SAG could strike by end of January

Guild to send out ballots on Jan. 2

The Screen Actors Guild has made its strike threat official, announcing it will send out authorization ballots Jan. 2 and reveal the results Jan. 23 — setting the stage for an Oscars boycott and a halt to most production.

SAG announced the timeline Wednesday with the goal of forcing congloms back to the bargaining table, even though the companies declared five months ago they were finished with negotiations. The companies have insisted they won’t change their final offer to SAG, made June 30 as SAG’s contract expired, and they’ve blasted guild leaders for insisting they deserve a sweeter deal than the other Hollywood unions.

More than 75% of voting members will have to affirm the authorization for SAG to go on strike. Final say over a walkout will come from the guild’s national board of directors, and SAG toppers insist such a step is only a last resort.

Although SAG has about 120,000 members, ballots will go out only to those who are dues current, so the actual number of eligible voters will probably be closer to 110,000. SAG has launched an ambitious PR effort, with guild prexy Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen meeting for 90 minutes Wednesday with 20 publicists and managers at SAG headquarters in Hollywood and videoconferencing with another 10 in New York to brief them about the guild’s plans.

According to people with knowledge of the meeting, the SAG toppers said it was premature to discuss whether the guild will tell its members to avoid the Feb. 22 Academy Awards and indicated the question would probably be addressed when the guild issues its strike rules.

SAG has set a similar session for Hollywood agents to meet today with its agency relations chief, Zino Macaluso. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers noted Wednesday that SAG voted down a revamp of the master franchise agreement six years ago, leaving the guild without oversight of major agencies ever since.

“We imagine that agents will view SAG’s words with skepticism, since these are the same agents who saw the proposed new agents agreement defeated in 2002 because of the same type of flawed approach that SAG is now pursuing in yet another unresolved negotiation,” it said.

If a strike comes in February, it would probably be more disruptive to feature production than to primetime since studios have been planning to ramp up activity in coming months. Primetime series would be near the end of their seasonal production cycle at that point, and with producers of many pilots having opted to go with AFTRA deals, those pilots would not be affected.

High-profile actors have largely avoided taking sides so far. Rosie Perez has announced she’ll back the authorization, while Jason Alexander, Danny DeVito, Mike Farrell and Rhea Perlman have come out against it.

Opposition has been mounting, with former New York SAG president Eileen Henry coming out against the authorization vote. She suggested that Allen, who’s also SAG’s chief negotiator, should be fired for bungling the negotiations.

“A strike authorization is a tool of leverage for your negotiator and negotiating committee, but it’s crystal clear that the timing is wrong,” she said. “It’s time for the membership to look behind the curtain and see the naked emperor. Only then can we clothe him and send him on his way.”

As usual, each side issued statements Wednesday blasting the other for the current stalemate.

“SAG members understand that their futures as professional actors are at stake, and I believe that SAG members will evaluate the AMPTP’s June 30 offer and vote to send us back to the table with the threat of a strike,” Rosenberg said. “A yes vote sends a strong message that we are serious about fending off rollbacks and getting what is fair for actors in new media. I am encouraged by the response of the capacity crowd at our Los Angeles town hall meeting Monday night.”

In response, the AMPTP blamed SAG leaders for mishandling the contract talks — which involved 46 sessions between April and November — and asked SAG members to read the final offer.

“It’s now official: SAG members are going to be asked to bail out a failed negotiating strategy by going on strike during one of the worst economic crises in history,” the AMPTP said. “We hope that working actors will study our contract offer carefully and come to the conclusion that no strike can solve the problems that have been created by SAG’s own failed negotiation strategy.”

The AMPTP’s also been passing out fliers at casting sessions.

Given the current level of hostility, there’s virtually no chance of a back-channel deal emerging in coming weeks. A federal mediator brought negotiators together last month to try to relaunch bargaining, but those talks cratered on Nov. 22 with wide gaps remaining between the two sides.

Rosenberg said two weeks ago that SAG would send the ballots out by the end of December, but that provoked criticism from the companies that the guild was trying to hold down turnout with the goal of boosting the odds of a yes vote. Allen said pushing back the vote gives the guild more time to persuade members to vote yes.

“We want SAG members to have time to focus on this critical referendum, so we have decided to mail ballots the day after New Year’s,” Allen said Wednesday. “We will continue our comprehensive education campaign and urge our members to vote yes on the strike authorization. I am confident that members around the country will empower our negotiating team with the leverage and strength of unified SAG members. Our objective remains to get a deal that SAG members will ratify — not to go on strike.”

SAG held its first town hall meeting on Monday at the Harmony Gold in Hollywood, with 400 members attending. It’s scheduled two more such gatherings, one in New York on Monday and another Wednesday at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel.

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