Union to begin talks with networks on April 28

The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists will launch negotiations with the majors for a new primetime contract on April 28 — less than two weeks after the Screen Actors Guild starts bargaining, saying the window gives SAG “significant time” to work out a deal.

The move adds pressure on SAG leaders to make hefty progress during the next few days in their informal discussions with News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin and Disney CEO Robert Iger.

Those talks, which have been in progress over a few weeks, are aimed at sorting out the sticky issues and establishing the parameters for the formal negotiations to follow.

Chernin, Iger and SAG brass met Wednesday for a candid where-do-we-go-from-here sesh. Previous meets aren’t believed to have been notably productive as guild toppers held back specifics of SAG’s proposal.

With AFTRA staking out April 28, SAG could pay a steep price if formal bargaining, which starts April 15, bogs down. The Writers Guild of America had that problem when the majors opted to focus on cutting a deal with the Directors Guild after talks with the striking writers imploded.

Chernin and Iger played a similar behind-the-scenes role in helping smooth the way toward the directors and writers pacts in January and February, respectively.

Biggest sticking point is expected to be SAG’s push for sweetened DVD residuals, something that was sought but proved a non-starter for the WGA in their bargaining.

The AFTRA announcement, made Wednesday afternoon by president Roberta Reardon, comes a day after SAG announced its start date with the AMPTP and four days after the angry bust-up of the 27-year SAG-AFTRA bargaining partnership.

“In our view, our proposed schedule should allow SAG sufficient time to work out a good deal with the studios,” Reardon said in a statement. “At the same time, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to our own members to engage with the employers in a strong, deliberate and timely manner so we can negotiate the best possible agreement for primetime performers.”

Reardon did not elaborate but the subtext was clear: SAG needs to make significant progress toward a deal with the AMPTP once it gets to the table on April 15 or face the prospect of AFTRA signing a pact first. One of SAG’s fears is that AFTRA would use that new deal to expand its coverage well beyond the three shows it now covers.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and SAG had no comment about the AFTRA announcement.

Worries about SAG striking following the June 30 expiration of the current feature-primetime contract have spurred a boom in production throughout Hollywood, even though SAG leaders have insisted they don’t want a work stoppage. Those strike fears have been elevated in recent days with AFTRA splitting from SAG for negotiations — since the split removes the more moderate AFTRA reps from the bargaining table when SAG conducts its negotiations.

The AFTRA-SAG split came following extensive disputes over jurisdiction and negotiating styles. The final spark stemmed from actors on “The Bold and the Beautiful” moving to decertify from AFTRA — with AFTRA accusing SAG of poaching, but SAG insisting it had not aided those thesps.

Until this week, SAG had appeared reluctant to commit to a date to start bargaining, despite pressure from high-profile actors including George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep to launch talks ASAP. AFTRA had also stressed that it wanted to start negotiations before the end of March.

Once AFTRA ditched the concept of joint negotiations on Saturday, SAG insisted it should be first up because it covers all film work and the lion’s share of the primetime TV work under the current contract. Reardon pointed out Wednesday that it had been AFTRA’s decision to accede to SAG’s wish to be in the lead.

“The SAG leadership has now reversed its previous approach of postponing contract talks until the last minute — and last night publicly announced that they intend to start talks with the AMPTP on April 15,” Reardon said in the statement. “AFTRA has decided to let SAG go first because we feel it is in all of our interests for SAG to maintain its momentum and because we want to give the guild a reasonable opportunity to meet with the AMPTP.”

The SAG and AFTRA proposals — both approved last weekend — seek similar improvements in new-media and DVD residuals. Reaching a deal with SAG is expected to be more difficult than one with AFTRA, since SAG execs have insisted they will take a hardline approach to get a better deal than what’s in the WGA and DGA pacts.

AFTRA’s split from SAG came after a year of campaigning by SAG national exec director Doug Allen and president Alan Rosenberg to revamp the Phase One bargaining process, under which SAG and AFTRA had 50-50 representation on the joint negotiating committee — even though AFTRA covers only three primetime shows and no feature work.

The Allen-Rosenberg campaign included claims asserting AFTRA was shilling for producers by signing cable deals for shows shot on digital at initial terms more favorable than SAG’s to producers. AFTRA has insisted it has the right to sign such pacts and contended doing so prevents shows from going nonunion or being shot in Canada; it also accused SAG leaders of being overly militant and inflexible in their “one size fits all” approach to contracts.

Reardon did not revisit the dispute in her announcement but noted that over half of AFTRA’s 70,000 members also belong to SAG.

“Our issues with the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild are a matter of record, as is our decision to negotiate a primetime television agreement on our own this year,” she said. “Nonetheless we are also concerned about the wellbeing of SAG members — some 44,000 of whom also belong to AFTRA.”

Rosenberg received a boost Wednesday when former SAG president Charlton Heston announced he’s supporting the guild leadership in the wake of the AFTRA split over the Phase One partnership, which was designed to lead to a merger.

The announcement from the actor — a onetime vocal activist who has been notably low-profile in the past few years, after his announcement that he had early stages of Alzheimer’s — was issued by the Actors for a Working Actors Guild org.

“AFTRA’s untimely decision to terminate Phase 1 of the attempt to merge SAG and AFTRA illustrates to AWAG’s 1,500 members the difficulties that have always been apparent to those seeking to merge the two unions with such diverse memberships,” said Heston and org chief Morgan Paull. “We are confident that the current SAG leadership is fully capable of negotiating a fair and responsible contract for the members of Screen Actors Guild and we support them fully.”

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