SAG, AFTRA to jointly negotiate primetime deal

Two years after showbiz writers concluded a bitter strike — stretching Hollywood’s nerves to the limit — the outlook for the next round of contract talks has begun to emerge.

The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists took the latest step Saturday, officially reconciling with the Screen Actors Guild by agreeing to joint negotiations on its primetime deal. SAG already has seven weeks of talks set with the companies starting Oct. 1. So AFTRA’s action means that the two performers’ unions are back to negotiating together after bargaining separately during the last round.

The current master feature-primetime contracts for SAG, AFTRA and the DGA with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expire on June 30, 2011. The Writers Guild of America’s deal — hammered out in early 2008 after the 100-day strike — expires two months earlier on May 1, 2011.

Here’s the current status for each of the creative unions:

— SAG is the only one of the four unions with dates already locked in for negotiations with the AMPTP — a provision included in last year’s final deal, which took over a year to conclude. On Jan. 31, 82% of its national board backed seeking joint negotiations with AFTRA, and on Saturday, the guild issued a strong endorsement of AFTRA’s action. “It’s terrific news for the memberships of both unions, and we look forward to an effective negotiation,” a SAG rep said.

— AFTRA’s board voted Saturday to direct staff to hammer out the details of its joint negotiations with SAG under terms of the 30-year-old Phase One agreement and a 2-year-old “no-raiding nondisparagement” agreement that was employed during last year’s commercial negotiations with ad agencies. Next step by SAG and AFTRA will be to set “wages and working conditions” meetings for members to tell staff how the bargaining proposal should be crafted; AFTRA may need to seek an extension on its network code deal, which expires Nov. 15 and covers TV work outside primetime dramas and comedies, such as gameshows, yakkers and soaps.

— The DGA is the only union to announce the head of its negotiating committee, tapping Gil Cates a month ago for that role for the fourth consecutive time. It would not be a surprise if the DGA got to the bargaining table before SAG and AFTRA, since the directors’ strategic approach in the past has included negotiating well in advance of expiration — reasoning that doing so will encourage the AMPTP to offer a premium in exchange for the security of a deal.

— The WGA has played its cards close to the vest as to how it’s approaching the upcoming talks, though WGA West president John Wells recently predicted in an interview with Daily Variety that the negotiating team could be announced in late spring. “The board is already well into discussing the negotiations,” Wells said. “Aside from what we gained in the deal, one of the real benefits for us from the strike is that the members are very engaged in what the guild is doing.”

Wells played a key role in helping to resolve the WGA strike by backing the DGA deal, which had been reached while the writers were in the third month of their work stoppage. The DGA deal served as a template for the WGA contract; Wells, one of TV’s best-known showrunners, returned to WGA elected office last summer after an eight-year break.

Friday marked the official two-year anniversary of the final act in the bruising WGA strike with an endorsement of 93.6% of the 4,060 members casting ballots in the ratification vote. That vote had been viewed as something of a formality since the WGA’s ruling boards voted two weeks earlier to back the deal and told members at that point that the pact was the best that could be achieved, while admitting it fell short in key areas — with no jurisdiction gained over reality TV and animation, for example.

A month later, in March 2008, AFTRA divorced SAG in a culmination of years of battling over jurisdiction and strategies — with SAG usually opting for the more confrontational approach. The final straw for AFTRA leaders was how SAG had handled a dispute over actors wanting to switch jurisdiction over a soap opera from AFTRA to SAG.

The split led to AFTRA concluding a deal a year before SAG in July 2008 — despite SAG’s fervent opposition to ratification while the more assertive Membership First faction still controlled the national board. The self-styled moderate coalition gained control in the fall of 2008 and fired national exec director Doug Allen early last year partly due to the deterioration in relations with AFTRA and frustration over his failure to close the feature-primetime deal.

Allen was replaced by David White — who reached the same deal on primetime as AFTRA’s in April.

The ratification was backed two months later by 78% of guild members who voted, with Membership First again fiercely opposing the deal as falling short in many areas, particularly new media.

The SAG moderates — with Ken Howard topping the Unite for Strength ticket as president — gained further ground in last fall’s election following a campaign that promised to improve relations with AFTRA and start moving toward a merger. And on Jan. 31, SAG’s national board assigned White and Howard the task of working out the details of joint negotiations with AFTRA.

In a statement Saturday, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon emphasized that those talks with SAG leaders had turned out well.”I applaud the national board for taking this important step forward today following our productive discussions with our counterparts at Screen Actors Guild earlier this week, specifically with respect to AFTRA’s heavy negotiating schedule for 2010,” Reardon said. “I look forward to continuing our work with SAG president Ken Howard and the leadership and members of our sister union as we move forward to bargain the strongest possible contracts for professional talent.”

AFTRA officially extended an olive branch to SAG on Jan. 24, when its strategy cabinet voted to create a committee to explore the possibility of joint negotiations. AFTRA noted Saturday that the joint talks would take place under terms of the three-decades-old Phase One agreement between SAG and AFTRA — which provides for 50-50 representation of the two unions at the bargaining table.

That 50-50 arrangement has remained a sore spot for the Membership First faction, which has long contended that SAG should have more seats to reflect the guild’s dominance of work under the feature-primetime contract.

AFTRA also noted that the 18-month-old “no-raiding nondisparament” agreement — brokered by the AFL-CIO to repair the damaged relationship — would remain in effect and that the “wages and working conditions” meetings leading up to negotiations have not been scheduled at this time.

SAG has about 120,000 members, and AFTRA 70,000, with about 45,000 thesps holding dual membership. The two performers unions have shared jurisdiction in primetime TV shows that are shot on digital formats, and producers of nearly all new shows have opted for AFTRA deals in recent years — even with SAG’s leadership having moved away from confrontation with the companies.

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