AFTRA Board Approves Network Code

Ballots will go the members Monday, with a return date in late-February.

The AFTRA national board Saturday unanimously voted to recommend the terms of the 2011-2014 Network Television Code agreement to AFTRA members for ratification, as was expected. Ballots will go out to all members in good standing on Monday with a return date of Feb. 22.

The approval came at the same meeting at which the board approved a much higher-profile matter, the proposal to merge with SAG. The deal with the four major television broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) and other television producers was reached Dec. 9, but did not come up for board approval until today's regularly-scheduled meeting.

The new agreement provides for 2% annual wage increases and 1% increase in employer contributions to health and retirement. However, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, these will not go into effect until ratification and will not be retroactive, even though the term of the new three-year agreement technically begins the day after the previous contract expired. Thus, in a confusing juxtaposition, the effective date of the new agreement is retroactive, but its actual terms and conditions are not.

Although the AFTRA Constitution provides for calling unscheduled meetings of the board – which in theory would have sped up the ratification process and resulted in more money for members and the H&R plans – an AFTRA source told THR that the amount of work involved in preparing briefing materials for the board and ballot packets for the members meant that a special meeting was not feasible.

Notably, board members and staff were busy working on merger during the same time period, as well as on the AFTRA Sound Recording contract. In addition, of course, the holidays intervened.

In a cascade effect, the need to avoid interfering with the Netcode ratification period is the reason that SAG/AFTRA merger ballots won’t go out until about Feb. 27, according to the union.

Notably, AFTRA achieved the H&R increase without employers taking a bite out of the annual wage increase. Usually, a tradeoff between the two is required, which could have reduced one or more of the annual increases to a politically unpalatable 1-1/2% level. As THR reported at the time, health and retirement issues were toughest part of the negotiations.

An AFTRA statement later confirmed the issues’ importance, calling the 1% increase the union’s “primary objective” in the bargaining.

A Dec. statement from the networks and other television producers focused on the issue as well, saying that the new agreement “further strengthen(s) the pension and health benefit plans that are so crucial to performers and their families.”

The contract – colloquially referred to as the Netcode “front of the book” – is the union’s largest, and generates more than $250 million a year in member earnings. It covers scripted and unscripted programs in all television dayparts, except scripted network primetime and scripted basic cable.

Those latter two categories were the subject of deals reached last year. The three-year network primetime deal was jointly negotiated with SAG, whereas the front of the book pact was an AFTRA-only affair, as is customary. That won’t be true the next time, of course, if the unions merge.

The new H&R increase brings the employer contribution level under the Netcode to 16.5%. That’s the same rate as is used for contributions under the SAG theatrical agreement and the joint SAG/AFTRA primetime television agreements.

Bringing the contributions to parity removed a possible point of criticism of the SAG/AFTRA merger proposal. However, uncertainty over the shape of health and pension/retirement plans remains a key issue for opponents and skeptics of merger. That’s because the benefit plans are controlled not by the unions themselves but by freestanding organizations with their own boards, which are equally split between labor and management representatives.

Other changes to the Netcode contract were minor: dancers’ minimum hazard pay will increase from $80 to $100 per day, and from $100 to $125 per program; the $37.50 overtime rate for singers will be paid starting at the seventh instead of the ninth hour; the minimum work day for stand-Ins who work on primetime variety and award shows will increase, which will increase the minimum daily rate by 20% to 67%; and changes in contract language will increase equal employment opportunities for union performers including an agreement to add “Gender Identity” to the Union’s  diversity report form.

Covered programs under the front of book contract include dramas in first-run syndication, morning news shows, talk shows, serials (soap operas, or at least the few that still exist), variety, reality, contest, sports and promotional announcements. Those programs include, among others, Good Morning America, The View, The Price is Right, General Hospital, Saturday Night Live, Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, Survivor, 20/20, Deal or No Deal, Late Show with David Letterman and American Idol.

Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel

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