SAG, AFTRA low-key ahead of AMPTP contract talks

The stage has been set for what look to be fireworks-free contract negotiations next month between the congloms and the performers unions.

With five weeks to go before talks begin, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have opted for a decidedly low-key approach to the feature-primetime bargaining — a vivid contrast to the volatile route SAG chose in the previous negotiations. Those talks required a full year to conclude as SAG leaders held out unsuccessfully for a better deal than the other unions got.

The change in SAG’s approach reflects the profound shift in control of the national board away from the self-styled progressives of Membership First and toward self-styled moderates of Unite for Strength. SAG’s negotiating committee’s led by president Ken Howard, who’s stressed the need for a pragmatic strategy. Previous SAG president Alan Rosenberg took a far different path, blasting the Directors Guild of America and AFTRA and insisting that actors deserved sweeter terms.

Members of the joint bargaining committee for SAG and AFTRA will meet this weekend at SAG headquarters in Los Angeles to hammer out a contract proposal following more than two dozen “wages and working conditions” meetings with members. The joint boards will meet Sept. 12 for final approval of the proposal; negotiations launch Sept. 27 with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The SAG-AFTRA deal expires June 30. The unions and the AMPTP had no comment Wednesday.

The AMPTP sent a signal last month to the unions that it’s in no mood to be overly generous in making a two-year deal to cover 3,200 Teamster drivers in 13 Western states. The companies insisted they would not sway from the 2% hike in wage rates — and would be willing to ride out a strike by the drivers if they held out for a 3% increase.

The 3% annual hike used to be standard in the AMPTP’s deals. But since the global financial meltdown in fall 2008, the companies have adhered to capping salary gains at 2% or less in a dozen different agreements, although the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees achieved 3% in their most recent pact covering 15 Hollywood locals.

The Teamster deal is part of the “Basic Crafts” contract that covers five locals. Members of Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local No. 755 became the final union to ratify the two-year deal on Tuesday night. They joined Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 40; Plumbers, Local No. 78; Teamsters, Local No. 399; and Studio Utility Employees, Local No. 724.

“The five Basic Crafts Unions have now ratified new contracts with the producers represented by the AMPTP, ensuring that production can continue without interruption for the studios and union members,” the AMPTP said Wednesday. “The two sides reached a fair deal with gains in wages, benefits and other terms for the unions while recognizing the current economic realities of the industry.”

It’s unclear which issues will be given top priority by SAG and AFTRA. But insiders say the most probable will be pension and health contributions and new-media compensation — the key issue for SAG during the 2008-09 negotiations.

Howard has been assiduous at improving relations with AFTRA, which split angrily in 2008 from SAG to negotiate its primetime contract separately for the first time in nearly 30 years. AFTRA reached a deal in May 2008 and SAG mounted a vigorous — and unsuccessful — campaign to persuade dual SAG-AFTRA members to vote against the AFTRA contract.

The moderates on SAG’s national board ran out of patience in early 2009 and fired Doug Allen as national exec director, installing David White as his replacement. Rank-and-file SAG members have supported the moderates in the past two elections to the point that the more aggressive Membership First faction has only about 40% of the board seats.

Allen still had a year to run on his contract when he was fired. SAG’s recent LM2 filing with the U.S. Dept. of Labor showed that Allen received more than $410,000 in severance compensation during its fiscal year ended April 30.

White’s compensation for the same fiscal year totalled $440,575, according to the filing.

The DGA, which also faces a June 30 expiration, is due to begin talks in mid-November. Looming over the coming talks is the fact that the WGA still hasn’t set a negotiations date with the AMPTP, even though its contract expires May 1, earlier than that of the performers’ unions.

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