Union members ratify primetime deal

Despite the Screen Actors Guild’s avid campaign, members of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have ratified the union’s primetime deal by 62.4% — a tally strong enough to send a rebuke to SAG, but not so strong that Hollywood’s immediate future is clear-cut.

The three-year agreement received support well below the usual level in such tallies, following a month of unprecedented battling between the thesp unions.

“SAG ran a well-funded and ferocious disinformation campaign that created a lot of confusion,” said AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said at a news conference Tuesday evening after the results were announced. “We are the ones who won the moral victory.”

The ratification was not a surprise, due to the faltering economy and the lingering impact of the 100-day WGA strike. Terms in the AFTRA pact mirror those in the contracts signed by the WGA and DGA, along with the majors’ final offer to SAG.

The Screen Actors Guild was hoping for a defeat of the AFTRA pact, which would have given the guild more leverage as it resumes talks Thursday on its own feature-primetime deal.

The AFTRA victory signals that there’s not enough support among SAG’s 120,000 members to vote for a strike authorization, which would require 75% approval. Still to be decided is whether the 37.6% support for SAG in the AFTRA vote shows that the guild has enough clout to persuade the Alliance of Motion Picture & TV Producers to include a sweetener or two to close the deal with SAG.

SAG and the producers meet again on Thursday and that meeting will provide the key clue of how long talks can be expected to last. TV and film productions want to know as soon as possible how quickly they can resume a normal work schedule.

The AMPTP issued a statement Tuesday telling SAG it should take AFTRA’s deal. “We appreciate today’s vote of confidence by actors in the agreement we reached with AFTRA, and hope that it demonstrates to SAG’s Hollywood leadership that there is support for the new economic relationships we have built with writers, directors and actors — and not much support for a strike, whether de facto or real,” it said.

Ballots went out to all 70,000 AFTRA members. AFTRA did not disclose how many thesps voted.

SAG’s effort was enough to lower the approval rate below the usual 90% given to guild contract votes. But producers and AFTRA expected a result around the 60%-70% level.

Screen Actors Guild had lobbied hard for defeat of this pact and, in a statement Tuesday evening, complained about AFTRA but significantly stopped short of declaring this a triumph for their side.

However, SAG president Alan Rosenberg attempted to portray the 37.6% “no” vote as a moral victory after SAG spent a month urging its 44,000 members who also belong to AFTRA to turn down the deal so that SAG could negotiate better terms. “We will continue to address the issues of importance to actors that AFTRA left on the table and we remain committed to achieving a fair contract for SAG actors,” he added.

Rosenberg said AFTRA had taken advantage of non-actors, such as news people, sportscasters and DJs. “In its materials, AFTRA focused that appeal on the importance of actor members’ increased contributions to help fund its broadcast members’ pension and health benefits,” he added.

Reardon blasted Rosenberg’s contention, asserting that 74% of AFTRA members are actors and more than 90% are entertainers such as singers, dancers, comedians and musicians.

“Today’s vote reflects the ability of AFTRA members to recognize a solid contract when they see it,” Reardon said. “Despite an unprecedented disinformation campaign aimed at interfering with our ratification process, a majority of members ultimately focused on what mattered — the obvious merits of a labor agreement that contains substantial gains for every category of performer in both traditional and new media.”

The flap created a battle between the two actors unions, with many high-profile members choosing sides. Alec Baldwin, Sally Field, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon backed the AFTRA deal while Viggo Mortensen, Jack Nicholson, Nick Nolte and Martin Sheen endorsed SAG’s anti-AFTRA stance.

Reardon belittled SAG for using member dues to attack another union and said that the Membership First faction that controls SAG’s national board should be replaced at upcoming elections.

AFTRA ditched its joint bargaining partnership with SAG in March following a heated jurisdictional dispute over “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

“Clearly, this was not a typical ratification process, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise,” Reardon said. “To those of us for whom labor solidarity is more than just a slogan, the idea that politically-motivated leaders of one union would use their members’ dues to attack another union is unconscionable. Working people do not benefit when their union is under attack.”

The results of the AFTRA vote came nine days after the AMPTP broke off negotiations by delivering the final offer on June 30, a few hours before SAG’s feature-primetime contract expired. Actors have been working since on some TV programs under terms of the expired deal; SAG’s also granted waivers to more than 355 indie features.

SAG had contended that actors deserve sweeter terms in areas such as new media, DVD residuals and salary minimums. AFTRA argued that approval will put the industry back to work and that the deal includes gains in salaries and new media without rollbacks or concessions.

Reardon said she’d be surprised if the SAG deal wasn’t resolved by September but refused to comment further, noting that she hasn’t been in the room with SAG and the AMPTP. “I have a hard enough time reading the tea leaves in AFTRA,” she added.

SAG now faces the unsavory prospect of AFTRA signing up new shows shot on digital — an area of shared jurisdiction — with the new contract.

Reardon also indicated AFTRA is planning another run at a merger with SAG, though details haven’t been hammered out, by seeking to organize a summit meeting in coming weeks. “For the sake of our members, organized labor must be united, especially in a world of ever-increasing corporate consolidation,” she said.

Rosenberg has indicated he doesn’t necessarily oppose a merger, but the notion hasn’t been particularly popular in recent years among the Membership First faction in Hollywood — mostly due to suspicions that the terms would favor AFTRA.

A 2003 merger vote received support from three-quarters of AFTRA members but voting among SAG members fell 2% short of the required 60%. Pro-merger forces, led by then-SAG president Melissa Gilbert and topper Robert Pisano, were at the forefront of that campaign and asserted that combining SAG and AFTRA would lead to greater bargaining clout and operating efficiencies, along with resolving jurisdictional disputes.

The merger backers received extensive help from the AFL-CIO, which strongly favors combining unions that have similar jurisdictions. But opponents were able to persuade voters that SAG would be a shell under the new structure; that the org would be less responsive to the unique needs of actors; and that plans to subsequently merge the SAG and AFTRA health plans would be damaging to SAG participants.

Reardon also plans to offer SAG an olive branch by reviewing the possibility of renewing joint bargaining for the upcoming commercials contract, which expires in October. AFTRA leaders angrily ditched the Phase I bargaining pact with SAG in March over accusations that SAG was attempting to poach “The Bold and the Beautiful” from AFTRA.

Additionally, Reardon has worked up an ambitious proposal for all the town’s major unions — the DGA, WGA, IATSE. SAG and AFTRA — to come together together prior to the next round of negotiations to maximize their leverage. The WGA would be first up with a deal that expires in May 2011.

SAG placed a full-page ad in the Ketchum-based Idaho Mountain Express today from the guild’s national negotiating committee to the entertainment industry leaders attending the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Media Conference.

“This media conference is the place where significant deals get made,” Rosenberg said. “We wanted to remind the entertainment media leaders in attendance that there is another important deal to be made. Actors are the creative heart of the entertainment business, and our Screen Actors Guild members want to partner with our industry to invest in and share the rewards of our mutual digital future. Let’s keep talking and let’s make a fair deal.”

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