Union will not begin talks until April at earliest

Facing growing pressure to start contract talks as soon as possible, the Screen Actors Guild has dug in its heels and announced it won’t start formal negotiations with the AMPTP until April at the earliest.

In a message to members sent Thursday, SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen repeated their previous insistence that SAG needs to complete its process of holding “wages and working conditions” meetings to hammer out the details of its proposal and said that process would conclude March 31.

“Despite claims to the contrary by a few that we are not moving fast enough, we are well underway in this important, collaborative process,” Allen said.

The duo also reiterated they need to complete discussions with AFTRA over details of the SAG-AFTRA joint bargaining arrangement before setting a date for talks.

Notably, the missive took a measured tone with a lack of the fiery anti-company sentiments that predominated SAG pronouncements during the WGA strike, when SAG sought to portray itself as the closest ally of the writers.

“We want to begin formal negotiations as soon as we have the best chance to finish the negotiations with a fair agreement, acceptable to SAG members,” Rosenberg and Allen said. “That date will be as soon as possible, but not before we finish our member-driven W&W process and not until we are in a position to finish what we start.”

The SAG-AFTRA contract on feature film and primetime TV expires June 30. Studio worries about an actors strike have resulted in execs refusing to schedule production start dates on films that can’t be completed by that date.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers had no comment about the announcement. AFTRA, which had threatened a month ago to negotiate with the AMPTP separately from SAG, also had no comment.

Speculation’s arisen recently that the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees might hold early negotiations with the AMPTP on its West Coast contract, even though its contract doesn’t expire until August 2009. Doing so would enable IATSE — which was harshly critical of the WGA strike because of the impact on its members — to incorporate gains from the DGA and WGA contracts plus last year’s West Coast Teamster deal, in addition to reaching a deal before a possible SAG strike.

The AMPTP and IATSE had no comment about the speculation.

SAG was so closely aligned with the Writers Guild during the recent strike that many assumed the WGA deal would preclude an actors strike. But Rosenberg and Allen have said repeatedly that SAG must maintain a strike threat to get the best possible deal, asserting that without that leverage, collective bargaining becomes “collective begging.”

However, Thursday’s message made no mention of the possibility for a strike and attempted to assuage concerns that SAG is stalling in setting talks. Top-tier meembers such as George Clooney and Tom Hanks have spearheaded a push to get SAG leaders to the bargaining table as soon as possible and to cool down their anti-conglom statements.

“The impact of the calendar on the industry, particularly its impact on movies not yet in production, affects actors and employers,” Rosenberg and Allen said. “It is important that our response to the urgency of the calendar is thoughtful, measured, and productive. We cannot ignore the calendar. Neither should we impose deadlines on ourselves, in essence bargaining against ourselves.”

The SAG duo — who held a meet-and-greet last week with Disney topper Robert Iger — also said they’ll hold informal get-togethers with the moguls to lay the groundwork for the formal bargaining, noting that the DGA and WGA had taken a similar path earlier this year.

“We will also meet with management to work on the schedule and logistics of negotiations,” Rosenberg and Allen said. “Our lines of communication with management have been and will continue to be open.”

The announcement came following several weeks of presssure on SAG leaders to get to the bargaining table ASAP. A-listers such as Clooney have urged Rosenberg and Allen to cool down the rhetoric. Additionally, more than 1,100 thesps — including Amy Brennamen and Meryl Streep — have asked that strike voting be limited to those SAG members working at least five days per year.

Thursday’s message offered a stark contrast in tone from the blistering response SAG issued a month ago to the terms of the DGA deal. Rosenberg and Allen warned in that Jan. 29 message to members that the terms of the new media provisions in the directors deal were unnacceptable — even though most of the provisions in the subsequent WGA deal mirrored the DGA terms.

Rosenberg and Allen said SAG plans to stress the issues of new media, compensation for middle-class actors and forced endorsement on product integration. And Rosenberg and Allen insisted that the contract talks will include issues not dealt with in either the DGA or WGA contracts.

“The compression of compensation for middle-class working actors and forced endorsement by product integration, for example, must be addressed in our negotiations,” they said. “Also, the impact of some of the new media provisions of the DGA or WGA contracts would fall more harshly on actors than on writers and directors.”

SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said Thursday that the remaining “wages and working conditions” process — which has been under way since January via member meetings — involves collection of the proposals, submission by staff to a member plenary for review and refinement, then to the national boards of SAG and AFTRA, and/or a joint plenary and finally to the still-unnamed joint negotiating committee.

In another development Thursday, members of the New York board of SAG passed a resolution demanding that the guild begin the negotiations no later than the end of March. SAG’s national board is about 60% controlled by Hollywood-based reps; reps from New York and the regional branches tend to take more moderate positions and have a longstanding enmity with their Hollywood counterparts.

“I see absolutely no value to the members in delaying these talks any longer,” said New York president Sam Freed.  “We are dealing with serious issues. We should already be at the bargaining table.”

The New York announcement included an endorsement from New York-based Alec Baldwin, who said, “SAG should pursue a course similar to the DGA, where early negotiations short circuit the need for a strike.”

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