SAG starts talks with majors

Guild negotiating without AFTRA

With Hollywood thoroughly unnerved by the prospect of a summer strike, the Screen Actors Guild and the majors begin negotiations today on the feature-primetime contract — but without AFTRA after a last-ditch peacemaking effort by SAG fell flat.

The talks were set to launch at 10 a.m. PT at the Encino headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. And they won’t include the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists even though SAG asked its sister union late Sunday to rejoin it at the bargaining table, two weeks after AFTRA angrily split off from SAG.

SAG told AFTRA it would have until Wednesday to respond, but AFTRA didn’t need nearly that long. AFTRA national exec director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth fired off a frosty letter to SAG counterpart Doug Allen that dismissed the idea out of hand, asserting it was impossible to gather negotiating committee members on short notice and stressing that the problems that caused the divorce hadn’t been resolved.

Her letter said SAG had failed to include language that would preclude SAG from “raiding” AFTRA shows that have decertified, asserting that a motion to do so was voted down Sunday. AFTRA leaders broke off the 27-year bargaining partnership with SAG on March 29, asserting that the guild’s alleged attempt to help decertify soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” was the “last straw” in a long line of SAG transgressions that included besmirching the reputations of AFTRA’s leaders via its campaign about AFTRA allegedly shilling for producers by signing cable deals at rates lower than SAG’s.

The tone of Hegpeth’s letter makes it clear that AFTRA will not agree to patch things up, due to the profound level of mistrust between leaders of the two performers unions. “The Strategy Cabinet members determined that there does not appear to be any evidence that the underlying problems, which forced the members of the national board to take the action they did on March 29, have been or will soon be resolved,” she said.

SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg has denied any misconduct, and accused AFTRA of misinterpreting the circumstances surrounding “The Bold and the Beautiful” as a pretext for signing lowball contracts with the majors. He’s also noted SAG’s board approved a motion on March 29 pledging it would not raid the show.

SAG leaders have said repeatedly they don’t want a strike, but the town has continued to worry about the guild’s assertive stance. Those worries have led to the current ramp-up of feature production, with shoots now timed to finish by June 30 — when the SAG contract expires — as a hedge against a work stoppage.

So the only AFTRA reps at today’s talks will be staff observers, in accordance with standard practice in guild negotiations with the AMPTP. AFTRA’s talks on its primetime contract are set to start April 28, placing pressure on SAG to make a deal before then or face the prospect of AFTRA using its deal to expand its coverage in areas of shared jurisdiction.

It’s not yet clear whether SAG and the AMPTP will agree to a news blackout during the talks.

Today’s session will be the first for SAG with Allen at the helm. Allen joined SAG early last year after more than two decades as No. 2 exec with the NFL Players Assn., with the specific mandate to take an aggressive bargaining stance.

Allen has insisted SAG has to keep the threat of a strike alive during negotiations. “Without that, collective bargaining becomes collective begging,” he’s said on several occasions.

SAG and AFTRA worked out similar proposals in the weeks prior to the divorce — including an increase in DVD residuals, even though that position’s a nonstarter for the congloms. Both unions are also going into the talks with proposals for improvements in new-media residuals, athough the majors have already indicated they won’t go beyond the terms in the WGA and DGA deals.

But AFTRA’s viewed as much less likely than SAG to push hard for its positions, so the upcoming round of talks are viewed as the more crucial.

SAG’s proposals include improved terms for “major role” actors (featured, guest stars, weekly players); extras; increased employer contributions to pension and health; eliminating “forced endorsement,” in which members wind up not being paid for commercials that are written into a script; “fair market value” language; and improvements and protections for young performers, stunt performers, performers with disabilities, dancers and others.

In conjunction with the launch of talks, the Los Angeles Federation of Labor is starting its three-day “Hollywood to the Docks” march today at Hancock Park with a 9 a.m. rally. SAG board member Esai Morales is scheduled to appear.

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