Union and ad-industry negotiators on Wednesday were scheduled to resume talks on the embattled commercials contract. And now, amid financial figures proposed in the spring, comes this question: How well do both sides' wage-increase offers stand up under current reports of inflation eating away at salaries?
The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is quick to point out, as it did in its Aug. 21 strike status report, that currently "union settlements average 3-4% per year." It uses that figure to hammer the unions' cable residuals proposal, which it lists as a three-figure percentage increase.
"When we left the table, our last offer was for a 14% increase over three years," Chuck Sloan—a SAG board member and confidante to William Daniels, SAG's national president—said on Tuesday, speaking of the overall commercials contract. "Our interim agreement asks for 12%."
But if the ANA and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) agree with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) on a 4%-plus increase per annum in the overall commercials pact, they'll all be battling current economic statistics. Meaning a 4% raise per year, in today's economy, would find actors just breaking even with inflation.
The New York Times' Louis Uchitelle on Sunday reported that, since 1996, wages rose by 3-5%—a rate faster than inflation—for most workers. But that experience, in the year 2000, has become a memory.
"A 4% nominal raise becomes no raise at all if inflation is also 4%. And that is roughly what has happened," Uchitelle related. "The Consumer Price Index, which rose less than 2% a year in 1997 and 1998, is now climbing at an annual rate of more than 3.5%, nullifying all or most of this year's wage gains."
SAG's Sloan was told about the recent economic statistics showing a 4% raise actually resulting in no raise due to inflation.
"I'm not going to argue with you," he responded. "That shows you how legitimate our offer really is." Sloan also pointed out that the unions had willingly accepted "zero increases in the Class A [network commercials] contract for the last 18 years. That shows our willingness to accept a fair wage, once we've reached a fair wage agreement."
Rising oil prices appear as the primary villain in the inflation drama. And, while the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) earlier this week said it will increase oil production by 3%, that doesn't automatically stall inflation. Uchitelle points out that "the oil crisis is in its second year, and an earlier production increase didn't pull prices down."
To back up his point, The Times on Monday reported that analysts see OPEC's production increase to be "too little and comes too late to provide significant relief in the upcoming months." That means, to actors and others living in the Northeast and Midwest, the winter months could prove costly.
On Monday, oil prices rose sharply following OPEC's announcement. Which means those U.S. residents will be seeing higher fuel prices passed on to consumers by utilities. That could prove an even heavier burden on striking actors experiencing a dearth of income, if the strike's still on this winter.
Strain on Working Families
In a separate Sunday article, Uchitelle wrote of how "most of the nation's 72 million families feel they cannot make ends meet." He noted that median family income "is likely to pass $47,000 when the Census Bureau announces the 1999 number late this month."
That figure usually represents a household of four people, which means two working parents—with small children—would average $23,500 each. Income figures for SAG members have shown only about 20% of them make over $5,000 annually, which means they fall way below that federal '99 median income figure.
Looking at those financial numbers, it's clear why 135,000 SAG and AFTRA members have stayed the course in the longest strike in their unions' history. Also, dissatisfaction with the last commercials pact led to a major political battle and change in SAG's leadership, who paved the way to recommending the current strike to the two unions' memberships.
Everyone knows that contract bargaining involves offering proposals, then reaching compromise. And anyone who looks at the specifics of the industry's and unions' proposals knows the figures become complex. But, if the overall pact results in about a 4% wage increase per year for commercial performers, such a "raise" simply no longer appears to be valid in current economic times.
Who to Believe?
Meanwhile, the ad industry has continued voicing that the strike isn't harming commercial production. Last week, the ANA-AAAA reported they had completed 2,010 spots in August, up from 1,725 in July. They estimated that August production reached 80% of spots shot a year earlier.
The advertisers listed session fees for union actors at $161,743 compared to $5.7 million in August '99, with fees to nonunion actors at $3.8 million, up from July '99's $243,623.
However, also last week, The Hollywood Reporter quoted from a Sept. 7 memo from a top ad agency's senior account exec which said the strike's causing a "shortage of experienced actors," and it's disrupting spot-shooting schedules.
The memo, from Dafne Foote at Leo Burnett, documented a conference call between Burnett and Walt Disney Company execs. Among other points made, the missive stated, "Disney would rather move back their air date and make sure they get their top choice of directors and actors than take the risk of working with actors that are less experienced and more prone to jeopardize the spot."
Strike's Rising Enthusiasm
Meanwhile, in New York City alone, union members' strike enthusiasm continues to blaze. About 1,000 Actors' Equity Association members showed up last Thursday at the Royale Theatre, joining a coterie of stars concerned about the strike. The likes of Tim Robbins, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning sat side-by-side, listening to emcee Robert Klein, meeting host Philip Bosco, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harry Belafonte, along with reports from union negotiators and the SAG-AFTRA strike team.
Some 1,000 performers' union members also took part in Saturday's Labor Day parade down Fifth Avenue.
New York strikers also were scheduled to rally in Manhattan Wednesday, the day negotiations re-up, first at ad agency BBDO, then move over to picket General Motors.
Now, To Give Is Divine
If you read recently that Kevin Spacey had signed a six-figure check to aid struggling legit theatres in England, and if you wondered why he hadn't used that money to help striking actors in the U.S., lighten up on the guy, will you.
Last week, SAG president Daniels welcomed a $100,000 donation from Spacey to the SAG/AFTRA strike assistance fund, established to assist union members experiencing financial hardship due to the strike.
"I was overwhelmed when Kevin called to say that he wished to make this very generous donation," Daniels said on Monday. "It's this kind of support—like the support of the SAG/AFTRA Emmy nominees and winners wearing the gold solidarity ribbons last night—that has kept our members enthused and involved since the strike began on May 1. Many SAG and AFTRA members will benefit from Kevin's donation…"
Spacey issued a statement encouraging advertisers to negotiate. "The Screen Actors Guild will protect its members, because this union is here to stay," he said.
Funnyman Jay Leno, who hosts TV's "The Tonight Show," pulled a serious move last week by donating $10,000 to the strike fund.
Also last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined the solidarity movement by signing a SAG interim agreement for the organization's Voter Empowerment public service announcement campaign.
SAG's Daniels responded that SAG looked "forward to maintaining and strengthening our relationship with the NAACP." And he told The Hollywood Reporter that the pact signing was "an historic occasion that demonstrates to everybody in the nation the ties between the Screen Actors Guild and the NAACP, which go back a long way."
Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP's president, said his organization "is well aware of the role unions play for millions of American working families, and our decision to place our PSAs under union terms and conditions signals our support for SAG and AFTRA in their strike against the ad industry. The time is right for the industry to sign an agreement with the unions."