SAG, AFTRA silent; few prospects for quick AMPTP deal

Sources close to the talks between Hollywood actors and the congloms say the sessions are showing little prospect for a quick deal and that sweetening employer pension and health contributions remains a major focus for the unions. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is adhering to its mantra of cost containment.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have managed to keep their news blackout in place for the first three weeks of feature-primetime negotiations with the producers’ bargaining arm. The unions’ deals expire June 30.The talks are scheduled to last three more weeks, then shift to a discussion of cable deals for a week before the Directors Guild of America begins its negotiations.

The DGA has emphasized in several recent communications with members that pension and health will be a priority while pointing out that monetizing new-media platforms remains an elusive goal.

SAG-AFTRA, by contrast, has refused to disclose anything about its strategy — whether its leaders are defending the residuals system, seeking a hike in pension and health or demanding specific language covering actors working on motion-capture sets in pics such as “Avatar.”

There’s been no effort to mobilize members on any issue, much less set the stage for a strike authorization vote.

SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon have largely limited their public statements to asserting that the two unions need to merge.

That stance received strong backing three weeks ago from SAG members when Howard’s moderate-leaning Unite for Strength slate swept the Hollywood board elections.

SAG has 120,000 members and AFTRA has 70,000 members, including broadcasters and singers; about 45,000 thesps are dual members.

SAG members have voted against an AFTRA merger twice before.

SAG and AFTRA members were notified Sept. 12 in a brief announcement that the boards had approved a contract proposal — but given no specifics.

On Sept. 24, the unions and the AMPTP jointly announced that talks would begin three days later and a news blackout would be in place.

Negotiations follow the SAG-industry health plan’s announcement that it would cut benefits, hike premiums and tighten eligibility next year in the face of a $30 million deficit, with projections of a $50 million deficit next year (Daily Variety, Sept. 14).

Employers’ contributions to union pension and health plans are calculated as a percentage of the total compensation paid to members of that union. For the DGA, employers contribute an additional 14% of the total compensation paid to directors to the DGA plans — 8.5% to health and 5.5% to pension for the DGA. The WGA receives 14.5% (8.5% health, 6% pension), while SAG receives 15% (9.25% health, 5.75% pension) as does AFTRA (9.75% health, 5.25% pension). Those plans are operated separately from the unions and are overseen by a board comprising reps from the studios and the unions. Also, the talks are taking place against a backdrop of improved ad revenues and a lingering recession, with companies indicating they’re in no mood to offer much.

In July, negotiators agreed to a new contract to cover Teamster drivers in 13 Western states after the AMPTP insisted it would not sway from a 2% hike in wages — and would be willing to ride out a strike by the drivers if they held out for a 3% increase.

The negotiations offer a marked contrast to the previous cycle, which was highlighted by the Writers Guild of America’s bitter 100-day strike.

Unlike the year before the strike, when WGA leaders and late AMPTP Nick Counter battled extensively, the two sides have refrained from confrontational rhetoric even though the scribes’ contract expires in less than seven months on May 1.

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