93.5% of those voting endorse accord

Hollywood’s performer unions have capped off a drama-free path to a new master contract, but the road to labor peace will likely become rocky in the coming months as writers gear up for negotiations.

More than 93.5% of members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists endorsed the three-year pact covering feature and primetime work in results released Friday night. Opposition to the successor contract, which goes into effect July 1, was minimal compared with 2009, when 22% of SAG members voted against the deal.

Results of the Directors Guild of America’s ratification vote on the helmers’ three-year deal should be announced soon. The DGA’s national board unanimously endorsed its tentative agreement Dec. 8; the DGA’s pact mirrors gains in the SAG/AFTRA deal, which provides a 2% hike in minimums, increasing pension and health contributions to 16.5% from 15% and elimination of first-class air travel for performers required to fly to sets.

However, there’s still no word from the Writers Guild of America or the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers as to when they will start negotiations — despite the looming May 1 expiration of the WGA’s current deal, hammered out at the end of the bitter 2007-08 strike.

The WGA unveiled its official list of demands for its master contract three weeks ago. Key issues include increased minimums, higher contributions for pension and health, increased residuals for basic cable and new media, boosting pay rates at the CW to those of other networks, increasing homevideo residuals and expanding WGA jurisdiction to motion capture, animation and videogames.

The “pattern of demands” — which unveiled far more detail than SAG, AFTRA and the DGA did in their run-ups to negotiations — was sent out Dec. 22 to the 12,000 WGA members in a step required by the union’s constitution as a prelude to starting negotiations. Members were told to return the ballot by Jan. 24 with WGA West president John Wells and WGA East prexy Michael Winship singling out pension and health as a key issue without naming any others.

WGA leaders often opt for negotiating close to expiration in hopes that the threat of a work stoppage will encourage companies to make the best deal possible. The DGA, SAG and AFTRA have made their deals at least six months before expiration based on the notion that the companies will offer the best terms in exchange for the assurance of labor peace.

The AMPTP issued a brief statement Friday touting the deal and the benefits of early talks while making no mention of the WGA. “The ratification of the new contracts by SAG and AFTRA members is a vote of confidence in the agreements and in our mutual commitment to industry stability,” the AMPTP said. “The new agreements reflect the benefits of early negotiations and a willingness on both sides to work through the difficult issues in a constructive manner.”

SAG and AFTRA reached their deal on Nov. 7 after making no effort to mobilize members on any issue or prep them for a strike authorization vote. Instead, SAG and AFTRA kept the entire six weeks of negotiations with the AMPTP under a news blackout.

Only one in four SAG and AFTRA members voted after the unions mailed out 137,437 ballots and saw a return rate of 25.1% — well below the 35% rate of the SAG voting in 2009.

The SAG-AFTRA deal also includes a “major role” minimum for series made for pay TV for the first time. The joint board of SAG and AFTRA voted Dec. 4 to OK the deal with 89% in favor; opposition centered on the elimination of first-class air travel for performers required to journey to sets and the failure to include motion-capture work in the pact.

In statements released with the results, SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon touted the hike in the pension and health plans.

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

The strong support for the deal is a reflection of SAG’s increasingly non-confrontational tenor. SAG’s membership has shown a strong preference in recent elections for the self-styled moderate leadership and away from the self-styled progressive wing that controlled the national board from 2005 to 2008.

During that time, the Membership First faction clashed repeatedly with AFTRA over jurisdictional issues in television — so much so that AFTRA wound up negotiating its own primetime deal in 2008, a year before SAG reached its separate deal with eqivalent terms. Producers have responded to SAG’s perceived instability by opting to sign virtually every new show with AFTRA.

With the Unite for Strength faction in power over the last year and a half, SAG’s repaired the relationship with AFTRA to the point that it resumed joint negotiations. Howard and Reardon have stressed merging the unions as the signature issue during the past year.

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