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WGA timing socked SAG

One strike was plenty for Hollywood

The Screen Actors Guild’s leverage at the bargaining table with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers began to erode on Oct. 1. That’s the day the Writers Guild of America put out the call to its 11,500 members for a strike authorization vote.

We all know what happened next, but the fall writers strike was not the scenario everyone had expected at this time last year.

The town was gripped by fears that the mother of all showbiz strikes would hit right about now. The conventional wisdom through late September was that the WGA would work for months under the terms of its old contract, which expired Oct. 31, in order to sync up with the June 30 expiration of SAG’s contract.

The prospect of actors and writers linking arms in a summer of solidarity was fearsome enough to studio brass to spur a massive ramp-up in film and TV development and production last year.

But the WGA, under the guidance of skilled strike organizer and WGA West exec director David Young, made the tactical decision to go out sooner rather than later.

Young and other WGA brass have said that part of the rationale for the timing was that it would exert maximum leverage on the TV side, disrupting not only the 2007-08 season but development for 2008-09 as well. And by going out when they did, scribes would call their own shots rather than coordinating strategies and priorities with the thesp guild famous for its internal unruliness.

But in the wake of the WGA’s “100-day hoedown,” as WGA West prexy Patric Verrone called the writers strike in his remarks at a SAG rally last month, the town has no collective stomach for another work stoppage.

It’s a “been there/done that” nightmare scenario for folks, above and below the line, who are still rebuilding bank accounts after losing three months (or more) of paychecks as a result of the Nov. 5-Feb. 12 writers strike.

The scribe tribe gave a whopping 90% approval in the WGA’s strike authorization vote last fall. Anecdotal evidence indicates working actors don’t have that level of anger and determination — why else would SAG have held off on taking the symbolic step of holding its strike authorization balloting (which requires a tough 75% approval rate)?

Beyond strike-vs.-strike dynamic, even some who are sympathetic to SAG’s cause believe guild leaders have made other tactical errors that allowed it to be outmaneuvered on several fronts. In the past six weeks, since rival thesp union AFTRA reached its primetime pact with the majors, SAG’s strategy has been focused on campaigning against ratification of the AFTRA pact in a longshot bid to regain some muscle in its now-stalled negotiations with the AMPTP.

There’s no question that SAG’s harsh criticism of the deal had an impact on AFTRA voters, given the low 62% approval margin in the ratification vote. But to what end? SAG’s hope is that the slim margin of approval on the AFTRA deal will convince studio moguls that SAG members won’t approve the nearly identical deal that the majors presented as their final offer last week, and thus the AMPTP will have to concede a little more ground for the sake of getting a deal done.

Even if that’s true, the positions SAG has taken in this tough round of contract talks may wind up hurting the guild’s standing in the biz over the long haul.

Back in February and March, a bitter jurisdictional fight erupted between SAG and AFTRA, leading the unions to negotiate the feature-primetime contract separately for the first time in more than 25 years.

Many in SAG have long resented what they view as AFTRA’s willingness to undercut SAG in contract and compensation agreements with the majors. But in allowing the fighting to get to the point where AFTRA ditched the long-held joint bargaining agreement, SAG brass seemed to have forgotten the sage advice of Don Corleone: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Now, AFTRA’s hand is strengthened in its ability to sign up new primetime series that might otherwise have leaned toward being covered by SAG, under TV biz tradition that SAG covers shows done on film while AFTRA gets the electronic biz (soaps, daytime and late talkshows, gameshows, etc.).

But with virtually all primetime skeins being shot on digital these days, the field of new shows is theoretically wide open to AFTRA. Plus, SAG’s vigorous anti-AFTRA campaign and rabble-rousing of its leadership has left a bad taste in the mouths of studio execs who will be making the SAG vs. AFTRA call.

Moreover, SAG’s decision to wait until April 15 to begin formal negotiations with the majors has backfired in ways that reinforce why teachers always warn students about the dangers of procrastinating on a tough assignment.

The majors offered to begin talks with SAG two days after the conclusion of the WGA strike. Heavy hitters Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep publicly urged SAG leaders to get down to business as soon as possible.

The delay allowed frustration to build and positions to harden. And the national economy has continued to slide, which can only make the CEOs calling the shots at the AMPTP more inclined to hold the line on increases beyond those already hammered out earlier this year with the Directors Guild of America, WGA and AFTRA. The working actors whose interests have been at the heart of this contract battle may not be as willing to risk losing wages today in order to secure future compensation protections now that gas prices are nearing $5 a gallon.

In January, when the DGA reached its groundbreaking agreement covering paid Internet downloads and Web streaming for the first time, it was clear that the helmers’ bargaining position was greatly strengthened by the fact that writers were on strike. Six months later, it’s clear that SAG’s hand has been greatly weakened by the fact that the WGA beat them to the picket line and AFTRA beat them to a deal.

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