Stars choose sides in guild feud

Hanks, Nicholson line up for SAG-AFTRA spat

The SAG-AFTRA brawl has split the ranks of Hollywood stars, with neither side able to claim a clear advantage.

Each has a superstar: Tom Hanks is siding with the pro-AFTRA ratification campaign, while SAG’s effort against the deal attracted Jack Nicholson.

Though stars often remain MIA when it comes to union politics, the battle’s stirred up enough interest that key players have been weighing in on both sides as July 8 has emerged as the key date for the Screen Actors Guild –when the results of AFTRA’s ratification vote on its primetime deal will be announced.

The pro-AFTRA forces coalesced two weeks ago through the efforts of former SAG president Richard Masur via the AFTRAyes.org website, encouraging AFTRA’s 70,000 members to vote forthe pact over SAG’s strident opposition.

Among the first “AFTRA Yes” signers were Alec Baldwin and Sally Field; former SAG board members James Cromwell, Mike Farrell and Tess Harper; and current board member Morgan Fairchild. The move’s drawn more than 700 names, including Adam Arkin and Tim Daly; former SAG presidents Barry Gordon and William Schallert; and Mariette Hartley, Marilu Henner, Tim Kazurinsky, Susan Sarandon, Tony Shalhoub, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor and Fred Willard.

SAG launched its anti-AFTRA campaign in mid-June via automated calls to members from Sandra Oh and former SAG prexy Ed Asner, then countered the “AFTRA yes” campaign with a “solidarity” effort that derided the terms of the AFTRA deal. Besides Asner, Nicholson and Oh, signers include Josh Brolin, Andy Griffith, Louis Gossett Jr., Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Amy Madigan, Viggo Mortensen, Nick Nolte, Edward James Olmos, Rob Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Rainn Wilson.

The anti-AFTRA backers also include current SAG board members Justine Bateman, Seymour Cassel, former SAG president Bill Daniels, Elliott Gould, Robert Hays, Anne-Marie Johnson, Lainie Kazan and Nancy Sinatra. SAG’s obtained more than 4,000 signatures for the effort — aimed at the 44,000 SAG members who also belong to AFTRA.

“I think the support of the stars is pretty much a wash,” said Greg Hessinger, former national exec director of both SAG and AFTRA, in an interview with Daily Variety. “I would be shocked if the AFTRA ratification isn’t voted up.”

Hessinger was ousted as SAG’s topper in 2005 after six months on the job when power in SAG boardroom shifted to the more confrontational Membership First faction. He said Tuesday that AFTRA members will likely support the deal due to a combo of factors — fatigue from the WGA strike, the worsening economy, the lack of a rollback in the proposed deal and the historical tendency of Hollywood unions to support ratifications.

He noted that SAG’s in a tough spot thanks to the AMPTP’s final offer, announced Monday a few hours before the SAG contract expired with terms mirroring AFTRA’s deal.

“If the AMPTP’s final offer is not acceptable to the SAG negotiating committee, they need to decide whether to go to the membership to authorize a strike, something they have been reluctant to do so far,” he added. “SAG members already lost work during the Writers Guild strike. At this point, actors just want to get back to work. SAG’s leaders likely will delay until the AFTRA vote is announced on July 8. Once that contract is approved, SAG will have little choice but to present the AMPTP’s final offer to the membership, probably without a recommendation.”

Hessinger’s just joined New York-based Reed Smith as a partner. He’ll be handling negotiations along with Reed Smith’s Douglas Wood for the ad industry’s contract with SAG and AFTRA; that deal expires in October.

For its part, the AMPTP’s kept up the pressure on thesps with a display ad in today’s Daily Variety titled “A Clear Choice” that warns that a strike would be “another harmful, unnecessary work stoppage.”

The ad highlights the gains of a fifth major labor agreement as a pay increase of more than $250 million for SAG members over three years; “significant” economic gains in minimums, pension and health contributions and terms; and “groundbreaking” new-media terms that were included in the four other pacts. It then notes a strike would result in SAG members losing $2.5 million each day, while other union members’ losses would total $13.5 million each day and the California economy would lose $23 million daily.

“AMPTP’s offer represents a final hope for avoiding a strike and getting everyone back to work,” the ad concludes. “That’s our goal, and we hope it’s shared by SAG. Let’s keep working.”

According to SAG, the guild’s focus is on continuing to negotiate and keeping the pressure on the AMPTP not to leave the bargaining table — even though the companies have said that they’re done. The two sides meet today to discuss the take-it-or-leave-it offer.

“We are determined to bargain a fair deal for actors as soon as possible,” SAG said in response to the ad.

Like the rest of Hollywood, SAG leaders were not flummoxed by the contract expiration, with one asserting it was “not Armageddon. It’s more akin to Y2K.”

SAG insiders are also saying if the AFTRA vote passes by a slim margin, the approval will be due to AFTRA members in TV news and non-scripted entertainment — the constituency with the least incentive to support SAG’s push for improved terms. The insiders also believe if the margin’s slim, it will give guild leaders renewed leverage to extract a better deal than AFTRA’s for the sake of securing member approval of a new contract.

Additionally, SAG’s disputing the AMPTP’s assertion that SAG’s New York and regional branches are at odds on negotiating positions with the Hollywood leadership. “All representatives of the SAG National Negotiating Committee remain united and committed to obtaining the best deal possible for all actors,” the guild said Tuesday.

Unconfirmed rumors that SAG would seek a legal challenge to the AFTRA ratification if it passes. In a sign of the intensity surrounding the vote, AFTRA issued a statement Tuesday saying that such a move would be without merit while SAG had no immediate response.

“The idea that ratification of AFTRA’s new primetime television contract could somehow be vulnerable to legal challenge is nonsense,” the statement said. “The ratification process currently under way is totally in compliance with AFTRA’s constitution and policies. Moreover, the government and the courts have a well-established policy of avoiding unnecessary interference in the internal affairs of unions, especially when it comes to matters such as ratification.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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