Healthcare costs are emerging as the key issue in next year’s contract negotiations for Hollywood’s two below-the-line unions, the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees and the Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters.

No negotiation dates have been set for the master contracts, which expire July 31, but both unions have ramped up their activity to heighten membership awareness on the specifics amid rising healthcare costs.

IATSE held a townhall meeting Saturday in Burbank — the first of four planned confabs — at which IATSE president Matthew Loeb made a presentation to several hundred members. The meeting also featured presentations by healthcare expert and consultant John Garner and David Westcoe, exec administrative director with the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.

The Teamsters Local 399 covers about 3,200 drivers in 13 Western states and about 1,000 basic craft workers, while the IATSE deal covers 15 locals on the West Coast encompassing more than 20,000 members. Local 399 has already set its own townhall meeting for January, and the unions are teaming on a health benefits survey conducted by David Binder Research to poll members starting on Oct. 10.

Health and pension have traditionally been among the top priorities for the unions, alongside salaries and working conditions, but the developments underline the uncertainty over health care amid a struggling economy. They also show an unprecedented level of outreach to members along with a willingness by the unions to cooperate with each other.

Negotiation dates with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have not been set yet and none of the orgs would comment. But the moves by the unions are a strong signal that IATSE and the Teamsters may negotiate jointly on the pension and health issues while holding separate contract talks on wages, working conditions and the other components of their contracts.

The two unions entered into a formal alliance in August 2010 — two weeks after Teamster Local 399 drivers reached a deal with the AMPTP and synched up its contract expiration with the IATSE deal. Loeb, who replaced the retiring Thomas Short in 2008 as the head of IATSE, has been credited with fostering closer ties between the two unions.

Additionally, IATSE members are facing tightened eligibility to qualify for the health plan, which is overeseen by reps of the unions and the showbiz companies and funded from residuals and ancillary markets. IATSE agreed in 2009 to a hike in the eligibility threshold during the final year of the pact requiring that members have to work 400 hours over six months to qualify, up 33% from the previous 300-hour requirement — a change that stirred an uproar among below-the-line workers when the pact went out for ratification.

In the 2010 negotiations, Teamsters sought a 3% in annual wage hikes but the companies insisted on a 2% wage gain, which the Teamsters accepted with several sweeteners along with the same 1.66% hike in benefits contained in the earlier IATSE deal.

The Teamster deal set the template for negotiations last fall and winter with the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Televison & Radio Artists, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America — all with 2% hikes in minimums and all with the chief gain being an increase of 1.5¢ per dollar in employer contributions to the pension and health plans.

Another sign of the predominance of health care as an issue came early this month when casting directors repped by the Teamsters agreed to a one-year successor contract to a three-year deal. The Teamsters indicated at the time that the companies had sought a shorter term due to uncertainty over the impact of rising healthcare costs.