Strike fatigue may weaken contract talks

With the town now expecting the WGA strike to end as soon as next week, worries have been shifting toward the Screen Actors Guild and whether the WGA deal will be good enough for the actors.

That picture has been getting murkier in recent days. SAG, which has been the writers’ biggest ally during their strike, has been signaling for the past year that it will take an assertive stance at the bargaining table — particularly on new-media issues.

But the decision by the WGA to start its strike in November, rather than wait for SAG’s contract to expire on June 30, may have undercut SAG’s leverage. SAG members who work in TV have now been on a de facto strike for the past several months, making it potentially more difficult for SAG leaders to mount a convincing strike threat when negotiations start in the spring.

At the same time, some top stars have told SAG leadership that they would be reluctant to support a prolonged confrontation with management. At the Oscar nominees lunch on Monday, George Clooney said SAG should start negotiations as soon as possible and asserted that strike fatigue would weaken SAG’s leverage.

SAG’s also now scrambling to deal with AFTRA’s recent moves to undermine SAG’s clout by going it alone to negotiate a primetime TV deal with the majors. AFTRA’s leadership recently declared that they would be aiming to start talks with the AMPTP in early March (Daily Variety, Feb. 4) and should AFTRA succeed at signing such a deal, it would diminish SAG’s leverage from going on strike after its current contract expires on June 30 — since producers could simply sign an AFTRA deal if SAG did go on strike.

SAG’s responded by scheduling an emergency national board meeting for Saturday to deal with its deteriorating relationship with AFTRA. SAG refused to comment on the meeting Wednesday after notifying board members of the confab.

If primetime negotiations with AFTRA begin without SAG, the SAG-AFTRA divorce would become official in that it would unquestionably end the “Phase I” agreement on joint negotiations that’s been in effect since 1981. And if AFTRA starts to sign more shows under its new deal, SAG could retaliate by telling its members not to work on AFTRA shows and starting to sign up shows in AFTRA’s traditional jurisdiction such as soaps.

SAG has scheduled a referendum asking members to approve ending Phase I, with ballots to be sent out Feb. 22 and returned by March 14. But AFTRA toppers have said the vote’s irrelevant since SAG’s already violated Phase I by instituting bloc voting among its negotiating committee members.

SAG’s beef with AFTRA stems from the latter’s refusal to reduce its 50-50 participation on the negotiating committees for film-TV and on commercials — despite accounting for less than 10% of the earnings. SAG’s complained that AFTRA has been offering producers cheaper contracts in basic cable while AFTRA has accused SAG leaders of being radical and inflexible, asserting that its “one size fits all” approach to contracts results in fewer union jobs.

SAG engaged in saber-rattling last week by insisting it would not automatically accept the terms of the WGA and DGA deals through the traditional “pattern” bargaining. That’s a signal that the negotiations will probably require the involvement of moguls such as News Corp.’s Peter Chernin and Disney’s Robert Iger — as was the case in the DGA and WGA talks.

SAG has about 120,000 members while AFTRA has 70,000; about 40,000 thesps are dual cardholders.

Meanwhile, the WGA continued to picket Wednesday at the usual eight major studio lots in Los Angeles with WGA board members and negotiating committee members briefing pickets. More than 60 members and supporters turned out at CBS Television City, where board member Ron Bass was on the line during the late morning.

Strike captain Michael Russnow, who served on the board during the 1990s, said he could not help but start thinking about the next negotiations while he was supervising the CBS lines. He’s hoping that the strike’s legacy will be a continued spirit of activism and involvement by rank-and-file members.

“What we’ve shown the companies is that we’re not going to sit still — like we did for 20 years on DVD and cable as Internet revenues accelerate,” he added. “We’ve clearly made an impact in areas like Wall Street and the Golden Globes. And staying on top of where the business is going has to be part of the 2011 negotiations.”

The WGA West has asked that all pickets come to Disney Studios in Burbank today except for those who regularly picket at NBC Burbank.

Signs that the strike’s expected to end soon have emerged this week, and execs are discussing production restart dates for scripted TV series within two to four weeks once there’s a back-to-work order, according to Steve MacDonald, president of the Film LA permitting agency.

“We’re usually hearing they plan to shoot between four and 10 additional episodes,” he added. “Of course, there are still going to be episodes that were planned that won’t ever get shot.”

Film LA figures show off-lot shooting since the strike started has plunged 65% in dramas to 91 permits and 69% in sitcoms to 18, compared with the year-ago 14-week period. Feature permits are up 13% to 238 as studios stockpile against an actors strike.

Reality TV production is up 8% during the strike to 165 permits.

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