Union Taxation without Representation

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

The writers' strike is over. But just when you thought it was safe to go back into production, here comes another, potentially contentious, labor brouhaha. This time it's the actors.

Even before the actors' unions could begin to talk with producers about their upcoming TV contract, which expires June 30, they began to squabble amongst themselves. And as of this writing, it looks like the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio are not going to negotiate together, which has got to have the studio execs licking their lips.

But hey, I'm not an actor. That's not my business.

Neither is the dispute that has erupted within SAG. But this little tiff brings up a fascinating question, which is this: If you haven't made any money as an actor, should you get to vote on the actors' contract? Which brings up an even more global question: who can legitimately call themselves an artist?

Was van Gogh an artist when he was painting, but still broke and unknown? You say yes, but you wouldn't have paid five bucks for “Starry Night” in 1889. His work's made a few bucks since then. The point for actors is that you can struggle for a long time before you see a payday.

So when is an actor really an actor? There are those who say they were born actors, but just saying you're a woman trapped in a man's body does not mean you pee standing up.

On the other hand, Melissa Gilbert was the president of SAG for God's sake, but she's not getting an Oscar anytime soon.

The union's issue, of course, is not one of talent or taste. This is about who is “effected” by the upcoming contract. If you don't work and therefore won't be affected by the contact, some in the guild would argue, you shouldn't get to vote on it.

The problem is, the contract doesn't affect you in the past, it affects you in the future. And there was a time when even Tom Cruise wasn't a working actor. Then he got the lead in Losin' It, and the rest is Hollywood history. And what happen if Tom couldn't land a role, say, for the next ten years? Would he still be a working actor?

Many – perhaps the majority – of SAG's 120,000 or so members have day jobs. Some members who make their money primarily as actors worry that those people might be more likely to vote to strike. On the other hand, there are many people in the Guild who we can all agree are not actors. Les Moonves, the chairman of CBS, is said to be a member. People like Moonves have a terrible conflict of interest in this upcoming vote, and there may be a lot more like him.

Given all that, qualifications for voting seem reasonable.

The group in favor of qualifications – which include Meryl Streep, Don Cheadle and Charlie Sheen – are proposing seemingly minor barriers to earning the title of working actor. We're talking basically about an average of five days principal work or 15 days extra work per year.

Seems reasonable, right…if it wasn't totally un-American.

Remember that whole no-taxation-without-representation thing? Dues-paying members of a union deserve to vote on union issues. Because who knows when the next Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie will get his or her big break?

The union created relatively low barriers to entry because it wanted large membership numbers – and lots of income from dues. You can't turn around and disenfranchise those same people because they haven't yet had their break. I say, change the rules for getting in the club; don't make some people in the club second-class citizens.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.



Matt Holzman