With fall dates for DGA, SAG and WGA contract talks, Christmas could come early

It could — emphasis on could — be an extremely pleasant holiday season for the congloms on the labor front.

Thanks to the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA having set fall dates for the start of contract talks, there’s a distinct possibility that the three unions will have ratified deals in place with the majors by the end of the year — a full six months before their current master contracts expire on June 30, 2011.

That scenario came into focus April 28 when the DGA announced it would step aside from its usual slot of going first and wait to start its formal talks in mid-November, after SAG and AFTRA have concluded a seven-week period for negotiations starting Oct. 1.

That negotiating window was established last year as a deal point in SAG’s current contract after the guild’s leadership complained repeatedly about the DGA having gone ahead of it during the previous round in early 2008. The DGA reached a deal during the third month of the writers strike, leading to the WGA completing its own deal on similar terms three weeks later and AFTRA reaching its deal in the spring.

SAG’s leaders needed another year and a half to close the thesps’ deal as power shifted on the national board from the self-styled Membership First progressives to the self-styled Unite for Strength moderates. The guild’s existing contract ran a year past expiration as then-president Alan Rosenberg and former national exec director Doug Allen blasted the DGA and its deal — while never criticizing the WGA and its deal.

The SAG moderates, led by new president Ken Howard, added to their majority last fall on a campaign pledge of pragmatism and merging with AFTRA. And with AFTRA — which tends to be far less militant than SAG — having a 50-50 say in bargaining, it’s realistic to speculate that SAG and AFTRA could reach a deal by mid-November.

As for the DGA, its strategy has always been to begin bargaining at least six months prior to the expiration of its contract, so it would not be a surprise if the directors have their deal wrapped up before Christmas.

The DGA approach is based on the belief that making a deal sooner rather than later carries the best chance of obtaining a “premium” from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in exchange for the assurance of labor peace.

Still, the scenario may not necessarily play out in such a fashion — particularly if Membership First could put together a slate with high-profile actors, who invariably obtain the highest support level among SAG members. The faction’s Ed Harris and Martin Sheen, who had never run for SAG office, were the top vote-getters in last fall’s election but Membership First still lost seats.

The biggest uncertainty in the labor arena surrounds the WGA. The WGA West presidency shifted last fall to a more moderate voice in John Wells, but the guild’s board remains dominated by allies of Patric Verrone, who was termed out as president after serving as an enthusiastic leader of the bitter 2007-’08 strike.

Verrone was the top vote-getter in last September’s WGA elections for a board seat. And it’s likely that the WGA will adhere to its strategy of waiting out the companies for as long as possible, even though its deal expires on May 1, 2011 — two months before the DGA, SAG and AFTRA contracts expire.

The WGA’s strategy of negotiating up against a deadline stems partly from the belief that the companies will make the best deal when they’re faced with the real probability of a work stoppage. In 2007 the WGA launched its contract talks with the AMPTP just 3 1/2 months before the guild’s contract expired.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more