Actors anxious about ads

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As if actors needed more bad news about labor talks, there's this: SAG and AFTRA leaders are considering sending out strike-authorization ballots unless negotiations with advertisers on a new commercials contract improve quickly.

A labor insider says reps for the advertising industry are asking for "radical" rollbacks, including the elimination of the traditional pay structure on national broadcast commercials and caps on contributions to the unions' pension and health plans. Labor negotiators also are concerned about a proposal to extend the working day to 10 hours from eight, thus reducing overtime pay.

If strike-authorization ballots are sent out, they would be distributed jointly by SAG and AFTRA to members of both labor organizations, whose negotiating committee for the commercial talks is evenly comprised of reps from both unions.

The negotiating committee is made up of 13 AFTRA and 13 SAG members, seven of whom come from SAG-Hollywood.

SAG-Hollywood is dominated by the MembershipFirst faction, which comprised a majority of the onetime negotiating committee on SAG's long-running film and TV contract talks. That SAG committee was replaced by a task force under chief negotiator John McGuire after the dismissal of SAG executive director Doug Allen.

Labor insiders say it's become something of a pattern in commercials talks for management negotiators to play hardball until a strike-authorization vote is held.

But there are new challenges in the current set of talks that represent a worrisome wild card should negotiations remain strained. Most notably, ad-industry negotiations want to implement a new payment system based on a Booz Allen Hamilton study suggesting actors are overpaid for national commercials and underpaid for work on cable TV and Internet ads.

Both SAG and AFTRA require approval of a strike-authorization ballot by 75% of voting members. Even if such a majority were mustered, it would be unlikely to lead to an immediate walkout over the commercial talks, but it could strengthen labor's bargaining hand.

It would be more of a toss-up whether a strike authorization would quickly translate into an actual strike if SAG were to conduct such a vote over its stalled film and TV negotiations. At present, those talks are at an impasse.

The commercials contract expires March 31, and that alone has amped up tension. SAG members already are working under six expired contracts covering various sorts of film and TV work.

"This is unprecedented," a labor insider said. "It's craziness."

A draft copy of a possible strike-authorization proposal circulated Tuesday. But at least publicly, the labor groups downplayed its importance and pledged patience with the bargaining process.

"We are making every effort to negotiate a fair contract and remain optimistic that we will bring these talks to a successful conclusion," SAG and AFTRA said in a joint statement.

Andrew Salomon of Back Stage reported from New York; Jay A. Fernandez reported from Los Angeles.
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