Guild, AMPTP expected to meet for several weeks

The Directors Guild of America has launched negotiations on a new master contract — and expectations are that a deal will emerge that will include sweetened pension and health contributions.

Negotiators began meeting Tuesday morning amid a week-old news blackout and the usual lack of fanfare. One source with knowledge of the planning indicated that negotiators have set aside the next several weeks for bargaining.

“Here we are again,” said Gil Cates, the head of the DGA’s negotiating committee, as he arrived Tuesday morning at the headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers in Sherman Oaks.

The talks started with exactly 7½ months remaining on the current DGA contract, which expires June 30. Timing’s typical for the DGA, whose strategy is based on the notion that reaching a deal well before expiration allows employers to offer the best possible terms as a premium for the assurance of labor peace.

Cates has led the DGA panel in the last three negotiations with the congloms. In recent months, he’s provided the DGA’s 14,000 members with guidance that the needs of the pension and health plans need to be addressed, specifically noting that employers haven’t increased their contribution to the DGA plans since 2005 while benefits have been tightened.

“We’ve been responsible stewards of the plan, and we’ve made some benefit changes and taken other measures to keep the plan solvent,” Cates said in a Q&A published in the October edition of the DGA’s monthly magazine. “But the situation is unsustainable, and we think it’s time for the companies to shoulder their share of the burden.”

Employers’ contributions to union pension and health plans are made as a percentage of total compensation paid to members, with contributions capped for high earners. For the DGA, employers contribute to the DGA plans an additional 14% of the total compensation paid to directors — 8.5% to health, 5.5% to pension. The Writers Guild of America receives 14.5% (8.5% health, 6% pension), while the Screen Actors Guild receives 15% (9.25% health, 5.75% pension) as does the American Federation of Televisions & Radio Artists (9.75% health, 5.25% pension).

SAG and AFTRA’s tentative deal, announced Nov. 7, boosts the employer contribution to 16.5%. All the guild plans are operated separately from the unions and are overseen by a board comprised of reps from the studios and the unions.

Cates has said that in addition to pension and health, the DGA negotiations will cover rates, residuals, basic cable, new media and diversity. And he noted that new media — the touchstone for the drama that enveloped the previous contract — has yet to yield a windfall for creatives.

“For all the talk about new platforms and the new business models that supposedly will monetize them, the fact is that from a business point of view, new media remains an unsolved puzzle,” he said. “Because it so clearly plays a significant role in the future of our industry, it’s a major focus of our research and something that we’re watching closely. At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of our members’ earnings still come from traditional media.”

The SAG-AFTRA tentative deal announced Nov. 7 — which includes a 2% wage hike and eliminates first-class air travel — goes before the unions’ joint national board on Dec. 4 for approval, triggering a mail ballot to be sent out to members. Current deal expires June 30.

The WGA, which shares about 1,000 members with the DGA, still hasn’t set negotiations with the AMPTP in keeping with its strategy of negotiating with a far shorter period than the DGA before the contract expiration. The current WGA pact — negotiated at the end of a bitter 100-day strike in 2008 — expires May 1.

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