SAG, ad biz back to the table

Negotiators talking; Newman, Hanks rally

In a slightly positive sign, negotiators for striking union actors and advertisers met Wednesday and agreed to convene again today rather than walking away from the table.

The two sides issued a joint statement about continuing the talks in New York, adding only, “The parties agreed that the talks were conducted in a businesslike manner.” The meeting, held at the behest of federal mediators, was the first time since mid-July that both sides had come together formally.

With the strike in its 136th day, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists staged major rallies Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York, with leaders estimating attendance at each event at over 1,500. Paul Newman was the surprise keynoter in Gotham while Tom Hanks headlined on the West Coast.

Despite the ongoing bitterness between the advertisers and unions, hopes have been raised that a settlement could be worked out to end the acrimonious five-month dispute.

Sources close to the talks said part of the session included face-to-face presentations by negotiators after the reps had detailed the latest versions of proposals for the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service at their Manhattan offices at the World Trade Center.

The talks are only the third time that both sides have gathered since the strike began May 1, mainly over advertisers’ demand to “modernize” the contract by eliminating residuals for network TV ads. Union leaders have declared that the talks cannot proceed if the industry fails to drop its plan to dismantle the “pay-per-play” system.

Wednesday’s talks gave mediators a chance to reverse an ineffective record so far. They were unable to re-start talks after meetings once in June, then recessed negotiations after two days in July when they decided both sides were too far apart to justify going on.

The mediators issued a media blackout last week, telling negotiators to refrain from comment about the substance of the talks.

Hanks pitches residuals

In Los Angeles, with temperatures topping 90 degrees, Hanks called on the ad industry to back off on its demand to ditch residuals. “We deserve what’s right and we deserve what’s fair and we deserve an honest partner across from us at the negotiating table,” he declared, drawing the loudest cheers of the event.

Hanks contended there is “no greater bargain” than professional actors. “We alone make alive what are only words on a printed page,” he added.

In comments after his speech, Hanks said the ad industry’s intransigence in the dispute makes him “somewhat angry” and noted that actors receive only 1.4% of what’s spent on producing ads. He conceded that upcoming contracts need to be modernized, but added, “What I don’t understand is why the answer is to roll back the residuals system.”

Other celebrities attending the Los Angeles assembly included Alfre Woodard, Jack Klugman, David Hyde Pierce, Rob Schneider, Sally Kirkland, Valerie Harper, Michael J. Pollard, Seymour Cassell, Theodore Bikel and Frances Fisher.

Newman calls it ‘pitiful’

At the New York rally Newman told the crowd outside BBD&O headquarters that it was “pitiful” that the strike had been going on for nearly five months while network news programs have largely ignored the story. Newman has headed a panel for the past month to involve high-profile actors in strike efforts.

Tim Robbins called for a boycott of Procter & Gamble for backing the ad industry’s hardline stance. Other celebs attending the Gotham rally included Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Philip Bosco, Treat Williams, Celeste Holm, James Gandolfini, Kevin Bacon, Joyce Randolph, Steve Buscemi, Tony LoBianco, Bill Irwin, Marisa Tomei, John Shea, Rob Morrow, Linda Fiorentino, Robert Klein and former SAG prexy Richard Masur.

Holm, who sat on a bench during the rally, admitted the only commercial she ever did was for a company that closed down a month later, but stressed the importance of supporting fellow actors.

GM focal points

After the rally, actors marched up 5th Ave. to offices of General Motors, which has been the key corporate target for the unions in recent weeks.

Activists demonstrated at GM plants in Wilmington, Del., Lordstown, Ohio, and Livonia, Mich., to prevent union drivers from crossing picket lines. John Kailin, exec director of the Philadelphia AFTRA/SAG office, said the move had forced GM to subcontract deliveries to non-union drivers.

“We definitely got their attention,” Kailin said. “We thought this was the most effective way to reach negotiators for the ad industry.”

Union leaders pledged an escalation of activity if the current talks fail. “Striking actors are ready, willing and able to take this to the next level,” national strike coordinator Todd Amorde promised. More GM demonstrations are planned for today.

Laying groundwork

Jack Shea, prexy of the Directors Guild of America, and Michael Mahern, secretary of the Writers Guild of America West, said the actors’ aggressive stance will benefit unions in upcoming contract battles. “Our unity sends a strong message to advertisers that rollbacks in residuals are absolutely unacceptable,” Shea said.

Mahern said SAG and AFTRA have overturned earlier expectations by Hollywood execs that dissension and celebrity defections would doom the strike. Instead, he noted, its success has pushed studios to boost production in anticipation of actors and writers strikes next year.

“You have put the fear of God into the very highest levels of this business,” Mahern declared.

After the rally, strikers picketed the McCann Erickson, DMBB and Grey ad agencies on Wilshire Boulevard.

(Dan Cox in New York contributed to this report.)

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