Courtesy of SAG AFTRA

SAG-AFTRA and the advertising industry are quietly launching commercial contract talks Wednesday, seven weeks before the current master contract expires on March 31.

Both sides have declined to comment on the talks, which will take place in New York City, and have already agreed to a news blackout until there’s a deal in place.

The current contract covers roughly $1 billion in annual earnings for performers — but the union has made only limited efforts to mobilize its 165,000 members about the issues. It campaigned between October and January against ad agency Droga5 using SAG-AFTRA members for non-union ads, an assertion that the agency said was not true, then dropped off a petition with 8,000 signatures at the agency’s headquarters.

SAG-AFTRA-elected leaders also conducted a required series of “wages and working conditions” meetings with members in the fall to hammer out a bargaining proposal. But it has not disclosed any of the details of those proposals and its last public mention of the negotiations came on Jan. 24, when it announced that the national board had approved the contract proposal.

The current three-year deal was the first major successor agreement to go into effect under the 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA and received 96% support in the ratification vote, with pay increases totaling $238 million during its three-year life. In the 2013 negotiations, which lasted two months, SAG-AFTRA made little effort to mobilize members in support of its positions and gave no details of the contract proposal.

The under-the-radar strategy is consistent with the policies of president Ken Howard and national executive David White to keep details of contract negotiations under the radar until the conclusion of negotiations. Howard began leading a coalition of self-styled moderates in 2009 that took over the leadership of the union in elections by pushing hard for merger — contending that the combined union would have more bargaining power — and largely avoided public confrontation with employers.

That’s a sharp contrast from 2000, when SAG and AFTRA went on strike for six months in response to the ad industry’s proposal to replace the pay-per-play system of compensation — known as Class A — with quarterly buyouts.

In response, the SAG and AFTRA boards voted 150-0 to go on strike, held hundreds of rallies and pickets and boycotted Ivory Soap, Tide and Crest before getting a deal that preserved Class A, boosted cable pay by 140% and gave the union jurisdiction over Internet ads. But the strike caused disunity among members, particularly among AFTRA members and those outside Los Angeles, who have insisted that the work stoppage lasted far too long.

National board member Patricia Richardson of the Membership First faction challenged Howard for the presidency last year, asserting that he had not been aggressive enough in negotiations, and received over 46% of the vote. But Membership First still has only 10 seats on the 80-member board, held by Richardson, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin, Ed Asner, Joanna Cassidy, Joe D’angerio, Frances Fisher, David Jolliffe, Diane Ladd, Esai Morales and Martin Sheen.

Gordon Drake, a strike captain and negotiating committee member in 2000, told Variety that the strike was successful because of the high level of member education that took place. He said the union has been keeping communications with members at a minimum since the 2012 merger.

“I almost never hear from SAG-AFTRA, particularly on negotiations,” he said. “The merger was all about suppressing the voice of the members. So it’s not a surprise that members are more willing to work on non-union productions because a lot of actors think that any break is their big break.”

For its part, the ad industry — repped through the joint policy committee of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and the Assn. of National Advertisers — has sent out its usual caution to members warning of the possibility of a strike.

The committee told members in November to consider “prudent planning” in the case of a strike including rescheduling production planned for March 31 through June. It also advised members to consider taking steps to maintain rights on current commercials if those rights are expiring in the three months after March 31.

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