Unions to negotiate jointly after all

SAG and AFTRA appear to have buried the hatchet on a nasty jurisdictional dispute, clearing the way for joint negotiations on their film-primetime contract in late March or early April.

Although neither union would comment Thursday and details haven’t been finalized, AFTRA has indicated that it’s backing off its threat to start early bargaining on its own — a move that would have significantly de-leveraged SAG, since producers would probably flock to sign deals with AFTRA given presumably more favorable terms.

SAG, meanwhile, appears to have concluded that it can’t force AFTRA to agree to stop offering producers contracts with better initial terms.

In a signal that the two performers unions are moving back to negotiating together, AFTRA board members have been notified they should expect the two unions to set a joint plenary on March 24 to hammer out the final proposal to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, followed by a joint negotiating committee meeting on March 29.

The AMPTP had no comment Thursday.

Earlier this week, AFTRA had warned SAG — which has been facing growing pressure to get to the bargaining table as soon as possible — that it would go solo with the AMPTP if SAG didn’t commit by Monday to launching negotiations by the end of March. Subsequent efforts by SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen to persuade the AFL-CIO executive council to side with SAG fell flat, according to a source close to the situation.

Rosenberg and Allen are expected to brief the guild’s national executive committee at the panel’s regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.

The pending resolution of the latest version of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA battle reps a setback for Rosenberg and Allen amid the town’s increasing concerns that actors are headed for a strike when the current contract expires June 30. It’s also uncertain whether Allen and AFTRA topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth can negotiate effectively together given the sniping that’s gone on over the past year.

Allen and Rosenberg have spent a year attempting to revamp the Phase One bargaining process, under which SAG and AFTRA have 50-50 representation on the joint negotiating committee — even though it covers only three primetime shows and no feature work. And they’ve tapped into the resentment of many SAG members that AFTRA was signing cable deals for shows shot on digital at terms more favorable to producers.

But AFTRA’s insisted it has every right to sign such pacts, noting that doing so prevents shows from going non-union or being shot in Canada. And it’s accused SAG leaders of being overly militant and inflexible in their “one size fits all” approach to contracts.

SAG leaders decided last summer to institute block voting for its negotiating committee, opening the door for AFTRA to insist that SAG had violated the Phase One agreement and threaten to negotiate separately from SAG. The guild’s leaders agreed a month ago to go back to Phase One but attached conditions to doing so.

Meanwhile, a recent Citi Investment Research report has warned that uncertainty over the SAG contract could impact the 2009 earnings for entertainment congloms.

“Current risk of a SAG strike may be preventing major studios from approving new film production in 2008, which could potentially disrupt the 2009 film schedule for major film studios,” said analyst Jason Bazinet.

He noted that with the plug pulled on new films approved for production, there will “almost certainly” be some level of disruption to the 2009 film slate even if the actors unions ratify a new contract quickly.

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