With the ongoing struggle within SAG between the strike faction and the anti-strike faction, and with the upcoming commercial actor’s contract negotiations looming, it is time to address the big issue behind the union’s difficulties. No, it’s not the economy, new technology, or the explosion of reality television. Those are just messy details. The big picture reason why the Screen Actors Guild is a mess? It’s run by actors. Actors shouldn’t be running unions. Because actors are dumb. I know – I’ve been an actor all my life, I’ve been around actors all my life. Let’s face it – if life is one big SAT test, we actors are still in the hallway tying our shoes.
(Case in point: that last metaphor. What does that even mean? Just dumb.)
I’ve been through a few actors strikes over the years. I’ve been a card carrying member of SAG since 1975, having begun my show business career as an obnoxious young child actor (are their any other kind?).
By the way, for those of you thinking of pulling your adorable moppet off the Little League field and on to the big stage (or little screen), here’s a fun drinking game: take one shot of hard liquor for every child star (aside from Ron Howard) you can name that successfully made it to adulthood without a drug problem, arrest record, or failed teenage marriage (that last one eliminates Shirley Temple). It’s the only drinking game guaranteed to leave you cold stone sober (thus differentiating you from 99.9 percent of all former, and several current, child stars….
But, I digress. The last time I was involved with an actors strike was in 2000, when SAG struck against the producers of TV commercials. For a decent chunk of my career I made a decent chunk of my living saying things like “may cause oily discharge.” Though admittedly pithy, it’s not quite Shakespeare, but it pays the bills. Actors who sell floss and dish detergent, and super absorbent magic towels that can wash, dry, and polish any surface, easily remove cola, wine and pet stains, and is guaranteed to last ten years and will have you saying “wow” every time (God help me, I love that guy) have working condition and minimal salary requirements just like any other labor pool. So, despite the fact that actors are pursuing one of the most individual, least collective, professions on Earth, every three years collective bargaining is called for. Goals are pursued, compromises are made, deals are struck, all the individual contractors shake hands and go back to their individual pursuits.
Except in the year 2000. Fiery, strike-happy (mostly non-working) actors led the union (basically the same cats that are there today) and were determined to take the commercial actors out on strike. As part of the anti-strike faction in New York, a group of us met with the union leadership (then president William Daniels and others) to try and avert the strike. The SAG leadership listened carefully to our well-reasoned arguments, considered our point of view thoughtfully – and then took the union out on strike for half a year.
Despite the fact that I was vehemently against the strike, I felt it was the patriotic thing to do to support the strike once it began in the hopes of ending it quickly (see first paragraph re: me dumb). I was a “strike captain,” so I have the experience and knowledge to give readers some expert analysis of what can be expected should SAG go on strike again
First of all, actors can be pretty tough. Now, you wouldn’t think commercial spokesmen would be tough strikers like pipe fitters and iron workers, but things got a little hairy. There was the day the Pillsbury Dough Boy tried to cross the picket line. The Pep Boys beat the crap out of him. There was yeast everywhere.
One day on the line we got into a shoving match with the cops. It all happened so quickly, I don’t really know how it went down, but Mrs. Butterworth got cracked over the head with a billy club. The streets flowed with syrup that day, my friend.
Of course, strikes can be romantic, even passionate, and actors are passionate people. We had our share of “strike romances.” Everyone knew the Michelin Man was going around with Aunt Jemima. Of course, in the industry the Michelin Man has always been known as a “player” – guy carries rubbers with him wherever he goes (the kind with “all weather tread” – you know, “for her pleasure”). Naturally, with Aunt Jemima all caught up in strike frenzy and running around like that, Uncle Ben was heartbroken. We all told him: you got a woman as fine as Aunt Jemima you got to keep her bottled up, or else she’ll spread her sweet stuff all over town.
As the weeks turned into months a lot of the commercial spokesmen couldn’t take the stress. The Snuggle Fabric Softener Teddy Bear started hitting the bottle. You know, the kind with the “easy pour spout.” He stopped caring, started mixing in his colors with his whites. His clothes were no longer soft and supple like a baby’s bottom. They were coarse and rough like an old man’s ass! Yes, it was sad…
Well, I hope these memories of the last big actors strike helped to give you some insight into the issues. Once the strike was finally over, most of the non-working actors who had pushed heavily for the strike went back to not working. Unfortunately, a good deal of the working actors ended up joining them on the unemployment lines. Six months is a long time. Plenty of time for producers to figure out how to make commercials with non-union actors, or in Canada, or how to make commercials without actors at all – or how to stop making commercials because all the technology changed and no one watches commercials anymore anyway.
My dad was an immigrant house painter (or, as he described it, “a shmearer”) with virtually no formal education. He was a tough Jew – from the streets. Once every few years the painters union would go out on strike and my dad would have to walk a picket line. He was at a strike meeting once and some big slob of a house painter took the seat my dad had saved for my mom. “My wife is sitting there,” my dad said. “Not anymore she ain’t,” the guy said. So my dad – who was five foot two and one hundred twenty five pounds – picked the slob up and decked him, cold. The president of the painter’s union witnessed this disorderly event – and promptly hired my dad to be his personal bodyguard. Years later, long after my dad had ceased being his bodyguard, the president of the painters union was gunned down in a labor dispute with some representatives of the Gambinos. Now that’s a strike authorization!
So, this time if the Screen Actors Guild goes out on strike I won’t be a strike captain, I won’t be out on the streets playing “Norma Rae” with the rest of the kids. I will be concentrating all my efforts towards making a buck, focusing on supporting the DKG: the Dave Konig Guild (six active members: me, the Bride of Konig, the four Spawn of Konig). Maybe I’ll follow in my father’s footsteps and I’ll show up for a strike meeting or two at the union hall. Unlike my dad, however, I’ll be sitting in the back making wisecracks not sitting in the front throwing punches, and if any big, mean actors want to take my wife’s seat… they’re welcome to it. And no offense to the president of SAG, but the Konig family has long since retired from the personal-bodyguard-to-union-presidents game.