“Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do …
There’s no place for a street fighting man.”
-“Street Fighting Man,” The Rolling Stones (1968)
When Rolling Stones fan Alan Rosenberg was in college in the 1970s and active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, one of his nicknames was Street Fighting Man. That sobriquet was also the headline on an article about him in the Screen Actors Guild magazine, published shortly after he was elected the 24th president of the union in September.
It also appears to be the perception of Mr. Rosenberg among the major studios. They’re so sensitive to the tough talk from the new leadership at the Writers Guild of America and SAG that Hollywood’s biggest employers have already begun making strike contingency plans, though current contracts don’t expire for two and three years, respectively.
Mr. Rosenberg insisted recently that he is the last person who wants to see a strike, while adding that he would not back down if that is what it takes to help the 120,000 actors he now represents. “You know what? I’d rather not be thought of as a tough guy who wants to go out and make heads roll,” he said. “All I want is our fair share. I’d rather not be confrontational. I’m also not going to be a wimp. People voted for me because they perceived I would stand up strongly and act on our behalf, and I’m going to do that.”
The plight of working actors who are not big stars has worsened in recent years, according to Mr. Rosenberg. For instance, he said, salaries for guest actors on TV shows used to rise as an actor became more experienced. Today, due to what he described as “salary compression,” compensation is down sharply.
“Just like in the rest of America, like other businesses, our middle class is dying,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “That’s why I ran for this office. I have friends who have always had decent careers, who are professional actors. One friend had a recurring role this year on ‘West Wing’ and ‘Desperate Housewives.’ He just finished two feature films. That used to be a great year for an actor. … Instead, he had to cancel his vacation with his wife. He just can’t afford it. That’s just not right.”
Mr. Rosenberg understands what it means to be a working actor but not a superstar. The native of Passaic, N.J., began his TV career on an episode of “Barnaby Jones” in 1978. He met his wife, “CSI” star Marg Helgenberger, when they were on the soap opera “Ryan’s Hope” in 1984. He is probably best known as attorney Eli Levinson in “Civil Wars” (1991) and again in “L.A. Law” (1993-94). He was a regular on “Chicago Hope” and “Cybill” and earned an Emmy nomination as a guest star on “ER.” His last series was “The Guardian” (2001-04), playing a lawyer fighting for social justice-a role close to his heart.
“I’ve always stood up for the little guys,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Here we are, a bunch of actors who love what we do. There are people on our board who always say we do it for the love, the employers do it for the money. And that’s true. I think sometimes this union has got to be in the business of protecting us from ourselves, and I include myself in that.”
One key is winning actors a share of new revenue sources. That includes not only DVD sales and cable TV reruns but also content distributed to iPods, cellphones, video games and other new media. It also means product placement, which was the subject of a news conference last week put on by the Writers Guild chapters and SAG. The guilds want a cut of revenue from product plugs and an industrywide code of conduct on how product placement is used.
Mr. Rosenberg knows his road will be bumpy because the big employers today barely tolerate unions. He said they would love to get rid of all residual payments. “It’s all corporate,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “They no longer listen to the pleas of human beings the way a flesh-and-blood human being would.”
It’s made worse by the infighting at SAG and the lack of unity among the Hollywood guilds. “I think [the employers] love that,” he said. “So the first thing we have to do is all get on the same page.”
Mr. Rosenberg said part of his job is to get high-profile actors to support the union. “No matter what the structure of the corporations, they recognized they need our big-name actors,” he said. “And many big-name actors are getting ripped off just like anybody else [on DVDs, new media, etc.]. They just might not feel it as much.”
Mr. Rosenberg has met with his counterparts at the Writers Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and expects to meet with top Directors Guild of America leaders soon, seeking unity.
Another priority, he said, is to return to the bargaining table with talent agents, who want the right to own other entertainment businesses and, like personal managers, be able to produce. Mr. Rosenberg opposes the agents’ stance. “I’ve heard of situations where managers negotiate against their own clients,” he said, “because now that they are part of the production team it doesn’t behoove them to negotiate high salaries for their clients. So that is a horrible situation. I don’t think we should compound that by allowing agents to produce as well.”
He called TV packaging “very detrimental to actors” and said that while it may help some individuals, as a union officer he has to think about the “90 percent of our members who are unemployed and the 73 percent of our members who don’t have agents. The vast majority are locked out for certain projects because of packaging.”
A key contract negotiation next year will be with advertisers, which last time around ended with a bitter strike. While he thinks that work stoppage lasted too long, Mr. Rosenberg said it did save certain residual payments, boosted the pension fund and led to increases in payments for Internet advertising. “I’m not one that’s really [eager] to have actors out of work,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “But unless you have that weapon in your back pocket, you might as well not be a labor union.”
Or a street fighting man.