The majors have ensured that SAG won’t be able to drag its heels in the next round of contract negotiations.

An unprecedented but little-noticed provision in SAG’s hard-fought new contract requires that the guild must initiate six weeks of negotiations on Oct. 1, 2010 — a full nine months prior to the expiration of its just-ratified feature-primetime contract.

That contrasts sharply with SAG’s start date last year, which was only 2½ months before its contract expired. And this requirement heightens the urgency of the guild’s fall elections for national board seats and officers because the regime that emerges from the September election will have barely a year to prepare its strategy and demands for the next contract.

Control of the SAG national board — which passed last fall from the hardline Membership First faction to a coalition of moderates — will be at stake in the elections, with the battle concentrated in Hollywood. President Alan Rosenberg announced last week he’s seeking a third two-year term, but with the filing deadline not until July 23, it’s uncertain who else may run.

Moderates James Cromwell and current national board member Adam Arkin indicated recently that they won’t seek the presidency.

The proviso also means that SAG may well be the first at the table with the majors next time out.

SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers had no comment Thursday about the clause in the agreement. But it’s understood the congloms insisted earlier this spring on locking the guild into the negotiating period as a tradeoff for the concession they made in allowing SAG a two-year contract term this time around rather than the customary three-year term. That allowed SAG to stay in synch with the mid-2011 contract expiration of the DGA and WGA.

The WGA’s contract will be the first to expire on May 1, 2011, while the DGA, SAG and AFTRA will all see June 30, 2011, expirations. None of the other unions commented Thursday.

During the previous round of negotiations, the WGA and the AMPTP’s negotiations began in mid-July 2007 and got nowhere fast as the congloms demanded a revamp of residual payments — an incendiary tactic that led to the WGA securing a strike authorization by the time the companies pulled that proposal off the table. Two months into the subsequent strike, the DGA worked out a deal with a new-media template that the WGA agreed to in February 2008 at the end of its strike, followed by AFTRA in July 2008 and SAG last week.

A few days after the WGA strike ended, George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep urged SAG to start negotiations as soon as possible, but SAG didn’t hold its first negotiation with the AMPTP until mid-April 2008 — only 2½ months before its contract expired. It didn’t reach a tentative deal until a year later.

It’s still unclear whether SAG will negotiate jointly with AFTRA, which angrily split from SAG in March 2008 in a culmination of years of infighting over TV jurisdiction. Although AFTRA started its talks with the AMPTP a few weeks after SAG, it wrapped a deal in late May 2008 and its members ratified the deal over SAG’s strident objections.

AFTRA has signed the lion’s share of primetime pilots since negotiating separately from SAG — a development that’s certain to be an issue during the upcoming elections.

The proviso locking in SAG to a negotiating period in 2010 emerged in a slightly different form during three days of talks in February after SAG’s national board fired national exec director Doug Allen for failing to reach a deal. During those talks, the congloms insisted on a three-year term for SAG that would have expired in 2012 but also proposed that SAG could synch its date up with AFTRA’s expiration if it would agreed to early talks in the next round.

The guild’s negotiating team, headed by interim national exec director David White and chief negotiator John McGuire, would not concede the point, and SAG needed two more months to reach a deal.

But exactly when SAG’s next round of talks would start never became an issue during the subsequent ratification campaign. Opponents of the deal, led by Rosenberg, focused on blasting the new-media provisions of the deal.

White and Rosenberg both said last week they would reach out to the other unions to begin prepping for the next round of talks, but nothing formal’s been announced since then.

The language in SAG’s agreement specifies that both sides “commence negotiations for successor agreements to the agreements beginning no later than Oct. 1, 2010, and continuing through Nov. 15, 2010. It is understood and agreed that neither party shall be obligated to reach an agreement during said time period; however, all parties agree to conduct such negotiations in good faith with the intent of reaching agreement.”

Membership First posted a countdown counter on its website Thursday, noting that there were 469 days until negotiations start.

And SAG first VP Anne-Marie Johnson indicated in a post on the Membership First site that members should provide the guild with info about how the new deal is getting implemented. She noted that toppers told the national board in April that if the contract was ratified, SAG will more than likely be in first position for the upcoming negotiations in 2011.

“If that is indeed the case, it is imperative that SAG rely on the information provided by our members, not from the AMPTP, whose intention is certainly not to assist SAG in securing stronger contracts, if we are to be thoroughly prepared based on the sunset clause, to start from scratch in the area of new media and to improve or regain in areas we may have lost ground,” Johnson added.