The Hollywood performer unions have opted to stay out of the spotlight for the primetime feature bargaining with the congloms — emulating the approach of the Directors Guild of America.

SAG and AFTRA, which begin joint negotiations today, have launched the talks well before the contract expiration, are keeping a unified front, and playing their cards close to the vest. That strategy’s designed to obtain a premium for making an early deal, based on the notion that in exchange for the pledge of labor peace, a union can then extract the best possible terms from employers.

With a news blackout in place since Friday morning, negotiations will get under way at the headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in Sherman Oaks, Calif. In a sharp contrast with the rancorous 2008-09 negotiations, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild have eliminated the rhetoric while the congloms have signaled they’re taking a hard line against contract gains.

The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists has traditionally gone low-key, but this time neither union has made any proclamations about expectations or given indications of what issues carry top priority in a successor master contract to the current pact, which expires June 30.

SAG’s membership has clearly indicated that it supports the moderates over the self-styled progressives of the Membership First faction, which lost control of the SAG board two years ago. The Unite for Strength faction won a landslide victory Thursday in board elections as Membership First lost all 13 of their open seats on the 71-member board, including those held by such notables as Esai Morales, Valerie Harper, Frances Fisher and Nancy Sinatra (Daily Variety, Sept. 24).

For its part, the AMPTP made it clear to Teamster drivers in late July that it was willing to endure a strike before giving in to the demand for a 3% salary increase — insisting that 2% was as far as the congloms would go. The Teamsters agreed to the 2% hike with several sweeteners to close the three-year deal.

Sources have indicated that SAG and AFTRA’s top priority at the bargaining table will be their health and pension plans. Negotiations are launching two weeks after the SAG-industry health plan announced it will be cutting benefits, hiking premiums and tightening eligibility next year, while facing a $30 million deficit this year with projections of a $50 million deficit next year (Daily Variety, Sept. 14).

For its part, the DGA has provided far more recent guidance than SAG and AFTRA. Gil Cates, who’s heading his fourth straight DGA negotiating committee, has made it clear that concerns about new media and future earnings potential are taking a backseat to shoring up the financials of the DGA pension and health plans.

During the 2007 and 2008 round of contract negotiations, the emphasis on carving out templates for new media exploitation dominated — becoming the signature issue of the 100-day writers strike.

Employers’ contributions to union pension and health plans are calculated as a percentage of the total compensation paid to members of that union for the year. For the DGA, employers contribute an additional 14% of the total compensation paid to directors to the DGA plans — 8.5% to health and 5.5% to pension for the DGA. The WGA receives 14.5% (8.5% health, 6% pension), while SAG receives 15% (9.25% health, 5.75% pension) as does AFTRA (9.75% health, 5.25% pension). Those plans are operated separately from the unions, and are overseen by a board comprising reps from the studios and the unions.

The WGA still hasn’t set negotiations with the AMPTP in keeping with its strategy of negotiating with a far shorter period than the DGA before the contract expiration. The WGA pact expires on May 1.