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Producers set SAG strike plans in motion

Independent producers of commercials are bracing for a long strike by union actors, who have promised to stop working for advertisers May 1.

“It looks like they are going to be out for quite a while,” said Steve Netburn, executive producer at Los Angeles-based Angel City Prods. “I suspect the advertisers are going to try to make this work with non-union talent.”

The Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers notified its members Wednesday that it expects to continue with business as usual in the face of the growing likelihood of a work stoppage by the unions.

“The business must go on,” AICP president Matt Miller said. “We’re already seeing an unfortunate increase in international travel for overseas production.”

West Coast leaders of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists voted unanimously late Tuesday in Los Angeles to formalize previously announced plans to strike.

But the key problem for SAG and AFTRA, which represent 135,000 actors, may be keeping members from taking non-union work during the strike. Last month’s strike authorization generated a 93.8% endorsement but only 30% of members voted.

The unions can fine, suspend or expel members who work as strikebreakers although expulsion requires approval by the national board.

Talks between the actors and the advertisers — represented by the Assn. of National Advertisers and the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies — collapsed last week over deep differences in pay structures.

The joint policy committee of the ad groups said Wednesday it was “disappointed” by the strike vote and also issued a business-as-usual promise.

“The industry is prepared for the SAG/AFTRA strike and plans to implement its strike contingency plan in order to continue production as usual during a strike,” said John McGuinn, the industry’s chief negotiator.

McGuinn also advised members against signing “interim” SAG and AFTRA agreements, which allow employers to use union talent in a strike situation in exchange for agreeing to current union proposals. Those agreements will be available for signing by next week.

The industry’s “final” offer would pay principal actors a $2,575 flat rate for unlimited use of network commercials during a 13-week cycle in exchange for eliminating the current “pay-per-use” system. It would also hike the top cable fee 60% to $1,627 for ads in a 13-week cycle if actors agree to ditch network “pay-per-use.”

SAG and AFTRA negotiators have rejected the flat-rate proposal for network ads, labeling it a “rollback” from the current system, and demanded “pay-per-use” for cable ads. They have also demanded a monitoring system for ads and a formula for Internet ads.

Terms of the existing contract, which was extended on March 31, will apply until 12:01 a.m. May 1, unless both sides agree to return to the bargaining table. Miller said he was hopeful that talks will resume soon but admitted the outlook is unclear due partly to aggressive posturing by union leaders.

“The possibility of a strike has been foreshadowed for many months,” Miller said. “It looks like this is a battle that SAG and AFTRA’s leaders believe they have to fight. In the long run, it could have a bad effect on the American part of the industry.”

Blurb production increase

By most accounts, the industry has ramped up production this year in an apparent hedge against a strike. Netburn said advertisers and agencies had already begun “double casting” upcoming spots with both union and non-union talent in recent weeks. “I believe the ad industry is convinced they can get the talent they need to continue production,” he added.

Figures released by the ad industry show that SAG and AFTRA members received $722 million last year from commercials, so a strike will cost members about $2 million a day. The actors have argued that they have been short-changed amid the entertainment industry’s growth and point to statistics such as a 33% gain in first-quarter revenues for cable ads to a record $2.3 billion (Daily Variety, April 18).

“At a time of across-the-board economic prosperity and record profits for the advertising industry, their proposal to roll back our income and their unwillingness to negotiate a fair and equitable contract is nothing more than an attempt to break our unions,” said New York SAG member Paul Reggio, who serves on the union’s commercial contract campaign committee.

A strike would not affect other SAG and AFTRA work such as features and TV. But Los Angeles actor Brett Gilbert, who generates 80% of his income from commercial work, said Wednesday a strike would force him to give up going to movie and TV auditions because he would have to start working a non-acting job or schedule out-of-town spots as a stand-up comedian.

“My commercial work is what pays for rent and food so a strike is really going to hit me hard,” he said. “I’m in a studio apartment so I’m not living in the lap of luxury. It boggles my mind that with all the money that advertisers are making that they don’t want to share it with actors.”

If the strike occurs, it will be the first work stoppage by union actors since an 18-day strike in 1988.

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