Both parties hope to renew feature/TV contract

SAG has called off its divorce with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, asserting it’s returning to the usual joint bargaining at upcoming negotiations on a new film-TV contract.

The development, announced Saturday evening, should calm Hollywood fears that SAG is headed toward a strike when its contract expires June 30. SAG has been the WGA’s biggest strike ally, so its teaming with AFTRA — which tends to be far less assertive than SAG — will be greeted with cheer by the majors.

Still, the re-marriage may not take, with AFTRA’s president complaining that SAG still hasn’t done enough to repair the relationship.

SAG made the move a week after AFTRA threatened to get in front of SAG via a separate primetime negotiation in early March, undercutting SAG’s potential leverage.

“We are confident that these actions will pave the way for Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA to jointly negotiate improvements for all actors working under SAG and AFTRA contracts,” SAG president Alan Rosenberg said. “Screen Actors Guild’s objective remains to negotiate the best wages and working conditions for all actors. We look forward to speaking with a unified voice when we face our employers across the table.”

Negotiations on a new deal for actors have not been set, but AFTRA’s leaders have indicated that they expect both unions to be ready to start talks by March 31. The SAG-AFTRA contract covers feature and primetime TV work, with AFTRA covering a handful of shows.

SAG national exec director Doug Allen said Saturday that AFTRA has indicated it will be willing to be a partner agin.

“Despite the fact that AFTRA announced its intention to enter early negotiations on primetime television provisions on its own, they have recently signaled that they are ready, willing and able to work together with Screen Actors Guild in the best interests of actors,” he added.

But the reconciliation of SAG and AFTRA — under the terms of the 1981 “Phase One” agreement — may still hit a stumbling block. In a move typical of the sour relationship between the performers’ unions, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon responded by saying SAG had not gone far enough in returning as a joint bargaining partner with AFTRA.

Reardon complained that SAG had added “new and ambiguous” conditions to the partnership that made AFTRA leaders question whether SAG is committed to the Phase One process.

As part of their action Saturday, SAG’s national board pulled the plug on plans for a referendum that would have sought member approval for SAG to negotiate without AFTRA. But the vote, backed by 86% of the board, included the provision that ditching the referendum depended on talks with AFTRA toppers that would provide that neither union can undercut the other by offering low-ball terms.

That’s been a massive sore point between the unions in recent years as AFTRA signs up cable shows at lower initial terms than SAG, such as free exhibition days, and has provoked accusations by SAG that AFTRA is shilling for producers. AFTRA has insisted that it has the right make such deals and contends its contracts pay actors more over the long term and keep producers from going non-union.

SAG’s board also passed a resolution Saturday to rescind bloc voting by its members on the negotiating committee, noting that the provision represented an impediment to reaching agreement with AFTRA. SAG had approved bloc voting last year after AFTRA repeatedly refused to reduce its 50-50 representation despite contributing less than 10% of earnings; that move provoked AFTRA to declare that Phase One had been abrogated and that it could negotiate its own deals with the AMPTP.

In a letter sent Friday to Reardon and national exec director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, the SAG leaders said dual cardholders have been seeking answers as to whether the unions will be seeking similar terms and whether either union will offer lesser terms once those deals are concluded. Rosenberg and Allen said they’re still willing to negotiate jointly with AFTRA.

“We further pledge that SAG will not modify the resulting contract for signatories without AFTRA’s approval,” they added. “Will AFTRA make the same pledge: to negotiate together with SAG from one package of proposals and together reach agreement with the AMPTP and further, that AFTRA will not modify the resulting contract for signatories at lesser terms without Screen Actors Guild approval?”

Hedgpeth told SAG on Friday that she’s still hoping the performers’ unions don’t have to get a divorce. She said discussions earlier in the week between union officials led her to assert that AFTRA would still be willing to negotiate with SAG rather than going it alone.

“AFTRA is committed to Phase One as it was originally conceived and practiced since 1981,” she wrote to Allen. “AFTRA wants to support SAG in its potential return to Phase One.”

On Sunday, in reaction to the SAG vote, Reardon said, “We hope conversations in the coming days will provide clarity about whether SAG does in fact plan to return to Phase One in its original form.”

It’s also possible the AFL-CIO’s recent move to grant AFTRA a direct charter could signal that the AFL-CIO could step in to mediate the long-running jurisdictional dispute.

Members outside Hollywood have disagreed on the AFTRA issue with Allen, Rosenberg and the Membership First faction that controls the SAG board. New York SAG president Sam Freed blasted the duo in a statement Sunday.

“Membership First’s gross miscalculation has forced them to retreat from their belligerent position of ending rather than strengthening our relationship with our sister union,” he said. “Alan Rosenberg, Doug Allen and their Membership First allies have wasted 10 months and precious guild resources, including our reputation with the industry, when we should have used that time preparing for the most important negotiations in a generation. Valuable time has been lost but it is not too late to direct our energies so that we can begin negotiations immediately and truly protect the most important interests of our members.”

SAG has about 120,000 members, while AFTRA has 70,000; about 40,000 thesps are dual cardholders.

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