Move follows announcement of celeb concerns

Turning up the pressure on SAG to start contract talks as soon as possible, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers has announced that it’s ready to begin bargaining.

SAG, which faces a June 30 contract expiration, responded by telling the AMPTP not to hold its breath — leaving the moguls baffled as to what to expect from the actors in the wake of the bruising 100-day WGA strike.

SAG national exec director Doug Allen remained noncommittal Thursday as to when the guild will be ready, repeating an earlier declaration: “We will be ready to begin negotiations at the time that most benefits our members.”

Allen also noted SAG’s currently engaged in its “wages and working conditions” process of holding meetings with members in which bargaining proposals are suggested and developed from the grassroots.

“We are not going to disregard our 34-year history of identifying the wishes and will of our members by subverting the W&W process,” Allen added. “Wages and working conditions meetings are being held now and will likely conclude in March.”

The AMPTP’s announcement came as Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep joined George Clooney in an effort to push SAG to launch contract talks as soon as possible to avert a strike.

“The difficulty is high, but nothing can be solved until both parties agreed to sit down together and just talk,” the quartet said in a display ad in Daily Variety. “Not later, but now. There’s too much at stake to wait. It’s our hope that both parties can at least agree on that.”

Allen had said in an earlier statement Wednesday that the guild’s been seeking out high-profile members as it preps for the talks.

In another development Thursday night, WGA West president Patric Verrone emailed SAG members to thank them for their support during the WGA strike. He pledged that WGA members will return that support, and he urged SAG to support Allen and guild president Alan Rosenberg in the face of moves by the companies to foster dissent.

“Any union’s bargaining strength is a function of what management thinks of its members’ determination and its leadership’s approval,” Verrone said. “Alan and Doug have been thoughtful and tenacious leaders throughout their tenures, and I implore you to give them your faith, your resolve and your patience in the months ahead. The more you trust them to do their job, the better they can do it. What the Writers Guild accomplished this year was the result of our internal solidarity, as well as support from sister guilds and unions nationwide, led by yours.”

Meanwhile, AFTRA has disclosed that top execs at the performers unions are planning to be ready to start negotiations by March 31, but that depends on SAG and AFTRA sorting out details of joint bargaining. Leaders of SAG and AFTRA will meet this weekend with AFL-CIO execs on joint-bargaining issues, two weeks after the labor federation granted AFTRA a direct charter.

The AMPTP did not elaborate on its statement Thursday. But a source familiar with the studios’ thinking said there’s nothing that prevents early discussions other than SAG’s willingness to engage, noting that the DGA — which also faced a June 30 expiration — was prepared and willing to negotiate a deal last month after the WGA talks collapsed in December.

The DGA’s deal, which was blasted by SAG leaders two weeks ago, wound up serving as the template for the WGA’s agreement, with many of the latter’s new-media provisions mirroring the directors’ deal. SAG has not yet commented on the terms of the WGA deal.

While the town’s upbeat amid the end of the WGA strike, worries about SAG have been percolating. The settlement of the WGA deal’s removed some of SAG’s leverage, but studios are staying cautious about moving ahead on feature development until the uncertainty surrounding the SAG deal has been sorted out.

And SAG leaders don’t want to back off from a strike threat. Allen has insisted that the guild has to go into negotiations with that threat in its arsenal.

“Having the capacity and will to strike when companies are intransigent is something a union has to have; otherwise, you’re engaged in collective begging,” Allen said last month.

In addition, the effort by Clooney to push for talks as soon as possible is rubbing some SAG board members the wrong way. Hollywood rep Yale Summers sent out an email message Thursday that blasted the move by the four stars as “disgraceful.”

“When our most successful performers, who don’t really need their union any more, rise up to say publicly that they want us to ‘settle’ quickly because they are strike-weary, they are deserting the actors they used to be as well as deserting those who may one day achieve a similar star status,” he said. “No one, from top to bottom, wants a strike! We will do whatever we can to avoid one. We cannot, however, allow our sole potential weapon to be removed from our meager quiver, leaving it empty! For those of you at the top, those for whom your union does not need to negotiate, to cry out to the press rather than coming to your union to air your concerns is disgraceful!”

SAG board members based in Hollywood also are perturbed over recent efforts to institute “qualified voting” — an earnings requirement for members to vote on the SAG contract and whether to go on strike. Those behind that effort, which has gained support from Ben Affleck, Sally Field, Teri Hatcher and Charlie Sheen, contend that SAG members who don’t work have a disproportionate influence over members who do.

The group, which has gathered more than 800 supporters, had asserted that imposition of qualified voting would enable SAG to present the strongest possible position at negotiations.

But such an effort’s regarded as a longshot since it would probably require changing the SAG constitution — meaning that members would have to vote to disenfranchise themselves. In addition, Hollywood board member Scott Wilson — who won last year’s Ralph Morgan Award for service to the guild — said the effort’s misguided.

“It saddens me to think that, if what we read is true, some of our highest profile members may have forgotten where they came from and abandoned their roots,” Wilson said. “They take positions on issues that no longer affect them but have a devastating impact on rank-and-file members and, dare I say, they are ill informed on the issues.”

Wilson, whose credits run from “In the Heat of the Night” through “Junebug,” called qualified voting a “red herring” that distracts from issues such as AFTRA signing cable deals at lower terms than SAG.

“Qualified voting will not stop the international conglomerates that own the studios, networks and cable channels from seeking further rollbacks or denying fairer terms in collective bargaining,” he added. “Should we have a system that gives all the voting power to a small group of members over matters of importance to all members whether directly or indirectly?”

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