SAG offers AFTRA a seat at the table

Guild gives union until Wednesday to respond

In a move that muddies the outlook for looming actor negotiations, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild have offered AFTRA the opportunity to rejoin SAG at the bargaining table.

SAG’s offer, made in a Sunday evening announcement, said AFTRA would have until Wednesday to respond. An AFTRA spokeswoman said the union would have no response until Monday at the earliest.

The move, which had not been expected, comes two weeks after AFTRA angrily split off from SAG over SAG’s alleged attempt to “raid” the soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” — an allegation SAG has denied, insisting its leaders had merely responded to a castmember’s concerns about the AFTRA contract. The March 29 breakup of the 27-year joint bargaining relationship culminated years of hostility between the unions over jurisdictional issues.

SAG’s brief announcement on Sunday said only that 81% of its national board had OK’d the offer, which was approved at the tail end of a daylong meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. In recent months, the AFL-CIO has been attempting — with little success so far — to smooth out the extensive disputes between the thesp unions.

SAG’s talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on a new feature-primetime deal are set to begin Tuesday, while AFTRA’s talks on its primetime contract are set to start April 28. A spokesman for the AMPTP said the group would have no comment.

Should AFTRA spurn SAG’s offer, the guild will be under pressure to reach an agreement with the AMPTP by April 28 or face the prospect of ongoing jurisdictional warfare with AFTRA. Should SAG fail to reach an agreement by then, AFTRA’s expected to make a deal quickly — since its leaders tend to be far more moderate than SAG’s and its deal covers just three shows — and then go after new shows in areas of shared jurisdiction.

SAG’s heading into the negotiations with a fractured front. Over the weekend, SAG leaders split over a divisive proposal that would have limited member voting on the contract to thesps who work at least one day a year.

In its meeting Saturday in downtown Los Angeles, about 60% of SAG’s national board sent the proposal to its guild governance review committee for study — effectively keeping it from having an impact on contract negotiations.

The bargaining is likely to be contentious, given that recent informal talks with Disney CEO Robert Iger and News Corp. president Peter Chernin went nowhere. And SAG president Alan Rosenberg raised a red flag over the weekend in a letter to members by reiterating that SAG must achieve an increase in DVD residuals — a position that’s a nonstarter for the congloms.

The “qualified voting” proposal, by limiting voting to SAG members who work regularly, probably would have resulted in less support for a possible strike when the contract expires June 30. But opponents have asserted that the idea is elitist and goes against the democratic principles of SAG.

The vote followed the usual divisions, with Hollywood reps supporting the referral and reps from New York and the regional branches voting against it. The proposal was modified by Hollywood reps before being sent to committee to include language instituting a work requirement as a condition of board membership.

SAG’s been pressured by high-profile members to institute some form of qualified voting. More than 1,500 members signed the petition, including Kevin Bacon, Amy Brenneman, Sally Field and Charlie Sheen.

Rosenberg predicted earlier this month that the measure would not pass and labeled it ill-timed, asserting that such a move detracts from efforts to present a united front at the bargaining table.

SAG member Ned Vaughn, who led the effort to bring the proposal to the board, called the move a stalling tactic and asserted that referring the measure to the committee assured it would not take effect until after the SAG negotiations. He also said the decision showed SAG leaders are not serious about the issue.

“That our proposal has now been referred to ‘the committee where things go to die’ (as one board member called it when relating the news) leads us to believe that there is not a will to address this issue seriously among current Guild leadership,” he said. “We will obviously get reaction from the 1500+ members who strongly support the proposal, and decide how to proceed based on the response. This much is certain: the effort to give working actors an effective voice in contract decisions will not go away.”

Rosenberg also released a letter to members Saturday, taking a firm stance on bargaining — but without mentioning the possibility of a strike. The positions, which did not cite specific figures, included a “long overdue” increase to the DVD/Home Video formula.

The WGA sought an increase in the two-decades-old DVD/homevid formula, but dropped the idea a few hours before it went on strike Nov. 5 as part of the last-ditch efforts to avoid a work stoppage. WGA leaders were incensed the AMPTP did not make enough of a move in response to the guild taking the proposal off the table.

The DGA did not propose an increase in DVD residuals.

Rosenberg noted the feature-primetime pact that’s up for negotiations represents more than $1 billion in annual earnings.

Although Rosenberg has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want a strike, the town has continued to worry about SAG’s assertive stance and its close alliance with the WGA during the writers strike. Those concerns have led to a ramp-up of feature production with the goal of finishing shooting by the end of June as a hedge against a work stoppage.

Rosenberg stressed in the letter that SAG’s major goal is to improve pay for working actors, asserting they’ve been squeezed out of showbiz in recent years.

“We have to negotiate fair payments for all new-media formats to help us expand opportunities for middle class actors to get more work, just as the employers are expanding their opportunities to earn even more revenue,” Rosenberg said. “We simply can’t wait until this boat has sailed. We need to be on the boat — and it’s leaving now.”

SAG also said its proposals cover “major role” actors (featured, guest stars, weekly players); extras; increased employer contributions to pension and health; eliminating “forced endorsement” in which members wind up not being paid for commercials that are written to the script; “fair market value” language; and improvements and protections for young performers, stunt performers, performers with disabilities, dancers and others.

SAG said it will hold a town hall meeting in Los Angeles on April 29 and in New York on April 30 to update members.

In a touch of irony, both SAG and AFTRA also are participating in Tuesday morning’s rally at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles to launch a three-day March to the Docks to show labor solidarity among local unionists. Esai Morales will speak on behalf of SAG while Jason George will appear for AFTRA.

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