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Actors' unions finding their way to a united front

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In recent weeks, it has seemed like the relationship between the Screen Actor’s Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — the actor’s unions which have contracts that will be up soon — was on the verge of combusting. Then, last weekend, as one inside source puts it: “[SAG] saw the light.”

As mentioned in an EW.com story Q&A last week, SAG and AFTRA have a history of joint bargaining with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the entity with which both unions have contracts that will expire June 30. The thinking was that by going in together the two unions would have more leverage at the bargaining table with the producers. Since then, there’s been a bit of a tug of war between AFTRA and SAG over which has jurisdiction over what (the former covers more taped TV shows than anything else). But they’ve managed to maintain a partnership, which grants each union a 50 percent representation on the negotiating committee — even though the AFTRA contracts bring in less money overall. Still, in the last year or so the Hollywood contingent of SAG has started grumbling about the 50/50 split on the committee.                  

Part of the problem is a difference of opinion in tactics. SAG’s Hollywood headquarters, led by executive director Doug Allen and president Alan Rosenberg, takes a harder line in negotiations than AFTRA. (Meanwhile, SAG’s New York branch is actually more aligned with AFTRA than their Hollywood brethren.) SAG’s West Coast contingent essentially believes AFTRA is dragging them down with jurisdictional issues and their more moderate stance. In a move to gain more control over the Guild’s future, Allen and Rosenberg began pushing for a more than 50 percent share of reps at the bargaining table. But AFTRA has said that an uneven split goes against everything the unions originally agreed upon (what is referred to as the Phase 1 agreement). So Allen and Rosenberg have decided they will ask their members to vote on a referendum to sever their relationship with AFTRA altogether.

Allen took a swipe at AFTRA in the press back in October, accusing the union of trying to poach TV jurisdiction that SAG says was historically its territory. AFTRA felt burned by SAG’s ill-contentedness, judging from the letter president Roberta Reardon sent out to its membership shortly after. In it, she said: “As your national president, I am saddened to share that at a time when AFTRA and SAG should be uniting, forces in our sister union are trying to drive us apart…. This latest attack is not only false but worse, diverts attention from the most critical issue facing all performers: preparing for the 2008 negotiations of the TV, industrial, and commercials contracts.”

Things got so heated that even A-list actors, who are often on the periphery of negotiations because they make their money off independent front- and back-end deals, expressed concern about SAG’s militance. During an Oscars’ luncheon earlier this month, according to The Hollywood Reporter, George Clooney indicated that SAG officials should ease up on their confrontational approach and begin negotiations as soon as possible. And Sally Field reportedly expressed similar sentiments to Rosenberg during the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards.

“When AFTRA saw [the call for a referendum],” says the source, “they had to protect themselves.” Instead of waiting for SAG to vote on the potential split, AFTRA decided to move forward on its own and reach out to the AMPTP about the prospect of independently hashing out its contract in early March. But that would have undercut SAG in two ways: First, SAG strongly believes that the longer you wait to negotiate the more leverage you have; plus, SAG was weary that AFTRA would have taken less in its contract than SAG would be prepared to accept, which would undermine its leverage when the union came to the table. 

SAG couldn’t let that happen. So last weekend, in an attempt to regain control of the volatile situation, Allen and Rosenberg took the referendum off the table. The duo defended the move in a statement in which Rosenberg said, “Screen Actors Guild’s objective remains to negotiate the best wages and working conditions for all actors. We look forward to speaking with a unified voice when we face our employers across the table.” Allen added: “Despite the fact that AFTRA announced its intention to enter early negotiations on prime-time television provisions on its own, they have recently signaled that they are ready, willing, and able to work together with Screen Actors Guild in the best interests of actors.”

“[The referendum] was stupid to begin with, and it would have jeopardized not only their position but the position of all actors,” says the source close to the situation, who added that Reardon still has every right not to trust SAG “because it’s been a very disingenuous process.” But in an article yesterday in Variety, Reardon seemed tempered in her response: “We hope conversations in the coming days will provide clarity about whether SAG does in fact plan to return to Phase 1 in its original form.”

How is this all going to shake out? For now, says TroyGould attorney and former WGA counsel Jonathan Handel, it’s a wait-and-see situation. “The developments in the last couple of days have seemingly reduced the likelihood of a Screen Actor’s strike but it’s kind of a meaningless evaluation to look at that so many months in advance,” he says. “There’s still the possibility of a Screen Actor’s strike and it’s too early to handicap and say, ‘That’s likely or not so likely.’”

Part of the problem is a difference of opinion in tactics. SAG’s Hollywood headquarters, led by executive director Doug Allen and president Alan Rosenberg, takes a harder line in negotiations than AFTRA. (Meanwhile, SAG’s New York branch is actually more aligned with AFTRA than their Hollywood brethren.) SAG’s West Coast contingent essentially believes AFTRA is dragging them down with jurisdictional issues and their more moderate stance. In a move to gain more control over the Guild’s future, Allen and Rosenberg began pushing for a more than 50 percent share of reps at the bargaining table. But AFTRA has said that an uneven split goes against everything the unions originally agreed upon (what is referred to as the Phase 1 agreement). So Allen and Rosenberg have decided they will ask their members to vote on a referendum to sever their relationship with AFTRA altogether.

Allen took a swipe at AFTRA in the press back in October, accusing the union of trying to poach TV jurisdiction that SAG says was historically its territory. AFTRA felt burned by SAG’s ill-contentedness, judging from the letter president Roberta Reardon sent out to its membership shortly after. In it, she said: “As your national president, I am saddened to share that at a time when AFTRA and SAG should be uniting, forces in our sister union are trying to drive us apart…. This latest attack is not only false but worse, diverts attention from the most critical issue facing all performers: preparing for the 2008 negotiations of the TV, industrial, and commercials contracts.”

Things got so heated that even A-list actors, who are often on the periphery of negotiations because they make their money off independent front- and back-end deals, expressed concern about SAG’s militance. During an Oscars’ luncheon earlier this month, according to The Hollywood Reporter, George Clooney indicated that SAG officials should ease up on their confrontational approach and begin negotiations as soon as possible. And Sally Field reportedly expressed similar sentiments to Rosenberg during the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards.

“When AFTRA saw [the call for a referendum],” says the source, “they had to protect themselves.” Instead of waiting for SAG to vote on the potential split, AFTRA decided to move forward on its own and reach out to the AMPTP about the prospect of independently hashing out its contract in early March. But that would have undercut SAG in two ways: First, SAG strongly believes that the longer you wait to negotiate the more leverage you have; plus, SAG was weary that AFTRA would have taken less in its contract than SAG would be prepared to accept, which would undermine its leverage when the union came to the table. 

SAG couldn’t let that happen. So last weekend, in an attempt to regain control of the volatile situation, Allen and Rosenberg took the referendum off the table. The duo defended the move in a statement in which Rosenberg said, “Screen Actors Guild’s objective remains to negotiate the best wages and working conditions for all actors. We look forward to speaking with a unified voice when we face our employers across the table.” Allen added: “Despite the fact that AFTRA announced its intention to enter early negotiations on prime-time television provisions on its own, they have recently signaled that they are ready, willing, and able to work together with Screen Actors Guild in the best interests of actors.”

“[The referendum] was stupid to begin with, and it would have jeopardized not only their position but the position of all actors,” says the source close to the situation, who added that Reardon still has every right not to trust SAG “because it’s been a very disingenuous process.” But in an article yesterday in Variety, Reardon seemed tempered in her response: “We hope conversations in the coming days will provide clarity about whether SAG does in fact plan to return to Phase 1 in its original form.”

How is this all going to shake out? For now, says TroyGould attorney and former WGA counsel Jonathan Handel, it’s a wait-and-see situation. “The developments in the last couple of days have seemingly reduced the likelihood of a Screen Actor’s strike but it’s kind of a meaningless evaluation to look at that so many months in advance,” he says. “There’s still the possibility of a Screen Actor’s strike and it’s too early to handicap and say, ‘That’s likely or not so likely.’”

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