Unions dispute digital territory

HOLLYWOOD — With no fanfare, AFTRA has assumed jurisdiction over half a dozen primetime network series in what has been SAG’s traditional turf.

AFTRA currently covers CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia” and “Still Standing;” Fox’s “Arrested Development” and “Bernie Mac;” and UPN’s “Abby Newton” and “Half and Half.”

That’s a considerable gain from the single primetime dramatic series — “Still Standing” — that AFTRA had last year. AFTRA had not covered a Big Three network primetime show since “The Nanny” went off the air in 1999.

What all those shows have in common is they’re shot on digital rather than on film, which would be SAG’s jurisdiction, or tape, which would be AFTRA’s. If it’s digital, either union can go after the program since that area has never been defined.

“As the production pendulum swings toward the shared jurisdiction of digital production, it is expected that AFTRA’s ongoing relationships with networks and producers will generate a greater number of primetime programs produced under AFTRA contracts,” said Greg Hessinger, AFTRA national exec director.

Contracts differ

For the actors, the contract rates are mostly the same but there are some significant differences:

  • AFTRA’s overtime goes to time and a half; SAG’s is double time.

  • SAG’s contract mandates that it must cover at least 15 background performers in Los Angeles and 25 in New York. AFTRA’s has no cap, meaning all extras must be AFTRA.

  • Producers’ pension and health contributions go to whichever union is covering the show.

  • Dues go to whichever union is covering.

Jurisdiction was debated at length during the raucous campaign earlier this year to merge SAG and AFTRA. Proponents argued that producers could play one union off the other and lowball the rates; opponents contended that the whole issue was manufactured by union staffs to create a pretext for merging.

AFTRA members supported the deal with a 76% endorsement but SAG members voted it down with a 58% — 2% short of the required level for passage.

Plans to try again

Undaunted, backers of the merger are laying ground to try again. “This entire dynamic was described in great detail to SAG and AFTRA members in the consolidation and affiliation campaign, and we continue to support the combining of our two organizations as the only long-term solution to this jurisdictional conflict,” Hessinger said.

The current jurisdictional battle dates back to May 2002, when AFTRA signed up 10 Fox-produced pilots shot on digital. The signings led to SAG accusing AFTRA of violating the 1981 jurisdiction agreement; SAG also accused Fox of breaching its basic agreement with the guild.

Four months later, SAG and AFTRA had hammered out an agreement that gave SAG coverage on “Oliver Beene” and “Pitts” while AFTRA received jurisdiction over “Cedric the Entertainer Presents” and “Still Standing.” And in late 2002, SAG and AFTRA leaders began meeting to hammer out plans to convince their members that a single umbrella union would be the best way to resolve such conflicts, leading to last summer’s merger vote.

In response to questions from Daily Variety, SAG and AFTRA issued a joint statement Monday admitting, “Confusion continues to surround questions regarding which union covers what work.”

Conflict ‘inevitable’

The unions asserted that both have the legitimate claim to the work and predicted that the jurisdictional conflict will grow. “This is simply inevitable when two unions share jurisdiction over the same members doing the same work as well as long-term relationships with producers and networks,” they said.

SAG and AFTRA also said they will continue to bargain jointly in upcoming negotiations to replace the current film-TV contract, which expires June 30.

“This jurisdictional conflict was at the heart of the recent efforts to consolidate these two unions and, unless that process is completed, will remain a source of ongoing conflict and division,” the unions said. “Without a solution, there is little doubt that employers will continue to exploit this division for their own benefit and to the detriment of actors — regardless of union affiliation.”

But former SAG board member Rick Barker insists SAG and AFTRA could easily work out a more definitive solution either through negotiations or by seeking assistance of the AFL-CIO.

“This so-called jurisdictional conflict is all about selling merger,” he added. “The leaders of SAG and AFTRA have gone out of their way to alert producers that they can take advantage of this conflict.”

Suit against SAG

Barker and member Gil Combs have been prepping a suit against SAG over allowing its board members to also serve on the AFTRA board. A federal judge denied an application for an ex parte hearing last month “without prejudice” due to a lack of specifics but left the door open for refiling.

Such battles over jurisdiction are nothing new for SAG and AFTRA.

The first merger talks took place in 1938 between the fledgling Screen Actors Guild, the then-American Federation of Radio Artists and the Associated Actors & Artistes of America, but that plan was rejected out of concern that the larger union would be less democratic.

Another move came in 1948 at the dawn of the TV age, but officials again failed to reach an agreement. The unions then fought bitterly over the burgeoning field of television, with SAG attempting to organize with AFTRA while keeping any TV work filmed by the motion picture studios for itself. This led to AFTRA bringing cases before the National Labor Relations Board; SAG won that battle but left live presentation to AFTRA.

In 1956, AFTRA reached an agreement with the nets giving it jurisdiction over tape. SAG charged that AFTRA had done this secretly and undercut the contract; its board officially went on record against a merger.

Feasibility study

Four years later, the unions agreed to commission a feasibility study, which found that while a merger would be difficult and complex, it was possible.

SAG still opposed the merger; AFTRA still favored it. The issue eventually lost traction.

The next big push came in the early 1980s as both sides began to look at merging through a series of steps. The unions actually initiated Phase I — a plan to jointly negotiate contracts where they had common interests — in 1981 but never moved to Phase II joint board meetings or a vote on a merger until 1998, when members voted it down.

AFTRA approved the proposal with 67% in favor, but only 46% of the required 60% of SAG voters supported the deal.

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