East, West guilds battle over strike

Civil war has broken out at the Screen Actors Guild.

Gotham leaders of SAG are demanding that the guild’s plan to seek a strike authorization vote be called off due to the faltering economy, and they want the guild’s contract negotiating committee replaced in the hopes that new blood will help end the guild’s months-long stalemate with the majors.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg responded by setting the emergency national board meeting for Friday at SAG’s Hollywood headquarters — but he insists that the New York guild reps attend in person. Rosenberg blasted SAG’s Gotham toppers for their “extraordinarily destructive and subversive” action.

A guild spokeswoman said SAG would not comment on why the emergency board meeting is a “face to face” session. New York reps indicated that requiring cross-country travel on short notice, when videoconferencing equipment is readily available, can only be interpreted as punitive and designed to hold down attendance by opponents of the guild’s Hollywood leadership.

The skirmish that erupted after the New York board, headed by prexy Sam Freed, spoke out against the strike authorization vote on Friday afternoon widens the gulf between SAG leaders in Hollywood and the rest of the country. New York board member Mike Hodge had already publicly criticized the decision to seek the strike authorization vote, while Gotham board member Richard Masur, a former SAG prexy, has been a longtime foe of the guild’s current Hollywood leadership.

Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen are certain to receive a chilly reception tonight at a townhall meeting for New York members at the Westin Times Square. That confab was scheduled a week ago to discuss the strike authorization, which is still set to go out Jan. 2 with results announced Jan. 23.

The New York division leaders — who rep about 25% of SAG’s 120,000 members — noted in their statement that while they had voted in October to support seeking a strike authorization if federal mediation failed, conditions have changed since then.

“While issuing a strike authorization may have been a sensible strategy in October, we believe it is irresponsible to do so now, in the face of widespread layoffs, cutbacks and reduced programming,” the N.Y. board said in a statement. “The hardest and most important decision any union member must make is whether or not to go on strike. Before we ask you to make that choice, we feel we must, as your elected representatives, make every move we can to get you a deal.”

In addition to seeking the emergency board meeting, the New York reps asked that all plans for a strike referendum cease; a new negotiating task force to replace the current negotiating committee at this emergency meeting; and that the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers be encouraged “in the strongest of terms” to return to the bargaining table.

Control of SAG’s national board shifted in September elections away from Rosenberg’s Membership First allies to a more moderate coalition of New York and regional reps along with half a dozen board members elected from Hollywood in the Unite for Strength faction, including Amy Brenneman and Kate Walsh. But the negotiating committee remains under the control of Membership First.

“With a fresh team, the AMPTP will return to the table, and we can get a fair deal,” the N.Y. reps said. “A deal that will not cost careers, homes, lives. We want our members to understand that while strikes are sometimes unavoidable, we will do everything in our power to avoid this one.”

Rosenberg responded by saying the global economy was already failing before the new board OK’d the plan to take a strike vote should the attempt at federal mediation fail to end the six month-long stalemate between SAG and the AMPTP. The sides held two sessions last month with a federal mediator, who called the process off on Nov. 22.

“We are keenly aware of and sensitive to the fact that the economy has further declined since then,” Rosenberg added. “When economic times are tough, members rely on their union even more to protect them from management’s tactics. I believe we must be even more vigilant during these challenging times. The solution to the industry’s economic hardship must not be rollbacks that cripple our member’s ability to earn a living.”

The AMPTP made its final offer on June 30 as SAG’s primetime-feature contract expired. Over 75% of SAG members who vote would have to affirm the authorization, with the national board having the final say, if SAG is to go on strike.

The PR campaigns to persuade actors have continued in high gear as SAG announced late Friday that it had launched a “solidarity statement” campaign for members to declare their support of a “yes” vote. The first 31 signers included Mel Gibson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter and Martin Sheen, along with board members Scott Bakula, Justine Bateman, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Diane Ladd and Kent McCord.

For its part, the AMPTP went to elected officials with a blast at SAG leaders on Friday by sending a letter to leading members of the California delegation including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein along with local, state and national elected officials in New York, Illinois and Michigan.

The missive, penned by AMPTP president Nick Counter, excoriated SAG leaders for refusing to accept the AMPTP’s final offer, which contains similar terms to those in Hollywood labor agreements concluded this year by the WGA, DGA, IATSE, casting directors and AFTRA.

“Now, astonishingly, SAG is demanding that working actors attempt to wipe away the consequences of SAG’s failed negotiating strategy by authorizing a strike,” Counter said. “This strike vote is remarkable because it comes at a time when prominent economists are saying that the current recession may turn out to be the longest and most painful downturn since the Great Depression.”

SAG deputy national exec director Pamm Fair disputed the majors’ contention that SAG should accept a deal similar to those signed by the other unions.

“Screen Actors Guild represents actors who have different needs than writers, directors and crew members,” Fair said in a statement. “We are different, not better. Our unique needs require that we negotiate a fair contract specific to actors, background actors and stunt performers, and not simply accept what has been agreed to by our sister unions.”

Guild leaders have insisted that the needs of actors — particularly in new media — have not been adequately addressed in the AMPTP’s final offer, issued June 30 as SAG’s contract expired.

The AMPTP also took out an ad in today’s Daily Variety that attempts to refute Rosenberg on statements he’s made about the final offer such as it representing the “beginning of the end of residuals.”

In response, the congloms contend that the proposed deal includes the first-ever residuals for ad-supported streaming for features and TV; an increased residual rate for permanent downloads; first-ever residuals for derivative new media and original programs; exclusive SAG jurisdiction for new-media programs; and jurisdiction over “high budget” original new media productions and low-budget programs that employ a single “covered” actor.

SAG has insisted that the budget thresholds in the AMPTP proposal — $15,000 per minute or $300,000 per production — will lead to the guild sanctioning non-union work as more production migrates to new media platforms.

SAG fired back Sunday night, accusing the AMPTP of lying about the offer and asserting that streaming of new TV shows on new media platforms will pay day performers $46 for the first year’s use after a 17-day free rerun window. It also complained about the jurisdiction language; the lack of compensation for original programming on network sites as abc.com; and rollbacks in clip consent and force majeure.

“Management is offering a lousy deal with ‘zero’ in new media and is threatening the promotion of non-union work in a residual-free environment without minimum compensation,” SAG concluded. “That could be the beginning of the end for actors careers and livelihoods.”

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