Anxious year ahead as guilds head into contract talks

Despite recent peace, Hollywood sees labor uncertainty

With all three major guilds prepping for negotiations on their master contracts, 2013 may be an anxious year for Hollywood as uncertainty pervades the labor landscape.

The merged SAG-AFTRA heads to the bargaining table for the first time since its creation with a Valentine’s Day start date for talks on its ad contract. The Writers Guild of America will be perceived as a threat to labor peace thanks to the acrimonious 2007-08 strike that shook Hollywood. And the Directors Guild of America will almost certainly keep playing its cards close to the vest.

While 2012 was largely strife-free on the labor front, showbiz’s key unions are all facing 2014 contract expirations on their primetime-feature deals, and their leaders are already in early prep for negotiations. Should previous patterns continue, the commercials contract and at least one other successor deal will be completed before the end of 2013.

In recent years the unions have remained on relatively good terms with employers — so much so that the last round of negotiations in 2010-11 with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was completed largely under the radar and without controversy. In all three successor contracts, the key gains were a 2% hike in minimums and a 1.5% increase in employer contributions to the pension and health plans.

But there’s no guarantee that the unions and employers won’t be tussling at some point next year. Five years ago, the WGA was in the middle of a memorably acrimonious work stoppage strongly supported by actors as scribes sought a larger cut of revenues as digital distribution ramped up.

The strike thoroughly rattled Hollywood. The work stoppage took place in the middle of the 2007-08 TV season; as a result, most scripted shows went dark, and many writers lost their producing deals before a new WGA contract was hammered out in February 2008 (with terms mostly mirroring the DGA’s 3-week-old agreement).

Current WGA West president Christopher Keyser told Variety recently that the strike has not been a major factor in early-planning discussions for upcoming negotiations.

“The conversation is very forward looking and members are not replaying the strike,” he said. “We are spending an enormous amount of time on negotiations but we won’t talk about priorities for many more months.”

The WGA moved toward moderation in 2011 when members elected Keyser over Patric Verrone — who had been the most recognizable public voice during the strike while serving as president.

For its part, the combined SAG-AFTRA has been largely nonconfrontational toward the companies since its creation in March. And since 2008, SAG voting members have opted repeatedly for self-styled pragmatists as their leaders, led by current SAG-AFTRA co-president Ken Howard, while shunning the self-styled progressives who had controlled SAG’s national board from 2005 to 2008.

As for the DGA, its leaders have continued mostly to eschew public comment. That’s in line with the DGA’s long-standing effort to portray itself as a low-key operator with a close-to-the-vest strategy of coming to the bargaining table with well-researched proposals.

SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry have blocked out seven weeks for negotiations between Feb. 14 and the March 31 expiration of their current deal. It will be the first major negotiation by SAG-AFTRA since the two unions’ merger — which supporters touted as a way to increase clout at the bargaining table, particularly amid the ongoing corporate consolidation.

Both sides have limited their public comment about the current commercials contract, which covers about $1 billion a year in annual earnings; they have not addressed the results of a two-year pilot study commissioned to test a revamp of compensation based on shows’ ratings rather than the current pay-per-play model.

SAG-AFTRA co-president Roberta Reardon, who has participated in every commercials negotiation since 1997, said she is impressed by the level of solidarity among members during the “wages and working conditions” process used by union leaders to hammer out contract proposals during the summer and fall.

The commercial talks will start nearly 13 years after the last SAG strike. In 2000, SAG and AFTRA struck for six months — still the longest strike in Hollywood history — over the ad industry’s unsuccessful demand that the pay-per-play system be replaced by quarterly buyouts.

The ad industry talks will be closely watched by Hollywood since they’re expected to offer an indication of how SAG-AFTRA leaders might handle negotiations with the AMPTP for the master contract covering work in movies and primetime TV.

“It’s going to be a year where we discover that solidarity, power and leverage are not just words,” Reardon said.

The DGA, SAG and AFTRA contracts covering that sector all expire on June 30, 2014, but the WGA contract runs out on May 1, 2014. The WGA’s leaders often opt to negotiate close to expiration in hopes that the looming threat of a work stoppage may encourage companies to make the best deal possible.

That’s at odds with the DGA’s strategy — also employed by SAG in the 2010 negotiations — to negotiate deals at least six months before expiration on the precept that the companies will offer the best terms in exchange for the assurance of labor peace.

In 2012 the town’s major below-the-line unions ratified three-year successor deals to their master contracts and jointly negotiated on health-care issues for the first time. The deals for the West Coast locals of Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Hollywood Teamster-Basic Crafts shored up funding shortfalls for the union’s pension and health plans.

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