Guild to decide on authorization balloting

Strike or no strike? The fate of the Screen Actors Guild’s long-running contract negotiations drama could become much clearer by the end of this week.

SAG’s elected leaders will meet Saturday in a high-stakes session to determine whether the guild will ask its members for a strike authorization — as recommended two weeks ago by SAG’s negotiating committee. If approved, that would trigger the mailing of authorization ballots to SAG’s 120,000 members and the ballots’ return over the following 30-45 days, meaning that SAG could be on strike by Thanksgiving.

But it’s hard to predict if SAG’s national board will move in that direction. Saturday’s powwow is the first meeting since last month’s election, which saw the dominant Hollywood-based Membership First faction lose control of the board for the first time in three years to a coalition of the startup Unite for Strength faction plus the New York and regional reps.

The newly empowered moderates — who have been critical of aspects of the leadership’s handling of the contract negotiations — have been playing it close to the vest. It’s unclear whether SAG members would support a strike authorization amid the current economic crisis, particularly since such a vote would require 75% approval among those casting ballots.

Speculation’s emerged that rather than seek a strike authorization, the coalition may seek to revamp SAG’s negotiating committee, currently dominated by Membership First members, and remove SAG national exec director Doug Allen as chief negotiator. Taking such steps would show that SAG wants to make a serious run at closing a deal with the majors after a stalemate lasting more than three months.

Such a move could be difficult, however, since the coalition has a razor-thin one-vote edge on the 71-member board.

But the moderates have already differed from Membership First in recent months — seeking a federal mediator for the talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, for instance, and abstaining from voting to send out a postcard poll that SAG recently conducted to gauge support for the guild’s negotiations strategy. The poll found overwhelming support among respondents (though the AMPTP blasted the effort as flawed and the questions as misleading).

During its campaign, Unite for Strength asserted that Membership First had bungled the negotiations by alienating the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which saw its members ratify AFTRA’s primetime deal in July over SAG’s objections.

In a message sent to members late last week, SAG president Alan Rosenberg and Allen laid out the timeline for going on strike over SAG’s master contract on features and primetime.

“If 75% of the qualified SAG members who vote in the referendum support the strike authorization, only then can the national board of directors call an actual work stoppage, should the board decide that it has become necessary to do so,” Rosenberg and Allen said in the missive.

The duo noted that it was important for members to understand that the resolution, if passed by a majority of the national board, does not trigger a strike automatically.

In a response issued Friday, the congloms took issue with the assertion by Rosenberg and Allen that the authorization wouldn’t lead to a strike.

“SAG negotiators seem determined to force another unnecessary, harmful strike,” the AMPTP said. “Why else would SAG negotiators be unreasonably insisting, at a time of national economic collapse, on a better deal than the one achieved by the other Hollywood guilds much earlier this year, during much better economic times?”

Rosenberg and Allen noted that SAG’s negotiating committee passed a resolution on Oct. 1 urging the national board to take a strike authorization vote — even though the negotiating committee had the power to initiate the vote on its own.

Rosenberg and Allen also noted that a strike would not impact work on the more than 750 indie features that have been given waivers — or guaranteed completion contracts — under which producers who aren’t repped by the AMPTP agree to adhere to whatever deal SAG signs with the AMPTP. SAG began giving waivers months before the June 30 expiration of the contract, so significant numbers of those projects have already been shot.

SAG and the AMPTP have not met since July 16. Allen insists that informal negotiations have been taking place since then — an assertion that’s been explicitly and repeatedly denied by the majors.

The AMPTP’s calculator on its website estimated as of Sunday that SAG members have lost more than $23.8 million in gains they would have achieved over the past 3½ months had the majors’ final offer been ratified.

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