Guild kicks off talks with majors

Opting for a low-key approach amid the town’s fears of a strike, the Screen Actors Guild and the majors have launched feature-primetime negotiations with a minimum of fanfare — in sharp contrast to last year’s incendiary WGA talks.

Bargaining began Tuesday morning at AMPTP headquarters with the official presentation of proposals. SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers issued a brief statement in the late afternoon, disclosing only that talks would resume this morning.

The two sides have not agreed to a news blackout, but plan to limit their disclosure to jointly issued end-of-the-day statements for the next two weeks.

Although these plans may change if talks become contentious, the main hope behind the strategy is to avoid the bitter back-and-forth attacks that dominated WGA negotiations before and during the writers strike. Even before the first WGA bargaining sessions began in mid-July, both sides had been blasting each other’s positions; once the talks started, the accusations became only more vehement and vituperative.

The start of the SAG talks comes on the heels of a bruising battle with sister union the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists over jurisdiction and strategy.

On Monday, AFTRA spurned a last-minute invite from SAG to rejoin it at the bargaining table under terms of the 1981 Phase One partnership, with AFTRA asserting it can no longer trust SAG leaders due to a dispute over possible decertification of “The Bold and the Beautiful.” So Tuesday’s session represented the first time in 27 years that SAG and AFTRA have not negotiated together on the contract.

There’s still plenty of potential for the guild negotiations to veer off track. The congloms have insisted SAG’s going to have to accept terms similar to those in the WGA and DGA pacts signed earlier this year; SAG president Alan Rosenberg has been explicit that the guild must get a boost in DVD residuals and improvements in the new-media portions of the WGA and DGA deals.

The current SAG-AFTRA deal expires June 30. AFTRA, which covers a handful of primetime shows, will begin its negotiations on April 28 — which puts pressure on SAG to wrap up its talks by then or face the prospect of AFTRA signing a deal first and then using it to expand its coverage in areas of shared jurisdiction.

In a sign that SAG is cognizant of the looming AFTRA talks, it’s already scheduled talks for the next two Saturdays, in addition to the weekdays.

And the bitter dispute with AFTRA received more fuel Tuesday as “The Bold and the Beautiful” star Susan Flannery asserted that SAG had not initiated the question of decertification.

“Just so everyone understands, the idea of exploring the possibility of a new ‘collective bargaining agent’ began with me,” she said in a letter to the SAG board. “There have been over the past 21 years at ‘B&B’ a growing dissatisfaction with AFTRA regarding health plans, residuals, pensions, meal penalties, turnarounds, etc. In the final analysis, the contracts negotiated on our behalf over the years, in our opinion, have fallen very short of our expectations!”

AFTRA leaders have said that SAG’s involvement in discussing decertification with Flannery was “the last straw.” But Flannery insisted that SAG national exec director Doug Allen merely advised her and co-star John McCook that they should take the matter to AFTRA.

Tuesday’s launch of negotiations coincided with a labor solidarity rally at Hancock Park to start a three-day “March to the Docks” to push for better jobs. SAG board member Esai Morales and AFTRA board member Jason George both spoke at the event, which drew about 1,000 supporters from more than two dozen unions.

“Unions are the only way to keep our dignity,” Morales said. “We’ve been under assault for decades. Corporate America has turned us into a serf nation.”

Morales also said SAG doesn’t want a strike, reiterating a position that Allen and Rosenberg have expressed repeatedly.

“But we will not be forced into a position where we have to take less and less,” he added. “We will not be the bad guy on this. Let it be on them to give us what we deserve.”

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