Talks collapse between guild, AMPTP

In a move that may disrupt Hollywood’s awards season for the second year in a row, the Screen Actors Guild will seek a strike authorization from its 120,000 members.

SAG made the announcement early Saturday that it would call for the vote after federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez abandoned his monthlong efforts to broker a deal between the guild and the majors. SAG’s negotiating committee voted 15-2 in agreement with Gonzalez’s decision, which automatically triggered the move toward an authorization vote.

No timetable’s been set for the authorization vote, but SAG could conceivably be on strike on primetime and features as early as the Jan. 11 Golden Globes.

And even if SAG waits for the holiday season to pass before sending out the vote, it could certainly be on strike by the Feb. 22 Academy Awards.

SAG would need at least three weeks to conduct the strike authorization vote but said Saturday it would launch a “full-scale education campaign” in support of a yes vote — with a 75% endorsement of those voting needed for the guild to proceed with a strike.

Last January’s Globes ceremonies devolved into a news conference after it became apparent no stars would show up. SAG had told its members to honor any picket lines set up by striking writers after the WGA refused to grant the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. a waiver.

That led to the Academy planning for both scenarios — with and without stars. However, the WGA and the companies managed to reach a deal a month later, enabling a picket-free Oscar ceremony.

WGA leaders admitted at the time that the prospect of the potential fallout from boycotting the Oscars had been one of several key factors in pushing the scribes toward a deal.

Hosts and presenters on the Globes and Oscars work under AFTRA contracts, so they would not be in violation of a SAG strike order. But if SAG’s on strike, it could tell stars to boycott the shows.

HFPA president Jorge Camara told Daily Variety on Sunday, “We’ll have to see how this develops.”

The prospect of a SAG strike could also disrupt the guild’s own awards show Jan. 25, since companies could retaliate over a work stoppage by refusing to provide clips. SAG national exec director Doug Allen told Daily Variety that it was too early to discuss any impact of a potential strike on awards season.

“It’s premature to comment, because we’re still working out the calendar,” he added. “I want to emphasize that this is a vote to authorize the board to decide whether to go on strike. It’s not a strike vote.”

But that’s exactly how the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is already portraying the vote.

“Make no mistake about this: If SAG members authorize a strike, then a strike is all but guaranteed, because SAG has shown no willingness to compromise on its unrealistic demands,” the AMPTP said in a Sunday message to its 300 member companies. “Simply put, a vote to authorize a strike will lead inexorably to a strike, and a strike would cost SAG members far more than they can ever expect to gain.”

For its part, SAG portrayed itself as blameless.

“Our leadership was optimistic that federal mediation would help to move our negotiations forward, but despite the guild’s extraordinary efforts to reach agreement, the mediation was adjourned shortly before 1 a.m. today,” SAG said Saturday. “Management continues to insist on terms we cannot responsibly accept on behalf of our members.”

The 100-day WGA strike thoroughly disrupted the 2007-08 TV season while having little impact on features. A SAG strike would be far more damaging on the feature side since studios plan to ramp up production in January to fill out their 2010 and 2011 slates.

For SAG, disrupting awards season carries several risks — not the least of which is a PR assault. The AMPTP blasted away Saturday by asserting that the guild’s out of touch with the industry’s concerns and noting that it’s the only Hollywood union that hasn’t closed a master contract deal this year.

“Now, SAG is bizarrely asking its members to bail out the failed negotiating strategy with a strike vote — at a time of historic economic crisis,” the AMPTP said. “The tone deafness of SAG is stunning.”

Allen told Daily Variety that it’s the companies that are out of step. “It’s ironic that they would use the word ‘tone deaf’ when they’ve been tone deaf when it comes to listening to the concerns of working actors,” he said.

SAG’s move toward a strike will accelerate the trend toward losing primetime jurisdiction as new shows sign with AFTRA. The AFTRA primetime deal, which went into effect in July, has sweeter terms for actors than the expired SAG deal.

Both sides shifted into attack mode over the weekend after the two lengthy sessions Thursday and Friday, which saw some movement toward a possible deal.

During the final hours Friday night, SAG negotiators indicated they’d be willing to drop their demands in new-media residuals and jurisdiction and agree to the AMPTP proposal in exchange for a bump in DVD residuals, product integration and retroactivity back to June 30 — when the current contract expired. The AMPTP countered by asserting that DVD remained a nonstarter and offering tweaks to its final offer, which SAG rejected.

The decision to concede on the new-media demands came after a lengthy and strenuous debate among SAG’s negotiating committee members, according to an insider who stressed that the concession was a sign that SAG hoped to finally resolve its long contract battle through the mediation process.

“Our focus was on getting a deal done,” said a committee member. “None of us saw (mediation) as a cursory step toward going to the strike authorization. We were there to make a deal.”

The source noted that the biz’s tradition of pattern bargaining among the guilds complicated the AMPTP’s response to any suggestion from SAG for deal terms that differed from the majors’ new pacts with AFTRA, WGA and DGA.

Since SAG held its first negotiating session with the AMPTP more than seven months ago, it may not move with any dispatch toward an authorization vote. There’s concern among leaders that calling for a vote during the height of the holidays — and during an economic crisis — could depress the turnout and that members’ may not be as inclined to support a work stoppage when they’re facing extraordinary holiday-related expenses.

In addition, evidence is already emerging that SAG may have difficulty maintaining a united front. A group called No SAG Strike launched an online petition over the weekend and had obtained 649 signatures as of the mid-afternoon Sunday; and a spokesman for the moderate wing of SAG’s national board said it was a “big mistake” to terminate mediation after only two days.

“These difficult times require that we exhaust every opportunity to reach an agreement,” said Ned Vaughn, spokesman for the Unite for Strength faction, which helped moderates gain control of the board in September.

Dissension within SAG over the prospect of a strike raises the possibility that third parties could become involved to help broker a deal. CAA partner Bryan Lourd played that role a year ago during the first weeks of the WGA strike, although that round of negotiations cratered.

SAG’s strategy of holding out for a better deal received backing of 87% of slightly over 10,000 members voting in a September postcard poll — which the AMPTP derided as meaningless — but it’s uncertain if SAG members would offer the same level of support amid a worsening economy.

SAG had sought the mediation on Oct. 19 rather than pursuing a strike authorization at that point. SAG said Saturday that seeking a strike authorization is the only way it can force the companies to revise the terms of the deal.

“We have already made difficult decisions and sacrifices in an attempt to reach agreement,” the guild said. “Now it’s time for SAG members to stand united and empower the national negotiating committee to bargain with the strength of a possible work stoppage behind them.”

For its part, the AMPTP’s contended repeatedly that it won’t change the final offer to SAG — issued June 30 as SAG’s master contract expired — and stressed that the offer’s terms are similar to those in this year’s deals with the WGA, DGA, AFTRA, IATSE and casting directors.

The AMPTP’s estimated that its three-year offer to SAG would result in $250 million in pay increases to thesps over the life of the deal — meaning that SAG members have lost out on $34 million in pay gains since the expiration.

The collapse of talks comes on the heels of the companies reaching a three-year deal with IATSE last week. At that point, the AMPTP said all six labor agreements would keep the industry at work, allow producers to experiment with new media and give everyone in the industry a stake in the success of new and emerging markets.

SAG derided that assertion Saturday and pointed to the WGA’s recent accusation — denied by the AMPTP — that the companies aren’t living up to terms of the WGA deal.

“We remain committed to avoiding a strike but now more than ever we cannot allow our employers to experiment with our careers,” the guild said. “The WGA has already learned that the new-media terms they agreed to with the AMPTP are not being honored. We cannot allow our employers to undermine the futures of our members and their families.”

The final decision on striking would rest with the national board, where control shifted to a less-assertive coalition in September elections and away from the more aggressive Membership First faction.

A correction was made to this article on Nov. 24, 2008.

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