In mid-January, Michael P. Byrne exercised his right as a dues-paying member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). He stood for his allowed three minutes before the union's General Membership meeting, holding a postcard. He emphasized that‹if the guild would simply reach out and invite members to get active‹it would see a positive response from an intelligent, creative, energetic force which was willing to voice and help solve their greatest concerns as working actors.
Just over a month later, he's holding a stack of nearly 200 cards, with more coming in. Byrne is chairman of SAG's new national "Members on the MOVE" communications network, a major effort by the guild to not only invite members to use those years of voice lessons, and critique and recommend guild changes, but to let them know they're being heard, and to activate them.
"I'm trying to keep the focus on what members need, and how can we effectively serve them, and bring them in, and get them on board," Byrne told Back Stage last week. "People may have basic problems with the union; but with a little effort, they can effect changes they say they need. It's one thing to get out on the street and say things are all screwed up. But you've got to use the mechanisms that are available; and in the [guild] constitution, the mechanisms are there."
The mechanisms for joining in with Byrne and other SAG members are there also. The SAG website recently announced the "Members on the MOVE" initiative on its home page, with a special line to click, leading the reader to a sign-up page.
The website lists the six goals of the initiative, which are working to: (1) build an informed and represented membership; (2) mobilize and energize member activists; (3) recruit new leaders in the union; (4) organize and build union solidarity nationally; (5) inform members about contracts and negotiations; and (6) strengthen a powerful, active membership.
The MOVE program originated within the guild's national contract campaign steering committee, of which Byrne is a member.
"We decided we wanted to have a more member-driven union, rather than a service-generated union," explained Tom Bower, a SAG national board member and chair of the steering committee. "We realized we needed to get more people involved in how the union was run."
That effort came last year, following the guild's new three-year film-TV contract with producers. "The steering committee was born out of a frustration for what we felt was a lack of leadership on contracts, and the need for getting unity from the members," Byrne added. "There was a need to establish a committee geared toward strengthening and improving contracts."
The national board agreed, and through its special projects department, helped the members form the steering committee, and provided work space, staff support, and a computer database.
"Member-Driven" as Key
Just as Bower stressed that the contracts steering committee is "member-driven," Byrne echoes that description for MOVE: "This is a member-initiated, member-driven effort to get members as involved as possible," Byrne emphasized. "We have some unique problems in our union. We're very transient, here today then gone [on a shoot] for three weeks. We need an extensive network so members can put in a minimum amount of effort in being active: maybe a half hour a month on the phone; or take the postcards, and just hand them out at auditions. Or, if they don't feel comfortable doing that, just leave them at audition places."
The enlistment card invites members to attend informational meetings, assist in SAG organizing activities, and asks them to list which contracts‹commercials, TV/theatrical, or industrial/interactive‹they're primarily interested in.
"The information workshops are about the general information you should know as a working actor," explained Byrne, who began as an extra, and now does all principal work under the commercials, and TV/theatrical contracts. He added that the "grapevine" can provide "a lot of misinformation about contracts," including simple issues such as meal penalty language and travel time."
He believes that a lack of knowledge about a contract's specifics leads to "a culture of fear in this business, where actors are afraid to speak up, to question authority on the set when it comes to being asked to sacrifice a meal penalty or turnaround time. I strongly believe that part of the focus has got to be educating members on contract issues and their rights."
Byrne also believes that increased knowledge can help the actor during contract negotiations. "Part of the problem we have is that people don't understand that, when we're not unified as a force, it's very easy for the negotiating team or producers to come in and say, "This is what we're going to give you, and we know you don't have the support of your members.' If this [MOVE] is successful, we don't have to go into a strike situation; we can go into a unified situation to get better pay, especially in cable and foreign residuals."
A huge key to activating a great number of members, Byrne feels, is to organize them into small focus groups. "Through focus groups, we can reach out to particular constituencies in the membership and get their ideas."
To help in this cause, SAG brought in an outside firm to organize focus group meetings, gathering no more than 10 people per session, to encourage each member to participate in group discussion. Byrne said his subcommittee members would travel to Florida and New York during the next couple of weeks to form more focus groups.
"Out of that, we'll come up with a survey we can pass out to members, and hopefully, this will be another organizing tool.
We'll show the members we really want to know what they have to say, to give us their ideas. Hopefully, we'll set some guidelines on how to be that much more effective."
Steering committee chairman Bower adds that he feels the subcommittee is on the right course: "When people have a problem, and it's a collective kind of problem, and they get together to solve it, they've proven to be very effective."