SAG, AFTRA Develop New TV-Theatrical Contract, Look Ahead to Merger

Agreement must be approved by unions' joint national board of directors, then forwarded to members for ratification.

When the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists announced Nov. 7 that they had reached agreement with producers on new contracts for film and prime-time broadcast television, it marked more than the end of a six-week negotiation process. It signaled a return to normalcy.

When Ken Howard was elected SAG's president last fall, he made improving relations with AFTRA one of his top priorities. Plenty of room for improvement existed. Howard's predecessor, Alan Rosenberg, had been a vocal critic of SAG's sister union, and in 2008 AFTRA broke away from joint bargaining with the guild to hammer out its own prime-time deal with producers. From day one of the Howard regime, the new president and members of his moderate coalition were talking not just about courting AFTRA back to the bargaining table, but also about taking the two unions' relationship to the next level.

"I don't know that we're looking at a completed merger by Oct. 1 of next year," SAG's then newly elected secretary-treasurer, Amy Aquino, said the day after the election. "But we can certainly be well on our way to making sure that SAG and AFTRA do not repeat what happened during the last negotiation, that we can bind ourselves inextricably in preparation for the negotiation and begin laying the groundwork for one union."

One goal down, one to go.

WORKING THE CONTRACT

In February, AFTRA's national board of directors agreed to return to joint bargaining with SAG, adjusting its own schedule to accommodate the guild's. The two unions' negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers began in late September. When the Nov. 5 deadline for the end of talks passed, meetings spilled over into the weekend, and the two sides finally emerged Sunday morning with a tentative deal in hand. Had they failed to do so, the actors' unions might not have been able to return to negotiations until next spring. SAG entered solo talks with the AMPTP Monday on a basic-cable deal that will be based largely on the new TV-theatrical agreement. Next week, producers will begin negotiating with the Directors Guild of America, followed by the Writers Guild of America, most likely in January.

Securing greater employer contributions to the unions' struggling pension and health funds was the top priority for labor going into the talks, and on that point some success appears to have been found. Under the new deal -- which lasts three years and takes effect July 1, 2011 -- employer contributions will increase from 15 percent of a performer's gross earnings to 16.5 percent. The unions have heralded that increase as the largest in decades.

Wage increases, however, will not exactly be historic in scope. SAG and AFTRA secured 2 percent annual hikes to wages over the life of the contracts -- lower than those yielded by previous negotiations, but not unexpected. Prior to its talks with actors, the AMPTP shrugged off a strike threat from Teamsters union Local 399 and convinced the transportation workers to accept 2 percent annual raises. That deal set a standard that the performers' unions were not expected to break from and that will likely guide talks with the DGA and WGA.

SAG and AFTRA also touted increased coverage in Western-zone background work and in new media, increases in money and schedule breaks, and improved equal-opportunity contract language. The new TV-theatrical agreement must now go to SAG and AFTRA's joint national board of directors for approval, then to members for ratification. The unions released statements from their respective presidents but are otherwise maintaining, for the time being, their self-imposed media blackout regarding the deal. But when asked whether the unions had achieved more through joint talks than either would have working on its own, a source close to the negotiations responded, "Without question."

WEDDING PLANNING

Rejection of the new contracts by the joint board or by either union's membership appears unlikely. That means the decks are now clear to begin work toward a goal that the leaders of both unions have embraced: merger.

While talks with producers were ongoing, members of the union negotiating team participated in a three-hour meeting in Los Angeles of SAG and AFTRA's joint Presidents' Forum for One Union. That group is expected to meet monthly. In the coming weeks, the unions will roll out plans for a dialogue with members on merger. That process is expected to closely resemble the wages-and-working-conditions meeting period that precedes major contract negotiations.

SAG and AFTRA have, of course, tried this before, most recently in 2003, when AFTRA's members approved the notion but proponents within SAG failed to garner the support of 60 percent of the guild's members—the figure necessary to move forward. Howard, AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon, and other single-union advocates are gambling that attitudes within SAG have since shifted. Recent events hint that they have. In September board elections, SAG's MembershipFirst faction -- which grew out of the group of actors that helped block merger last time around -- suffered enormous setbacks. MembershipFirst lost control of the Hollywood-division board of directors to the pro-merger Unite for Strength party and was swept away in voting for the 13 national board seats up for grabs. As Membership First leader and former Hollywood board president Anne-Marie Johnson said on the evening of her party's defeat, "Those who voted have spoken loud and clear. They want to merge, and they want it taken care of as soon as possible."

When it will be taken care of is now the big issue, and estimates range from as early as next summer to sometime in 2012. Then there is the question of how, with the hiring of outside experts to help guide the unions through a thorny process most likely on the horizon. But with the hurdle of the TV-theatrical deal all but cleared, "when" and "how" -- not "if" -- now appear to be the key words when it comes to merger. 

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