Leaders pressured to start talks

Pressure on SAG to reach a settlement on its film-TV contract is reaching a high level of intensity.

Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild are being pushed by high level talent, studios and other unions to defuse fears that actors could mimic writers and go on strike. And a campaign’s been gaining steam — with backing from Ben Affleck, Sally Field, Teri Hatcher and Charlie Sheen — to impose an earnings requirement for SAG members to vote on whether the guild strikes.

Several top stars are planning on going public with their campaign to persuade SAG leaders to commit to negotiating a deal as early as possible, rather than wait until May or June to start talks. George Clooney voiced such a sentiment at last week’s luncheon for Oscar nominees (Daily Variety, Feb. 5).

No talks have been scheduled yet for the SAG-AFTRA contract on feature films and primetime TV, which expires June 30.

The antistrike lobbying efforts kicked into high gear two weeks ago, after SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen went public with their dissatisfaction over the DGA’s tentative deal at a time when the WGA was still negotiating its pact with the moguls.

Rosenberg and Allen — who have been closely aligned with the WGA throughout the strike — proclaimed that the DGA deal would not automatically be the model for a new SAG deal, asserting that such an assessment would be “premature.” They also blasted several new-media provisions of the DGA deal, which largely served as a template for the WGA pact.

A few days earlier, during the SAG Awards, a number of attendees noted that Field and Rosenberg had gotten into an argument after Field told the SAG president she believed the guild should move quickly to start contract talks. Field had been one of the on-camera SAG representatives during the opening lead-in of the telecast of the event.

The antistrike efforts appear to have paid off most visibly in SAG’s move calling off its divorce with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. SAG announced over the weekend it’s returning to the usual joint bargaining with AFTRA — which takes a far less confrontational approach than SAG at negotiations — and called off a referendum that would have given the blessing of SAG’s membership to the split with AFTRA.

SAG made the move a week after AFTRA threatened to get in front of SAG via separate primetime negotiations in early March, undercutting SAG’s potential leverage. AFTRA topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth has disclosed that the unions — if they can sort out details of joint bargaining — are planning to be ready to start negotiations by March 31.

SAG’s also seeing pressure in quieter ways with the end of the WGA strike. Studios are indicating to agents this week that they’re generally holding back on commitments to feature projects until SAG signs a new deal — particularly since they’ve been stockpiling features in recent months as a hedge against a SAG strike.

One tenpercenter said he’s expecting a flurry of calls today, but noted they’ll lean heavily toward projects already far along in development.

Additionally, more than 800 actors have signed a petition asking that SAG’s board institute a “qualified voting” requirement that would limit those able to vote on the contract, though the document didn’t offer a specific recommendation as to an earnings threshold but noted that less than 20% of SAG members earn at least $7,500 annually.

Besides Affleck, Field, Hatcher and Sheen, signers so far include Jason Alexander, Kevin Bacon, Kathy Bates, Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Helen Hunt, Diane Lane, Debra Messing, Kyra Sedgwick, David Strathairn and Rainn Wilson.

Brenneman told Daily Variety that the key concern behind the move is for SAG to come into negotiations with the strongest possible bargaining position. “What we’re hearing from members is that they’ve felt for years that this is something that needs to be addressed,” she added.

The two-week-old petition, circulated by 23-year SAG member Ned Vaughn, asserted that the clout of working actors to decide on SAG contracts has been diluted because of the preponderance of nonworking thesps in the guild.

“The challenging reality is that two-thirds of SAG’s 120,000 members consistently earn less than $1,000 per year as SAG actors, and only one in five SAG members earns even $7,500 annually. But anyone holding a SAG card can vote on our major contracts,” the petition adds. “Not only is this unsettling … it’s dangerous. There’s a good reason virtually every union in the country — including the WGA, DGA and Actors’ Equity — requires work experience to vote on contracts: because doing otherwise weakens a union’s position.”

Discussion of the petition came up at Saturday’s meeting of the SAG national board, but was quickly put aside, according to a board member who attended. Brenneman said Rosenberg and Allen will be meeting next week with reps from the petition group, but stressed that she and her allies aren’t committed to a specific resolution.

“We don’t have an iron-clad proposition,” she added. “We want to hear what the leaders have to say.”

SAG had no comment Tuesday about the petition drive.

The petition contends the SAG board can limit voting on a contract to those affected by the contract, and noted that SAG already has such a provision for its voiceover animation and interactive-gaming pacts.

Approving qualified voting on SAG’s major contract would represent political dynamite for board members, however, since such a move would almost certainly have to be approved by SAG’s members as a constitutional change — a highly unlikely prospect. Asked about that scenario, Vaughn responded by contending that the petition cites language in the SAG Constitution that contracts be ratified by the “membership affected thereby.”

The issue of “qualified voting” last emerged six years ago after SAG’s members voted down a revamp of its master franchise agreement for agents. After the measure lost, agents complained bitterly that nonworking actors may have been the key component in the no vote, pointing to stats showing that only 30% of SAG’s members were repped by agents and that 23% of guild members did not work at all during 1996-2000.

The “qualified voting” proposal was crafted in 2002 as a way of restarting negotiations with agents, but the measure was voted down by the board after several members objected to it, characterizing such a move as undemocratic and elitist.

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