Guild’s rocky road

In wake of ad strike, actors attempting to avoid a sequel

For the Screen Actors Guild, the last year has been perhaps the rockiest during its 68 years of existence.

The world’s most recognized entertainment union has staged the longest strike in Hollywood history, six months, during its walkout against advertisers. And along with the Writers Guild of America, it has scared Hollywood into a production frenzy in recent months over the fear that it will strike when its film-TV contract expires June 30.

That fear intensified on Thursday when talks between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Writers Guild of America abruptly broke off when the gulf between the two sides appeared insurmountable on pay issues, at least according AMPTP prexy Nick Counter, who said “there was no way to bridge the gap.”

While strike veterans assure that a cooling off period is not necessarily unhealthy in such heated negotiations, the idea that SAG could follow suit if the impasse is not broken is not out of the question. One union’s pay demands raises the bar for their comrades in arms, and there’s a very good chance that contract negotiations between writers and producers — originally scheduled to expire May 2 — could be extended so that the actors will be negotiating their contract simultaneously.

Officially, SAG has played it close to the vest, with prexy William Daniels expressing both disappointment and solidarity at a WGA news conference, while still saying a strike could be averted when SAG’s contract runs out. “There is still a deal to be worked out,” he says.

As if all this didn’t provide enough drama: SAG is seeking a new top national exec after Ken Orsatti retired; it faces an internal battle over recommendations to restructure and cut $8 million from its annual expenses; and it must sort out complex disputes with agents and its sister union, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

A respite, however temporary, to all the hand-wringing will come by way of the 7th annual SAG Awards, carried live March 11 on TNT.

“I think the show has been a great boon for SAG because it goes inside the world of actors,” declares Daniels, who will open the ceremonies. “It’s a wonderful night because it pulls everyone together in a business where you often work with someone and then don’t see them for 10 years.”

But not unlike the recent National Basketball Assn. all-star break, all the glitz and glamour of the proceedings doesn’t disguise the fact that there’s much work to be done in the ensuing months.

Daniels, elected 16 months ago, sincerely believes that better times are coming for SAG and its members. First off, he insists that the guild doesn’t want to go on strike again, particularly in light of how tough the commercials strike was.

“Everyone knows there’s a deal to be made,” he says. “That may not turn out to be very good newspaper copy but I really am expecting a better collective bargaining experience this time. I want to do this in a very professional way without a lot of bad-mouthing the other side.”

SAG and AFTRA began negotiating over a commercials contract only two months after the guild election had been won by Daniels, who had pledged he would take a tougher bargaining stance and kept that promise.

The work stoppage began May 1, and featured hundreds of demonstrations and lasted far longer than anyone expected. One of the turning points came in mid-September, when Kevin Spacey donated $100,000 to SAG’s strike relief fund, opening the door to six-figure donations by Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, Helen Hunt, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis.

During the last weeks of the strike, stars like Richard Dreyfuss, David Hyde Pierce, Rosie O’Donnell, Paul Newman, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon made multiple appearances for SAG.

“The strike hurt a lot of people but it also strengthened our resolve,” Daniels notes. “When I think back on the donations by the stars, I still say, ‘Wow.’ Having them involved in SAG really empowers this union.”

Daniels, who won two Emmys for his work on “St. Elsewhere,” made a major push in the final weeks of the strike to get recognizable names on SAG’s board and asked members of the Performers Alliance — which had dominated the previous election — to hold off on campaigning.

As a result, such stars as Valerie Harper, Tom Bosley, Wil Wheaton, Sally Kirkland, Elliot Gould, Melissa Gilbert, Joe Pantoliano and Frances Fisher became board members; Wheaton, Tess Harper and Armin Shimerman were named to the contract negotiating team.

“We’ll have other high-profile people sitting in and advising us during the negotiations,” Daniels promises.

The president, in an acknowledgment of SAG’s sometimes ferocious internal battles, has pleaded with its 98,000 members to stop feuding in order to present a united front at the negotiating table.

“We cannot as a union be pitted against one another,” he urged.

Despite the tempestuous timing of his reign, Daniels offers no regrets about having taken on the presidency. And he remains open to the idea of running again this.

“I’ve had to learn to concentrate, listen and arbitrate much more,” Daniels says. “I was planning to retire to Santa Barbara and I will sooner or later. But being SAG president really has been a life-changing experience for me.”

As for the upcoming negotiations, Daniels stresses that one of the key issues for SAG will be the ongoing wage compression faced by nonstars. Former guild president Barry Gordon suggested during a recent panel discussion that negotiators on both sides need to focus on better explaining the changing business to working actors who receive residual checks for as little as $1.50.

Gordon also urged calm about the labor situation, noting that the SAG contract expiration is well over three months away.

“This is a very different marketplace with emerging new technologies,” he added. “Does it make negotiations difficult? Yes. Does it make it impossible? Absolutely not.”

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