Making good on its pledge to avoid the frenzy of last-minute bargaining, IATSE negotiators have reached a tentative deal with studios and nets covering Hollywood below-the-line workers.

The Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees announced it had reached the deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers over the weekend — more than eight months prior to the July 31 expiration of the current three-year pact.

IATSE had previously announced it would launch negotiations this month in order to avoid repeating the uncertainty of last year’s down-to-the-wire bargaining, when first the Writers Guild and then SAG and AFTRA needed to go three days past the expiration in order to reach a deal.

The union said in its announcement that both sides decided that early negotiations would prove beneficial in terms of employment and production.

Details of the agreement were not disclosed but IATSE prexy Thomas Short said much of the union’s focus during negotiations was on benefits.

“With the rising cost of health care in this country, we believe we were able to maintain a level of health care benefits that our members are accustomed to,” Short said. “And, the fluctuating stock market has been a concern in terms of retirement benefits for our members, but we believe we have reached an agreement which will secure their future.”

AMPTP prexy Nick Counter said, “We believe this was the most reasonable deal that could be negotiated without a strike, and we compliment IA President Tom Short and his bargaining committee on the professional and responsible way in which they conducted these negotiations.”

Counter sought in the fall of 2000 to start early talks with the WGA but leaders of the Writers Guild contended that the AMPTP ruined any chance of so-called “fast track” negotiations by seeking rollbacks. As a result, the WGA negotiations did not start until three months prior to expiration; the SAG/AFTRA talks did not start until six weeks before the contract expired.

Many union activists, particularly those in the WGA, were opposed to early talks since such a tactic takes away the leverage of a possible strike. But Counter used the announcement to criticize such an approach, which caused last year’s boom-and-bust production cycle as studios first stockpiled programming to withstand a strike and then eased up to work off the inventory.

“By concluding these negotiations early we will be able to plan production for the next year and keep it going without a work stoppage,” Counter said. “Thus, we have avoided a defacto strike situation as was experienced with the Actors and the Writers.”

IATSE said it will send the deal for ratification in about a month. The agreement covers more than 20% of the 100,000 IATSE members.