SAG/AFTRA back new labor deal

Pact comes on the eve of current agreement's expiration

HOLLYWOOD — Abandoning the confrontational approach employed in 2000, SAG and AFTRA members have overwhelmingly endorsed a three-year labor contract with a 95% approval.

Tuesday’s announcement comes nearly three years to the day after the end of a bitter six-month strike by SAG and AFTRA. The current pact would have expired today.

“The industry is delighted with the 95% approval of the new labor contract by the SAG/AFTRA rank and file,” said Ira Shepard, chief negotiator for the ad industry’s Joint Policy Committee. “This is a victory for collective bargaining and for both sides, who negotiated a stable platform in their mutual best interest which will serve both sides well.”

SAG members generate about 90% of the $700 million annual earnings under the contract with AFTRA’s contribution coming mostly from radio spots. SAG and AFTRA negotiate the contract jointly.

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA prexy John Connolly strongly backed the deal, reached Sept. 24 after only two days of negotiations and cited the absence of rollbacks amid a tough economic climate. Key improvements include a hike in producer pension and health contributions to 14.3% from 13.3% and a 14% hike in the ratio of voiceover rates to on-camera rates.

Extra income

The pension and health uptick translates to an extra $20 million over the contract’s life to the SAG pension and health funds, which have been forced to tighten eligibility and cut benefits in recent years. For AFTRA members, the rise will mean another $2 million in producer contributions.

Other gains include 7% over the three years in session, holding, foreign, industrial and Internet minimum fees; 5% in wild spot use for TV; a 15% increase in Spanish-language program use fees; a 6.1% increase in session fees for background performers; and the creation of a special subcommittee to study the practice of “multiplexing” — broadcasting programs simultaneously on different channels of the same network.

The deal came in the wake of a low-key, wages-focused approach by SAG and AFTRA leaders, an opposite tack from the aggressive posture employed in 2000 when negotiations broke down. The current leadership decided against any public show of member support for their negotiating position and disclosed no details of their proposal.

It’s also the first contract negotiated by SAG CEO Bob Pisano, hired two years ago partly due to his experience as a Par and MGM exec.

Opposition to ratification emerged over the 5% increase in cable fees, (compared with the 140% gain achieved three years ago); unhappiness with the pace of development of a television ad monitoring system to ensure payments are made to actors; and dissenting board members’ inability to get a “minority report” issued by the board to the membership. Kent McCord’s Membership First complainted that the cable hike from $2,460 to $2,581 for a quarterly cable buyout meant that actors will continue to be victimized by “overexposure” on cable.

Acting pals

But SAG secretary-treasurer James Cromwell asserted that actors should opt for conciliation and closed ranks, rather than setting up a potentially chaotic re-negotiation. “For everybody now, the thing to do is to heal, heal our two unions, and to be able to put people to work in this economy without a stoppage,” Cromwell told Daily Variety last week.

The level of endorsement for the new pact mirrored the support three years ago when 96% of the SAG/AFTRA members voting ratified a deal that was hammered out after the bruising six-month strike. Gordon Drake, who was national strike coordinator and lost in a race against Gilbert and McCord last month, said Tuesday he was angry that the unions had asked for what he considered small gains at a time when congloms such as Viacom are reporting 20% increases in quarterly operating profits in cable nets on a 42% margin.

“While Viacom gets fat, actors are getting thin,” Drake kvetched to Daily Variety. “SAG commercial performers have bought into the compromise mentality.” “We applaud SAG and AFTRA members for approving these solid contracts by such an overwhelming margin,” stated SAG President Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA President John Connolly. “This ratification enables commercial performers to work uninterrupted while realizing meaningful gains over previous contracts. We are also delighted that our members recognize the enormous efforts of the Negotiating Committee in achieving both wage and health care contribution gains without sacrifice. It’s important to note how much authority the unions were able to bring to the negotiating table because our committee was comprised entirely of working AFTRA and SAG actors. Looking forward, we will now focus on the challenge of preparing for our Theatrical and Television negotiations where the issues we must tackle are significant and complex.”

“For the first time in recent history, these contracts were negotiated and ratified prior to the expiration date. In light of the difficult negotiations presently facing labor unions, especially in the area of health benefits, we are pleased that the employers recognize the value SAG and AFTRA members bring and that those contributions are reflected in increased wage and health care fund contributions,” said chief negotiators, SAG National Executive Director /CEO Bob Pisano and AFTRA Assistant National Executive Director Mathis Dunn.

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