Thesp walkout more likely; West to vote Tue.

The leaders of the nation’s union actors have taken a major step toward going on strike against advertisers in what would be the industry’s first major work stoppage in a dozen years.

Meeting in New York, the Eastern section of the joint national boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists voted unanimously Sunday to go on strike on May 1.

The action is not final until the western section votes Tuesday night, but actors do not give any indication that they are in the mood to compromise, as the unions’ leadership has taken a significantly more militant stance than in recent years.

Sunday’s unanimous vote will likely be duplicated Tuesday when the western panel meets at SAG headquarters in Los Angeles, unless the advertisers make some kind of move to lure the actors back to the bargaining table. But the advertisers had made no formal comment since talks between the two sides ended Friday without a settlement.

When the talks ended, union negotiators issued a unanimous call for a strike. That came a day after federal mediators were called in and two months after negotiations began.

‘Pay per play’ key issue

Key issues leading to the breakoff of talks were the refusals by advertisers to agree to three union demands: a “pay per play” residual structure in cable television ads; creation of a compensation structure for commercials appearing on the Internet; and a producer-funded monitoring system for radio and TV commercials.

The actors also refused to agree to advertisers’ demand to junk the “pay per play” formula used for ads on broadcast network in favor of a flat-rate buyout, as is currently used for cable.

A work stoppage for SAG and AFTRA, which represent 135,000 actors, would be the first since 1988, when the unions walked out for 18 days after commercial contract talks fell apart. The strike would not affect other work, such as feature film and television, performed by the unions.

Many producers and actors have been expecting a strike ever since SAG’s membership elected a slate of officers last fall that ran on a campaign pledge to take a harder stance at the bargaining table. Those candidates cited the revenue gains made by the entertainment industry in recent years and what they portrayed as a less-than-aggressive stance in negotiations by the union in recent years.

When negotiations resumed last week following a second recess, the two remained far apart on a number of key issues, such as “pay per play” vs. flat rate and wage increases, with the unions demanding a 14% across-the-board hike except for a 25% hike in Spanish-language ads and a 300% hike in foreign-use payments. Advertisers had offered hikes of 4.4% for daily session payments, 15% for cable residuals and 7.2% for Spanish language ads and said the pay-per-play formula for cable would result in a 400% annual increase in residual payments.

Prepping for stoppage

The advertisers, represented by the Assn. of National Advertisers and the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, have been advising members to prepare for a work stoppage. The groups have also elicited support from producers, who will attempt to maintain business as usual by using non-union actors and foreign locations.

Union actors and advertisers agreed on March 31 to an extension of the current three-year contract just hours before it expired.

“I would hope that the negotiators can be persuaded to come back to the bargaining table,” said Matt Miller, president of the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers. “But our members do plan to keep on working. They have no choice.”

Miller noted that the strike threat has led to a recent surge in commercial shoots but predicted that a work stoppage would likely produce a decline, partly due to the recent declines in Internet stock values. “The dot-coms are a lot of what has kept this industry healthy, so with that possibly slowing down, a strike could come at a very unfortunate time,” he added.

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