SAG-AFTRA and the advertising industry are launching commercial contract talks on Valentine’s Day under a cone of silence with a minimal disclosure of details — offering a vivid contrast to the six-month strike that crippled the blurb biz 13 years ago.
It’s the first major contract to come up for renewal by SAG-AFTRA since members approved merging SAG and AFTRA last March following a robust campaign that promised more bargaining power.
Both sides declined to comment on the talks, which will take place in Gotham. The current contract, which covers roughly $1 billion in annual earnings, expires on March 31 but the union has made no efforts to mobilize the members about the issues.
And that’s a step that would be expected if SAG-AFTRA were to seek a strike authorization vote, as was done in 2000 amid a pledge by the ad industry to not sign a deal unless the pay-per-play system of compensation, known as “Class A,” was replaced by quarterly buyouts. Both sides posted their entire bargaining proposal on the Internet; during the strike, SAG and AFTRA held hundreds of rallies and pickets, culminating in a boycott of Ivory Soap, Tide and Crest before getting a deal that preserved Class A, boosted cable pay by 140% and gave the union jurisdiction over Internet ads.
“Educating the members was critical back then,” said Gordon Drake, a strike captain and negotiating committee member in 2000. “We felt that members needed to feel they were part of the union so we were able to hold out for that deal. So I completely disagree with the approach that SAG-AFTRA is taking to this negotiation.”
The strike came following the election of William Daniels as SAG president in 1999 over incumbent Richard Masur in a campaign that promised a far more aggressive bargaining stance. After negotiations cratered, the SAG and AFTRA boards voted 150-0 to go on strike — a show of unity that began dissipating as the strike went on, particularly among members outside Hollywood who contended in the aftermath that settlement’s terms had been achievable without a strike.
In recent years, the self-styled moderates within SAG have taken over the leadership of the union in elections by pushing hard for merger and largely avoiding public confrontation with employers. SAG-AFTRA’s only recent disclosure about the commercial negotiations came Feb. 3 after its national board gave its blessing to the package of proposals, hammered out via the “wages and working conditions” member meetings in recent months.
That announcement had no elaboration of the package, however. David White, the union’s national exec director and chief negotiator, said, “While there are difficult issues to negotiate ahead, we anticipate a productive dialogue with our bargaining partners and expect a result that is positive for our members.”
SAG-AFTRA co-president Roberta Reardon told Variety last month the merger would have an impact on all of the union’s successor contracts. “So it’s going to be a year where we discover that solidarity, power and leverage are not just words. And the consolidation within the media industry will have a huge impact on these contracts,” she said.
For its part, the ad industry — repped through the joint policy committee of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and the Assn. of National Advertisers — has broached the possibility of a strike. The committee told members in December to consider “prudent planning” in the case of a strike including rescheduling production planned for March 31 through June. It also advised members to consider taking steps to maintain rights on current commercials if those rights are expiring in the three months after March 31.
The union and the industry are in the final seven weeks of a one-year extension to the three-year contract reached in 2009. SAG and AFTRA sought and received the extension in mid-2011 in order to focus their efforts on a merger.
The key gains in the current commercials contract included a payment structure for work made for and moved over to the Internet and other new-media platforms and retention of the Class A method of pay-per-play. The 2009 deal yielded a $36 million pay hike over three years, including $21 million more in pension and health contribution and held down annual salary gains to about 2% and included a first-ever cap on employer contributions to pension and health.
Drake still believes that SAG-AFTRA leaders needs to tell members more about contract details heading into negotiations and cites his own experience two decades ago while rehearsing for a dance scene with Annette Bening in “Bugsy.”
“I told her that I didn’t have a SAG contract, so she told the production assistant to get me one,” he recalled. “That didn’t happen because of the leaders but because of a member.”