Thesp union leaders back deal

Leaders of SAG and AFTRA have given an 81% endorsement to the new commercials deal, setting up a ratification vote by the unions’ 140,000 members amid an uncertain outlook for passage.

Opposition flared at Monday’s joint board meeting to the deal, which may portend a similar reaction among the volatile thesp voters when ballots begin arriving in the next few weeks. The unions have not yet set specific dates but plan to conclude the voting before the Oct. 29 expiration of the current pact.

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert, who was re-elected last week with 49% of the vote, gave the deal strong backing. “The committee and staff are commended for their work in reaching a fair and reasonable deal by achieving gains in wages and health care contributions without sacrificing any rollbacks or take-backs from the industry,” she said.

AFTRA prexy John Connolly said, “This deal, in this industry, in this economic climate, is more than welcome. It ensures our earnings will grow, our health plans will receive much-needed resources and, most importantly, our members who work in TV and radio commercials can continue working.”

But opponents expressed disappointment over the terms and the rapidity of the negotiations, which took only two days before concluding last week. A separate motion to include a “minority report” in the ratification vote fell short of the required 25% support at the joint meeting Monday.

Producer contribs upped

Key improvements in the tentative deal 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.

With SAG members earning $614 million under the contract in 2002, the pension and health hike translates to an additional $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.

AFTRA members generate about $60 million annually, so the hike will mean another $2 million in producer contributions.

Cable disappointment

But those attending the four-hour teleconference said resistance focused on disappointment over the one-time 5% gain in minimums in the booming cable sector. The previous contract saw the 13-week cable buyout rates jump 140% to $2,460; under the new pact, that rate will rise 5% to $2,583 in the first year and remain flat for the second and third years.

Opposition also emerged Monday over the new pact’s lack of tougher language for a monitoring system. The 2000 contract set aside $1 million annually to develop such a system amid pervasive complaints that thesps are shortchanged residuals.

SAG and the ad industry pledged last week to create an online searchable database that’s reviewable by performers — but that system won’t be in place until spring at the earliest.

‘No progress on monitoring’

SAG board member Anne-Marie Johnson said, “I voted against the deal because it makes no progress on monitoring, and I seriously wanted a minority report so that the members could make the most intelligent and informed decision possible.”

If the deal is voted down, SAG and AFTRA’s staff and negotiating teams would be forced to return to the bargaining table and craft a new pact that would pass muster with members.

Other gains include 7% hikes 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 creation of a special subcommittee to study the practice of “multiplexing” — broadcasting two or more programs simultaneously over different channels of the same network.

Nonconfrontational tack

Last week’s deal came in the wake of a low-key nonconfrontational approach by SAG and AFTRA leaders, an opposite tack from the aggressive posture employed in 2000 when negotiations broke down and the unions staged a bitter six-month strike. The current leadership decided against any public show of member support for their negotiating position and disclosed no details of their proposal.

The boardroom split on the deal reflects ongoing strategic disagreements among SAG leaders about the strike. Supporters of Gilbert, who lost some ground in the re-election but still dominate the boardroom, contend the work stoppage lasted too long and that then-SAG prexy William Daniels was overly aggressive; supporters of Daniels contend that a hardline approach was warranted after what they portrayed as unimpressive gains in the 1997 deal.

Since SAG and AFTRA negotiate the contract jointly, performers who are members of both unions will receive only a single ratification ballot.

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