AFTRA goes its own way

Org has divorced SAG

Muddying the town’s labor outlook, AFTRA has divorced SAG and carried through on its threat to negotiate a separate deal with the majors on its primetime TV shows.

AFTRA’s surprise decision, announced Saturday afternoon amid a welter of venomous accusations, means its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will launch as early as this week.

Given what AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon described as a long line of attempts to smear the union, she said the last straw came from SAG’s alleged efforts to take over jurisdiction of soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Rescinding its decision, Reardon added, is out of the question.

“We can’t trust SAG,” she added. “Their leaders have engaged in a concerted effort to tarnish AFTRA’s reputation and diminish our standing.”

SAG president Alan Rosenberg described AFTRA’s move as a long-planned power grab to sell out actors by offering low-ball contracts.

“I think what AFTRA’s done is unconscionable, and I’m sick of getting lectures about trust from them,” he declared. “I’m furious about what they’ve done.”

Responding Saturday, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said it was pleased that AFTRA is ready to negotiate but did not mention SAG. And the AMPTP noted that it had told the actors unions seven weeks ago that it was ready to start negotiations.

There’s little doubt that the congloms will make a quick deal with the more moderate AFTRA — which covers only four TV shows and no film work under the feature-primetime contract — in order to pressure SAG to agree to similar terms without resorting to a strike once the current pact expires June 30.

SAG national exec director Doug Allen told Daily Variety that SAG should go first since it covers 98% of the earnings under the contract. He also said he plans to talk today with the AMPTP about a timeline.

But Allen’s likely to be brushed off since the majors are wary of SAG on several fronts. The guild was a vociferous backer of the WGA strike, and informal talks between SAG toppers and key moguls — News Corp. president Peter Chernin and Disney honcho Robert Iger — have been characterized by sources as unproductive, with no headway made.

The respective AFTRA and SAG national boards both approved the final bargaining proposal Saturday, which had been hammered out over the past months in meetings with members.

Rosenberg acknowledged in an interview Sunday that many are convinced the guild wants to go on strike and reiterated earlier statements to defuse that belief.

“Nobody wants a strike, and it’s way too early to conclude that we’re heading that way,” he said. “I want to make a good deal because actors need a good deal.”

Rosenberg made it clear again Sunday that SAG believes actors need to improve on the recent deals reached by the DGA and WGA earlier this year.

AFTRA’s move suspends the 27-year Phase One joint bargaining partnership and reflects the ongoing bitterness between leaders of the performing unions.

Several execs expressed astonishment over the split with SAG, which came after both unions had appeared in recent few weeks to put aside their differences in the name of presenting a united front at the bargaining table.

The unions had been scheduled to give final approval Saturday to a contract proposal to the AMPTP at a joint board meeting. Had that happened, informal talks between the majors and both unions would have started over the next few days.

Instead, AFTRA voted at its Saturday morning board meeting to suspend Phase One, citing what Reardon said was a SAG-led effort to seek jurisdiction over soap operas starting with a “raid” on “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Several thesps on the show, angered over what they perceive as lesser AFTRA terms, have moved to decertify AFTRA as the bargaining rep. AFTRA leaders were incensed over the fact that Allen and Rosenberg met with cast member Susan Flannery about the issue; Allen said he told Flannery to contact AFTRA with her concerns but that explanation was derided by AFTRA.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back but it’s also the symptom of a much larger problem,” said Reardon, citing SAG’s extensive campaign to complain to guild members about lower initial terms of AFTRA contracts in basic cable.

Rosenberg shot back Sunday that AFTRA had mischaracterized SAG’s efforts on the soap, contending that SAG’s board had approved a motion pledging that it would not attempt to take over coverage of the show.

AFTRA leaders were also perturbed over SAG’s attempts over the past year to seek more seats on the joint bargaining committee — which was split 50-50 even though SAG covers the lion’s share of work.

The developments are certain to rattle Hollywood, which was already unnerved by the 100-day WGA strike and SAG’s blistering denunciation of the DGA deal two months ago. Due to fears of a SAG strike, studios have been scrambling to stockpile features and complete production by June 30

Rosenberg said Sunday, “The optimist in me says there’s one benefit from AFTRA leaving — SAG will be able to control its own destiny at the bargaining table.”

SAG represents 120,000 members. AFTRA has 70,000 members and the two unions have 40,000 dual cardholders.

The bad blood between SAG and AFTRA stems partly from failed efforts by SAG moderates to merge with AFTRA in 1999 and 2004. Both combos were voted down by SAG members, partly over concerns that SAG would lose its identity as an actors union.

Additionally, SAG’s split internally due to reps from New York and regional branches opposing most of the moves by Hollywood reps — who control about 60% of the board seats. N.Y. SAG president Sam Freed joined in the finger-pointing, blaming Rosenberg and his allies for provoking AFTRA by moving to ditch Phase One before agreeing to joint negotiations.

“Now, after a year of provocation that has gotten them what they always wanted, they are placing the blame on everyone but themselves for the outcome,” Freed said. “The current Hollywood leadership of SAG has today failed all actors.”

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