started at Skadden, Arps, I spent the first year of practice dabbling in tax and trust and estate law; it was an initial area of interest.
"But I soon recognized, seeing some of the work the labor department was engaged in—and my own observations of developments in labor law, particularly the entertainment and sports fields—it was an area of law that interested me a lot, and I thought I could practice it with success.
"If you're looking for what drove me into it, I certainly was always a great admirer of Marvin Miller and what he did for the Major League Baseball Players Association. Then, when I became a labor lawyer, back in the early '90s, I did so envisioning myself as working on the side of labor. Certainly my own personal beliefs lie there.
"So, when the opportunity to work with AFTRA came along, I found it was both a new challenge I couldn't resist, and also consistent with my own personal inclinations to support the rights of the working person."