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Power Play: AFL-CIO Enters Rule One Game

The Screen Actors Guild publicly kicked off its implementation of Global Rule One at a rousing press conference in Los Angeles on May 1. The gathering featured both Hollywood stars and union resolve. Union leaders stressed that nothing—including legal threats from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)—would keep the guild from making its members work under SAG contracts, no matter where in the world a production occurs.

On that same day, in a much less conspicuous action, the guild was receiving a powerful stroke of support. In his office in Washington, D.C., John J. Sweeney, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), was quietly signing a three-paragraph letter to Nicholas Counter III, AMPTP's president. Without a wasted word, Sweeney was stressing to Counter the AFL-CIO's solid backing of SAG's new effort.

"The AFL-CIO condemns…" Sweeney's letter began with power, expressing strong criticism for AMPTP's statements opposing Global Rule One. The producers had ordered SAG to cease and desist from its plans to monitor productions worldwide or face legal action.

"We are deeply concerned when any employer group sees fit to interfere with the internal workings of any of our affiliate unions and guilds," Sweeney continued, his use of the word "affiliate" signaling the legal tie with SAG, which—through its membership in the Four A's—is a part of the AFL-CIO's 13-million member organization.

"For the AMPTP to question the right of a union to enforce its own rules is without merit," Sweeney stressed. "To deny SAG members contributions to their pension and health funds, residual payments, and important safety provisions is just wrong and in violation of the spirit and intent of the collective bargaining agreement."

The union head closed by stating his mission: "The AFL-CIO stands ready to support SAG in its efforts to provide its members with the hard-won protections of their contracts wherever they work."

"…stands ready to support…" Just what does that mean?

Sweeney showed his union's own resolve in supporting SAG in October 2000, when the guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists were deep in the quagmire of a strike against the advertising industry over a lucrative commercials contract. The strike had begun in May. Union leaders believed that Procter & Gamble was heading an advertisers' effort to break the two unions. They took their case to Sweeney. It led to his standing beside SAG and AFTRA leaders at a mid-October press conference, with the AFL-CIO calling a boycott against Procter & Gamble's major products.

"We will use the strength of our 13 million union members and 40 million members of union households to get the message out," and implement the boycott, Sweeney had vowed at the press conference.

A week later, the advertisers had agreed to a new three-year commercials contract, and SAG and AFTRA members were celebrating.

The Road Ahead

As for the Global Rule One issue, Lane Windham, a press spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, indicated to Back Stage this week that no ambitious boycott plan against AMPTP is in the offing. Any action would depend on specific requests from SAG.

Ilyanne Kichaven, SAG's national communications director, said on Tuesday, "It's important to note that we're not asking them to take any position or boycott per se. While we certainly appreciate their support, and welcome their support, at this time we're not asking them to do anything. We have every reason to believe we'll reach a cooperative position with producers. But I think it was important to show the solidarity from other unions."

The AMPTP argument centers on wording in its three-year feature film and TV production contract with SAG, which the producers feel restrict SAG's pact enforcement to the U.S. The guild, of course, disagrees.

But while the producers may be arguing contract specifics today, they're no doubt concerned about the AFL-CIO entering the fray, and its effect on tomorrow. A year ago, it seemed clear that the guild's stubbornness and the AFL's intervention in the 2000 commercials contract dispute led to a fairly calm negotiation on the SAG-AMPTP pact. The producers had even sped up production on major projects to assure their completion in case the actors went on strike again.

Should AMPTP and SAG not reach accord on Global Rule One, producers must know that the AFL could mobilize again. A threat of 40 million humans boycotting feature films or advertisers of TV shows must hover over producers' desks in both Hollywood and New York.

The huge union's muscle could also affect producers' projects outside the U.S. For example, the AFL-CIO this month joined with the British Trades Union Congress and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) to support a resolution on worker rights. Urging from the American union could spark boycott actions on film and TV abroad by the likes of Brit and international unions.

While none of that may be a current danger, the potential is there, and producers must be cognizant of it.

Which leads to the question: Where do SAG and AMPTP currently stand on Global Rule One? Kichaven said Tuesday that Robert Pisano, SAG's national executive director/chief executive officer, and AMPTP's Counter had met last week and have agreed to further discussion in the near future. But nothing had been settled by press time.

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