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SAG-AFTRA Maintains Silence on Ad Industry Talks as Expiration Date Nears

SAG-AFTRA and the advertising industry have maintained seven weeks of silence during commercial contract talks — even with the current master contract expiring Thursday.

Both sides have declined to comment on the talks, which launched Feb. 17 in New York City with the pledge that a news blackout would be in effect until there was a deal in place.

The current three-year contract covers roughly $1 billion in annual earnings for performers, but the union has made scant efforts to mobilize its 160,000 members about the issues. It campaigned between October and January against ad agency Droga5 using SAG-AFTRA members for non-union ads, an assertion that the agency said was not true, then dropped off a petition on Jan. 12 with 8,000 signatures at the agency’s headquarters.

SAG-AFTRA-elected leaders also conducted a required series of “wages and working conditions” members-only meetings in the fall to hammer out a bargaining proposal, but it never disclosed any of the details of those proposals to anyone who wasn’t attending the meetings. The union announced Jan. 24 that the national board had approved the contract proposal, but without a strike authorization.

The current three-year deal was the first major successor agreement to go into effect under the 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA and received 96% support in the ratification vote, with pay increases totaling $238 million during its three-year life. In the 2013 negotiations, which lasted two months, SAG-AFTRA made little effort to mobilize members in support of its positions and gave no details of the contract proposal.

The 2013 negotiations lasted eight weeks and concluded following a one-week extension of the expiration.

The under-the-radar strategy is consistent with the policies of the late president Ken Howard, who died a week ago, and national executive David White to keep details of contract negotiations under the radar until the conclusion of negotiations. Howard began leading a coalition of self-styled moderates in 2009 that took over the leadership of the union in elections by pushing hard for merger — contending that the combined union would have more bargaining power.

Since 2009, the union has largely avoided any public confrontation with employers. Longtime Howard ally Gabrielle Carteris succeeded Howard as acting president on March 23.

Still, if there’s no agreement after the contract expires and negotiations crater, SAG-AFTRA could go on strike. Under the union’s constitution, the national board could declare a strike following approval by 75% of the members voting.

There’s no indication SAG-AFTRA would strike. The self-styled moderates have held power since 2009, and efforts by the more activist Membership First faction have yielded only a dozen seats on the 80-member board.

However, SAG and AFTRA did go on strike over the commercials contract in 2000 for six months, one of the longest work stoppages in Hollywood history. The ad industry’s proposal to replace the pay-per-play system of compensation — known as Class A — with quarterly buyouts had inflamed the membership and the SAG and AFTRA boards voted 150-0 to strike.

The union held hundreds of rallies and pickets and boycotted 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.

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 — sent out its usual caution late last year to members warning of the possibility of a strike.

The committee told members in November 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.

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