Rhetoric to heat up after votes revealed

The holiday may be over, but the fireworks are continuing.

One of the most bizarre chapters in Hollywood’s labor history hits a turning point Tuesday as AFTRA announces the results of the ratification vote for its primetime deal.

The announcement, expected to come as early as Tuesday evening, could break the stalemate that’s pervaded the biz in recent weeks.

The ballots are due today from AFTRA’s 70,000 members. SAG has spent a month in strident opposition, urging a no vote from its 44,000 members who also belong to AFTRA. Both SAG and AFTRA have lobbied hard, and a strong acceptance — or rejection — will provide a gauge of SAG’s influence and its clout at the bargaining table.

It’s widely anticipated the terms will be accepted, with two key factors driving the yes vote: the faltering economy and the lingering impact of the WGA strike. People want to work and don’t want to risk another strike or even a slowdown.

Still, ratification isn’t a sure thing — particularly since SAG has told the actors who belong to both guilds that voting no is the path to a better deal. (The companies have offered SAG a pact that is virtually identical to AFTRA’s.)

Whatever the results, leaders of SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers are expected to meet Thursday. The AMPTP pulled the plug on further negotiations when it made its final offer on June 30.

The key question is how guild leaders and company toppers will interpret an acceptance or rejection of the AFTRA deal by a close margin. SAG insiders believe a close vote will give them added leverage at the bargaining table — while others believe that anything less than a rejection would be a slap to SAG, which has campaigned so fervently against the ratification.

Members of Hollywood guilds usually give 90% approval in contract votes. SAG’s anti-AFTRA push clearly will lower support below that level, but the question is by how much.

Familiar terms

The terms in the AFTRA pact mirror those in the contracts signed by the WGA and DGA, particularly in areas of new media.

SAG contends that actors deserve sweeter terms than those; AFTRA argues that approval will put the industry back to work and that the deal includes gains in salaries and new media without rollbacks or concessions.

“If the AFTRA referendum does pass, it will be a testament to member-to-member, grassroots organizing winning out over money and pressure,” said Richard Masur, a SAG board member and former guild president who helped organize the AftraYes.com website.

Ballots are due at 5 p.m.Tuesday in Everett, Wash., home to the independent ballot-counting firm Integrity Voting Systems.

A decisive vote in either direction would theoretically hasten SAG’s talks with the companies at the bargaining table. Another big question is how soon the town can resume business as usual.

Both sides have campaigned hard with robocalls and star power. SAG signed up Viggo Mortensen, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and Martin Sheen, plus former guild presidents Ed Asner and Bill Daniels; AFTRA received backing from Alec Baldwin, Sally Field, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon, along with former SAG prexies Barry Gordon and William Schallert along with Masur.

SAG’s September elections could be particularly bitter. The Hollywood-based Membership First faction controls about 60% of the board seats, with about a third of those slots up. Should the opponents manage to persuade high-profile members to seek seats, the balance of power could shift.

Some of the possible scenarios if the AFTRA proposal is accepted:

  • SAG will have to acknowledge that its 120,000 members won’t support a strike authorization, at least at the required 75% level. SAG may finally drop its insistence on the entire package of improvements, which still include a hike in DVD residuals and residuals on all new media.

  • SAG will argue it still wants to negotiate, using its “let’s keep working” slogan, even though the companies made their “last best and final” offer on June 30, a few hours before the guild’s feature-primetime contract expired. The SAG strategy is seen as a way to preclude the companies from locking out actors.

  • SAG won’t be completely willing to sit on its hands, since the new AFTRA deal will enable the smaller union to sign up any new primetime shows shot on digital — an area of shared jurisdiction.

  • The companies will probably be willing to wait a few more weeks for SAG to reach a deal. The AMPTP may figure out a way to make a concession or two — such as in actor-specific demands like maintaining force majeure protections or giving actors some say over product integration — to close a deal.

  • Studios and nets may figure that SAG’s leverage has been reduced enough to begin ramping up production again — although some TV series have still not gone on hiatus and will probably keep shooting anyhow.

  • SAG and AFTRA will have to begin prepping for negotiations on their commercials contract, which expires in October. AFTRA, which refused to negotiate jointly with SAG in March following a long series of jurisdictional disputes, has indicated it won’t go to the bargaining table with SAG — although some have suggested doing so could be a way to start repairing the relationship.

If SAG prevails and the AFTRA deal’s voted down, the following scenarios will likely play out:

  • SAG has said a no vote would get AFTRA back to the table, but AFTRA leaders have said that won’t happen. Instead, it’s likely AFTRA will simply wait to see what deal SAG makes, then agree to that.

  • SAG leaders also believe their leverage at the bargaining table will correspond with the percentage of no votes. According to their thinking, a no vote will increase SAG’s chance of extracting concessions.

  • SAG will argue that the congloms need to break the pattern set by the WGA, DGA and AFTRA for the sake of getting Hollywood back to work. SAG insiders also want Disney CEO Robert Iger and News Corp. president Peter Chernin to reprise their roles and help close the deal — just as they did with the DGA and WGA.

  • A lockout’s currently rated as a low possibility, particularly since the studios have stockpiled features, and some TV production is continuing. But if the congloms can’t make a deal with SAG by next month, the possibility of a lockout would rise every day.

  •  Should negotiations prove fruitless, SAG leaders would probably set a strike authorization vote, which would take about three weeks to complete.
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