New contract expected by Wednesday

With SAG waiting in the wings to start its contract talks, the majors will begin three days of negotiations today with the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees.

The below-the-line union is expected to emerge Wednesday with a new contract — even though its current deal doesn’t expire for another 16 months.

By contrast, with SAG’s feature-primetime deal expiring June 30, the town continues to worry about actors going on strike, despite proclamations by guild leaders that they don’t want a work stoppage. The guild agreed last week to start its talks April 15 after AFTRA decided to bust up the 27-year bargaining partnership; AFTRA’s talks on primetime will begin April 28.

Neither IATSE nor the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers would comment on the IATSE negotiations, first disclosed a month ago (Daily Variety, March 3).

But it would be a surprise if the talks don’t lead to a deal, which will cover about 25,000 below-the-line employees in 18 West Coast locals. IATSE topper Thomas Short has indicated to associates he’ll come in with a focused proposal.

When SAG talks do get under way, the majors will be able to tout having reached agreements with the town’s other unions this year — first the DGA, then the WGA, the AFTRA network code and finally IATSE.

As with the DGA, IATSE leaders have opted for early negotiations in the belief that employers will agree to the most favorable terms in exchange for labor stability. Additionally, by negotiating now, IATSE will be able to incorporate gains in new media into its contract to help continue funding its health and pension plan.

IATSE is a little over halfway through its current contract, which expires in August 2009. It announced a strategic alliance with AFTRA in mid-2007 that was touted as a way to share information and resources.

SAG has only two weeks before AFTRA has its turn at the negotiating table — placing major pressure on SAG to make a deal first or face the consequence of AFTRA expanding its TV jurisdiction by signing new TV deals. SAG leaders have indicated they want a better deal than the DGA and WGA, particularly in DVD residuals and new media, while the majors have indicated those positions are non-starters.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen met informally last week with News Corp. president Peter Chernin and Disney CEO Robert Iger to lay the groundwork for the April 15 start of bargaining at AMPTP headquarters.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more