Strike authorization vote may be sought

SAG is rattling its strike saber again, this time in conjunction with AFTRA.

As talks with the advertising industry for a new commercials contract drag into a third week, leaders of the actors unions are moving closer to seeking a strike authorization vote. The unions have already drafted a letter to members seeking the authorization.

After news of the draft letter emerged Tuesday, SAG and AFTRA issued a statement downplaying the importance of the document and asserting that they remain optimistic about reaching a deal. “This is one of many contingency documents that we prepare in the course of any negotiations, particularly as we approach the expiration of a contract,” they added.

Reps for the unions and the ad biz were not available for further comment Tuesday, as both sides have agreed to a news blackout. The contract expires March 31.

SAG’s strategy in dealing with commercials producers could not be more different than the tactics employed during the past year in the union’s arduous negotiations with Hollywood’s majors.

In the commercials talks, the Screen Actors Guild has returned to joint bargaining with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. The unions’ unified front against Madison Avenue stands in sharp contrast to the public battle that erupted between them last summer, when AFTRA opted to negotiate its primetime TV pact separately from SAG for the first time in nearly 30 years.

The tense talks with advertisers and talk of a strike authorization vote raises the specter of the bitter six-month strike that SAG and AFTRA staged over a commercials contract nine years ago.

SAG and AFTRA together have about 150,000 members, including 40,000 who belong to both unions.

Insiders close to the commercials talks said the unions and ad biz negotiators are tussling over three key points:

n The industry’s proposal for a revamp to the compensation model based on gross rating points rather than the traditional pay-per-play method; the unions are asking for an “adjusted tier” model.

n The industry’s proposed reductions of more than $20 million annually in contributions to pension and health plans.

n Terms of a pilot study and whether it should be based only on the industry’s suggested compensation model without an equal study of the unions’ preferred compensation model.

“From the first day of the negotiations, it has been our intention to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides,” said the draft letter, penned by members of the joint negotiating committee. “The issues at stake in these negotiations are critically important and require that we bring our full bargaining power to the table by passing this referendum to authorize a strike in the field of television and radio commercials.”

The initial proposal from advertisers called for thesps to receive about $900 million in annual pay but with allocations shifted to reflect changes in viewing patterns. Lead negotiator Douglas Wood disclosed last week that the unions are seeking a hike in the pension and health contributions by employers from the current 14.8% to 16%, while the ad industry seeks a cap on contributions.

After news of the draft letter emerged, SAG and AFTRA issued a statement Tuesday saying that they remain optimistic about the talks, and downplaying the importance of the document.

“This is one of many contingency documents that we prepare in the course of any negotiations, particularly as we approach the expiration of a contract,” the statement said.

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