SAG, AFTRA huddle; producers watch

With key contract negotiations looming, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have launched talks to sort out contentious jurisdictional disputes.

SAG and AFTRA toppers confabbed over the weekend in Los Angeles in a high-level powwow in which both sides spelled out their positions and agreed to meet again soon.

The meeting came four months after SAG topper Doug Allen warned AFTRA that guild leaders had grown increasingly impatient with AFTRA’s conduct on two fronts: signing new TV shows at lower rates and refusing to allocate more seats at the bargaining table to SAG.

The interunion talks generated no official comment from either group; their moves will be closely watched by studios and nets.

The companies are increasingly concerned about a possible work stoppage by actors in mid-2008, when the film-TV contract expires; a negotiating committee dominated by SAG — rather than the current 50-50 arrangement — would probably mean that actors would take a harder line at the bargaining table. SAG’s current elected leaders have generally espoused a more aggressive stance than AFTRA’s.

Allen told AFTRA earlier this year that the two unions need to work out a better system of determining which union covers what, particularly in areas of shared jurisdiction such as TV shows shot on digital. Some SAG leaders have been angered over AFTRA agreements for lower-cost provisions such as free reruns on cable shows; AFTRA’s contention is that it should make these deals with cable networks to avoid producers going nonunion.

Earlier this year, Allen was able to persuade SAG’s national board to withdraw a motion to revoke Phase I — the 1981 agreement under which SAG and AFTRA agreed to jointly negotiate contracts when they had common interests. Under Phase I, AFTRA gets half the negotiating committee seats on the film-TV and commercials contracts, even though its contribution on those contracts is well under 15%.

The tensions between SAG and AFTRA may have eased in recent months thanks to the departure of the fiery John Connolly from the AFTRA presidency to take over the top exec slot at Actors’ Equity. He was replaced in late April by New York-based Roberta Reardon, an affable veteran of stage, daytime dramas and commercials who will probably seek re-election next month.

In an interview Monday with Daily Variety, Reardon wouldn’t comment on the SAG talks but stressed that her top concern is signing up nonunion work — particularly with the diversification of work into new digital platforms such as downloads and podcasts.

“The top priority at AFTRA is organizing work,” she said. “And with the expansion of platforms, we see this as a great opportunity to get more work for our members.”

Reardon also stressed that the union places a premium on maintaining cordial relations with fellow unions since AFTRA covers so many aspects of performance — it has eight contracts up for expiration in the next 18 months. She said her work with the New York labor federation’s arts and entertainment council has underscored the need for unions to seek common ground.

“With the consolidation of ownership, we realized that we are going to be negotiating with the same six conglomerates again and again,” Reardon added.

SAG has about 100,000 dues-current members, AFTRA about 70,000. About 40,000 performers belong to both unions.

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